Trouble by Jenny Powell.
Lyttelton: Cold Hub Press (2014).
Reviewed by Erik Kennedy.
The unsettled figures haunting the poems in Jenny Powell’s slender sixth collection of verse, Trouble, are mostly women. Their troubles are only visible to a close observer like Powell; there are no ghastly accidents or explosive rows or macabre tragedies. These troubles are deep, dangerous currents, not heaving waves.
Several characters are ignored or forgotten. A woman in “Life’s Longing” believes that she presides benevolently over the other patients at an unspecified institution and in her own mind is “guarding us from death”. (Long-lifing?) Predictably, this protection is not considered necessary by the authorities, and “They dragged her away / / into the padded scream / of her own shadow.”
The subject of the strangely jaunty “Dementia Dames” initially appears to be a bigoted man in a rest home who dislikes the “foreign names” of the nurses and who attempts to project his dementia onto others: “When his soap goes missing the staff are to blame.” But, by a sleight of hand that you can miss if you blink, Powell actually writes about the falsely characterised nurses. The man mixes mundane and imagined descriptions to produce the titular “dames”: “Food’s bloody shocking, cooks are all queer.” “That tart was dancing and she’s half lame, / thinks she’s a fairy. She’s a volunteer.” What these women are really like, of course, we never learn. Powell leaves it to us to realise how common such erasures are.
“Queen of the Crown Hotel”, which is an ekphrasis on a painting by Andy McCready, describes a diminished figure of the music scene of Rattray Street, Dunedin, “her kingdom reduced to a single site”. Another ekphrasis, “Portrait of a Plait”, contends with a thirty-foot-long charcoal drawing of a braid by Chinese artist Zhang Chun Hong; the frustrations of the life cycle of women intimated by Zhang’s work are echoed by Powell, as she dubs the floor of the gallery “the varnished desert of dreams”. Artistic dialogue like this is crucial for Powell, though not always engaging for the reader. Poems addressed to Janet Frame and Frances Hodgkins are among the book’s less successful efforts because they rely too much on their subjects’ celebrity and not enough on Powell’s invention. (And to write about Hodgkins is to enter a crowded field these days, so a writer really must individuate her work; consider Paula Green’s poetic memoir Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins and Karen Zelas’s biographical play Poverty and Muse.)
Powell numbers herself among the troubled women in a poem called “Silly Old Jenny”. The silly old Jenny of the poem actually comes from a Lloyd Jones short story called “Elsewhen”, from which an epigraph is taken: “Jenny dropped a timepiece down a deep well. She obsessed over the loss and spent the rest of her days and nights trying to fish up the timepiece, right up until the day she died.” But it is impossible to imagine that Powell is not delivering a wry self-criticism about her own obsession, time-management, and fear of death. Jenny in the poem may be silly, but Jenny writing the poem is aware and uncomplacent. If there is trouble, we can be sure that she will at least have seen it coming:
She’s waiting for the right time
to scrape the bottom of the well
to recover the time of her life.
There is a time for every purpose
she was once reliably told.
She wants to make up for lost time.
The seconds grow harder to hear
until time takes off and flies beyond
her reach. It is only when Jenny dies
that the time for every purpose
is under heaven.
Erik Kennedy’s poems and reviews have appeared in The Curator, The Morning Star, Oxford Poetry, Poems in Which, The Rumpus, and Sabotage Reviews. He blogs about poetry and poetics for Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He studied English at Rutgers and Princeton. He lives in Christchurch. Erik is Honorary Treasurer for takahē.