Michael Jackson – Walking to Pencarrow: Selected Poems

Walking to Pencarrow coverWalking to Pencarrow: Selected Poems by Michael Jackson.
Lyttelton: Cold Hub Press (2016).
RRP: $39.95.
Pb, 166pp.
ISBN: 9780473327811.

Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.

The boundary between poetry and autobiography is set in smoke and mirrors, but in Walking to Pencarrow Michael Jackson1 invites us to interpret this, his latest collection of poetry, as biographical. He provides a detailed preface, linking the original collections with details of his life from 1976 to 2013; many poems are nailed to specific people, places, and things. But can we take him at his word?

“Making It Otherwise” (although already looking back from overseas experiences) reads as a normal youthful complaint against being stifled by the world, particularly by one’s birthplace:

I was raised not to know
how the spinney laid its accent on the hill
or the rain’s syllables were slurred
gusting over a tin roof in the dark; …

My town has never favoured words that go
with what I see;
making them do what was not allowed
is what I take my trade to be.   (p 18)

A lively (and delighted) poem about macrocarpas tells us:

In macrocarpas there is no delight,
only the fly-blown fleece
on a sagging fence                  (p 17)

So far, so plausible. But Jackson’s first poems were published when he was nearly forty, and by the time the lines quoted above were published, he had been travelling almost twenty years conducting the first of a lifetime’s worth of anthropological investigations: among them, Sierra Leone, London, the Congo, the Manawatu. (Anthropology is just as valuable in Palmerston North as it is in Africa.)

The pace picks up:

Duty free as dolphins
surging south or surfing the wine dark sea
I change directions as they do
hurting only those who had hopes of me    (“Duty Free” p 42) 

and the poet is on the move: Cape York, Menton, Massachusetts, Maine, Koidu Town, Solanas Beach, talking to the northern hemisphere while watching the larger Magellanic Cloud, “First Contact” (not in the traditional sense), tamarinds, the Tyrolean Iceman, the Sudan, Inglewood (Los Angeles, not New Zealand), Leigh-Mallory on Everest, Neanderthals. Reading the poems is a shell game – now you see the poet, now you don’t; as well, Jackson elegantly weaves different times in with different places.

In the title poem:

It’s the fourth of July.
I’m sitting on a rock
at Inconstant Head
with the sea seething and hissing
between gritted teeth,
and the seaward Kaikouras
like mounded rock salt
in the south.

There are two white
lighthouses on the promontory
and I am thinking of friends
in Sierra Leone
as I walk toward them.    (p 76) 

The poet hovers between two worlds – watching double lighthouses between real and unreal placenames on an inordinately rocky shore. Are we sure he is really there? The two worlds theme comes up frequently in the collection, frequently enough to make you err on the side of suspicious.

In the last two sections, there is a different tone:

Inside everyone
there’s a human being struggling to get out   (“Inside Everyone” p 106)

or “My Grandfather”:

Sometimes all I could see of him
was his panama hat
above the bowling green’s
corrugated iron fence, …    (p 133) 

This group of poems is anecdotal, chatty, sometimes pontificating:

What good my pilgrimage
when the true cross goes up in smoke,
the body of Our Lord is a slice
of Swedish rye smeared with honey.  (“In Wakefield Street” p 145)

As a unit, the poems read as though comfortable and casual speech is being used as the ultimate hiding place for a poet who is still observing, still changing, and who is using a working arrangement with the everyday to give himself space to think, while still seeking directions:

but no directions have I found
nothing beyond this island but the sea
little beyond the sea but another land
little beyond that land but open sky
no trace of you
and even less of I.     (“You” p 114)

It’s a lifetime exercise.

1 http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/Writers/Profiles/Jackson,%20Michael

Mary CresswellMary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015.

First published takahe 88
August 2017