t. 90, Jane Simpson, A world without maps.

A world without maps by Jane Simpson.
Australia, Queensland: Interactive Press (2016).
RRP: AUS$25.
Pb, 61pp.
ISBN: 9781925231373.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.

Jane Simpson has taught social history and religious studies in universities in Australia and New Zealand. Her poems have been published in journals including takahē, Poetry NZ, Meniscus and Social Alternatives, and in several anthologies. A world without maps is based on Simpson’s experience of living and working in the United Arab Emirates, teaching English to Muslim women teachers in a desert school.

A world without maps is divided into three sections: ‘Desert logic’, ‘The sky between leaves’ and ‘Like fantails in the forest’. In the collection, Jane Simpson offers a range of moments, perceptive experiences and memories, which are always felt and personal. The first section, ‘Desert logic’, features poems about her experiences overseas, which begins with the title poem, “A world without maps”, in which she searches on Google Earth for the school she is to visit:

 

searching for my school from the Cathedral

city on the hill, medieval Ely

with a view of the lantern,

on Google Earth

the lines

run

out

 

These are poems that make the reader work: they are unpunctuated, opaque in denotation, and expressing, as they do, her inner thoughts and feelings. They are nonetheless, or perhaps therefore, intriguing and exciting to read. And they do have their song.

The first stanza of “English only please” takes the reader immediately to the scene of the desert school:

 

the first lesson in

the old desert

school, the national

anthem insistent

as tinnitus

 

Images and scenes are engaging and surprising. There is this description of the classroom in “Gentle subtraction”:

 

my classroom dances

to newly found vowels

in minimal pairs

 

The charm of this section lies in its clusters of images with their obvious connections relaying place, emotion or mood in short lines and phrases, as in “At Spinneys”, where she searches for familiar items:

 

people like me

search labels for old friends

 

Lapsang Souchong

Twinings

 

find them gone, turnover

faster than stock on the shelf.

 

“In the Church Compound, Abu Dhabi” is a longer, more traditional poem with greater use of punctuation, as it describes the church, the mosque and the courtyard:

 

the Anglican church is stripped

down, anonymous as a lecture theatre.

Crossless from the street, it squats

under the landmark of the mosque.

 

“Passing” is also a more traditional poem, describing the place “where widows meet”. The poem ends:

 

Palms play, dresses flame vermillion. No

black abaya, where no men go.

 

“Flood-lit plains” is also a lengthier, traditional poem, where people wait for the rains to come:

 

Outside the oasis –

a distant music deep

in the sands – time-lapsed

roots twist, tribulus

are speckled with flowers.

 

The second section, ‘The sky between the leaves’ concentrates on poems about home. In the poem “Planting Lemonwoods in Tui St”, for example, we see ‘a two-bedroomed nest / of rimu and brick’ and ‘the paper road / never built’. In the poem in view of the Māori cemetery, “Purau”, Simpson takes her readers to a site that achieves her aim of revealing her native town. She sees it as ‘A place for cast-off kitchen / equipment, preserving / pans for memories …’. She juxtaposes this poem against “Family archive”, a poem about ordinary women: her grandmother, an ‘unnamed Hungarian neighbour’, Amish women, and Gisela who she describes as

 

… all elegance and silver,

threads beads with women friends –

the hand-painted wedding silk

ravishes us from across the bed.

 

In these poems, the poet is keeping track of her surroundings. For example, in “Silent lullaby”, she is a mother watching her baby sleep and reminding herself that one day he will be a man with children of his own. She writes:

 

When I’m old and cranky, your children on my knee,

I won’t hold back, I’ll claim my own – raucous, strong and free.

 

For Simpson, the family is a powerful prism, giving freedom to explore culture through intimate relationships. It is an enlightening experience to read “Last communion” (in memory of my mother, Ming) in which

 

Diana, in the living room

gazes across from her frame

past purples and greens, washes

on expensive paper, out

from her morphine sea.

 

In the final poem in this section, “Inarticulate”, the focus is once again on Simpson’s mother: this time, as she is dying, the poet asks the question: ‘Why were the male nurse and I, her only daughter, / chosen, and I the one, now, speaking to you?’ Thus, Simpson enables her readers to eavesdrop on her private life and the vernacular of these poems in comparison to those in the first section of the book.

Reading the poems in the third section, ‘Like fantails in the forest’, the reader’s attention is drawn to the detail used as a metaphor for Simpson’s theme of discovering beauty in the environment. In “flower”, for instance, the poet compares the roughness of a stone to the beauty of a flower. The poem ends:

 

The stone is rough

in the stonemason’s hand.

Flints speckle the earth

where weeds will sprout

and flowers grow.

 

“Twist” is a relatively simple descriptive poem about a mermaid and a merman, but it makes interesting reading:

 

She wears paua

and turquoise silk, gliding as if

through water, the chamber

ultramarine, her fish-mouth

firm against the metal, gulps

his eyes on her – mermaid.

 

Simpson’s poem “Found at sea” is a good example of her style in this section:

 

Fishers cast on

in multiples of two

keep the line taut, carry it

over, then ease, slide,

purl into the back, knit one

from below.

 

Here is a poet with a fluid use of forms, and often skilled at their adaptation to contemporary life. In a poem like “Tutu” images tumble in abundance and have a rightness that delights:

 

Tulle quivers then

blurs like fantails

in the forest, startling

from behind.

 

“After the earthquake” (Christchurch, 22 February 2011) is a poem in four parts and begins:

 

an aquifer cracked near

graffitied walls

round the closed St Albans

Surf Lifesaving Club

laughs and plays …

 

The final poem “Behind the cordon, Cashel Mall” captures perfectly the strange fascination for us of a desolate shop, destroyed by the earthquake, its scents remaining and the fact that there are

no looters

nothing worth taking

bamboo flutes played

by the wind …

 

There is in general an easy command of tone and register in the volume which is characteristic of Simpson’s writing. There is no sense of difficulty; the art comes across as play. The words do not strain and there is charm in both words and ideas. The poet is always in command and she is never at a loss for words to communicate her thoughts, feelings and experiences.

 


Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).