Elliptical documentaries, Paola Bilbrough

A Stone Seat and a Shadow Tree
Adrienne Jansen
Inkweed, $19.95,
ISBN 0473072556

The best poems in Adrienne Jansen’s A Stone Seat and a Shadow Tree have a lucid simplicity to them. The most compelling are those about beginnings and adjustments – the hardship of moving to a new country as either an “immigrant” or a “refugee”. I put these names in inverted commas because it is the assumptions accompanying these labels (particularly “refugee”) which Jansen wants the reader to think about.

Although this is Jansen’s first solo poetry collection, she is a well-known educator and non-fiction writer. Both roles are apparent in many of her poems. I suspect Jansen is meticulous and highly competent in the non-fiction genre as many of the poems in the first half of A Stone Seat and a Shadow Tree are reportage of sorts: mini, elliptical documentaries. “Conversations”, the most powerful of these, is comprised of a number of short poems, each an interaction between the poet and a different South-East Asian friend. Jansen’s style seems particularly appropriate for communicating the dislocation between the home culture and the new. Each poem that makes up “Conversations” is a moment – stark, blunt in message, yet graceful:

                  What did you first notice
when you came here?

I noticed that the front doors
were all shut.
(“bai”/3)

 

Details are beautifully presented without the point being laboured. In a poem where a man describes with a shrug how he and others are dying in a hospital, Jansen writes:

                   He is a thin black line
on empty paper,
moving casually
towards the margin
(“prumbuwen”/9)

 

In addition to the shock at the coldness of a new culture, there is also real anger, which seems pertinent in a country that prides itself on being multicultural yet is becoming increasingly difficult to immigrate to, and is largely ignorant of the previous lives and cultures of new residents. This is expressed particularly well in the line “A refugee is a very small flat thing” and:

I am a refugee. I wear a second-hand coat
When it wears out, you give me another
second-
hand coat. If I buy a new coat, you say what
are you doing in that new coat?
(“prum”/5)

 

In many poems there is an interesting tension; it is difficult to ascertain exactly what Jansen’s own view is. She often seems to take on the voice of someone well-meaning but narrow in their understanding of other cultures to illustrate a point and challenge the potential assumptions of the reader. In one poetic vignette, the “I” is amazed and perhaps a little resistant when an Asian friend puts out rice to feed birds because “Birds don’t eat rice … They eat bread.” (“prumoi”/6)

In “Russia” one friend has a folksy, romantic vision of “women with scarfs on their / heads, fresh baked bread”, whilst another sees Russia as a backward, dangerous nation full of savages:

You’re crazy, I said
they’re all starving over there
or dying of nuclear contamination
or fighting each other…

Which is Jansen’s viewpoint? Perhaps she has felt both extremes at various times, but one assumes that she is now not aligned with either.

Alongside the culturally explorative poems in this collection are many that firmly situate the poet at “home”. A long poem, “For Frank and Pearl Jansen”, is a great piece of family history that will be moving for many New Zealand readers, and Jansen writes with quiet humour about everyday moments such as playing Scrabble with an aunt or listening to Spanish guitar music, while the kids play cricket and ride their bicycles. Once again there are some graceful and evocative moments:

If I stretch out my hands
and let my feet go down, and down,
I can feel the smooth curve
of the silence …
(“Night Swimming”)

 

However, these poems have a tendency to be rather meat-and-three-veg; they are much more self-consciously “nice poems” than the acute, alive observations that make up the poems in the first third of the collection. The poems there contain curiosity, compassion and an enormous will to understand other people’s lives and cultural realities.

Generally I have very little patience for poems I suspect of being in anyway didactic or pushing a barrow yet it is actually the “issue” poems in this collection which are the most interesting. It is when Jansen really has something to say, a message to communicate as poet-teacher, that she really shines.

 

Paola Bilbrough’s first collection of poems belltongue was published by Victoria University Press in 1999. She currently lives in Melbourne.

 

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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