A world without maps by Jane Simpson.
Australia, Queensland: Interactive Press (2016).
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
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
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
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
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
“After the earthquake” (Christchurch, 22 February 2011) is a poem in four parts and begins:
an aquifer cracked near
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
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).