The Happiness of Rain by Jan Hutchinson.
Wellington: Steele Aotearoa (2012).
RRP: Pb, 64pp.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
The Happiness of Rain is Jan Hutchinson’s third collection of poems, following The Long Sleep is Over and Days Among Trees. In 2011 Jan won first prize in the Takahe International Poetry Competition.
The poems in The Happiness of Rain are divided into two parts. The first half of the book presents a clear narrative of Hutchinson’s development of perceptual registers of life, though not necessarily its complexity. “At Darfield” and “A charm of finches” enact nature. Anyone who admires the natural life will recognise and find pleasure in these words from the first poem: “’early morning / a beetle runs along the shingle / or there are seeds of grass in the paddock’ and, from the second poem: ‘across the stream / thistles stand grey and stiff like abandoned / weapons.’ When perceptions are adjoined to humanity, as in “Kotukutuku”, the playful opening about the tree ‘that was a father’, the reader goes with the flow. In “Forest: Banks Peninsula” a fragmentary scenario jumps into view. The poem is divided into five sections: Valley, Labourers, Trowels, Seeds and Botanist and concludes with this verse:
I open my notebook
and catch a faint scent of pine.
climbs up the page.
The enigmatic poem “A woollen scarf” recalls ‘The scarf you knitted for me’, which recalls a scarf made for the poet by a friend. The poem begins:
The scarf you knitted for me
holds a pattern you and I remember.
Its ends are fringed with sadness
and cannot be shortened.
“A stranger from China” is about a friendship with a Chinese woman who moved into the poet’s cul-de-sac: ‘We told our stories as we strolled / under trees. / Sometimes she taught me a song / in Mandarin.’ The poem “Winter incident” begins with an everyday scene: ‘A man and a woman / trudge towards the estuary.’ A pukeko struts up to them, changing their mood with its flicking tail and fluttering under-feathers. The poem juxtaposes and juggles with sound and meaning and sets the tone with silence, thoughts and the couple and what they will remember about their walk.
“Pekapeka” is an emblematic poem: she watches the little bat “embroider the forest” and ‘sew a border / with pink and brown leaves’. The collection tingles with craftsmanship: delicate lineation, reminiscent of Sylvia Plath with its linked tropes. “Harebells”, for instance, is an intricately woven poem, describing beeches, a disappearing mountain, a rocky outcrop and more. In the title poem, “The happiness of rain”, Hutchinson explores a child’s delight running along the shore, riding a pony on a sultry day, tuning the wind with her finger and singing ‘a promise / to the weeks to come.’
Section II contains the long poem “I Camino de Santiago”, where the poet is lost in her reading of a letter and the details of the poem are sometimes breath-taking. It begins with this verse:
I open your letter
and a route unwinds through north-west Spain.
Here is the cove
Where St James moored his boat.
And her the cliffs
Which measured the depth of his fishing net.
She looks at photographs, postcards and a sketch. The poem ends with these enigmatic words:
Sometimes pilgrims follow the Milky way
to Finisterre, end of the world.
Sometimes the way is just
around the corner.
In “A very courteous sheep”, one of the poems in the collection which displays an erudite style, Hutchinson demonstrates knowledge of farm life. Her vocabulary is wide-ranging, sometimes slowing reading pace. The following three poems feature the poet John Clare. In the poem, “John Clare catches a scent of goose grass in the grounds of Northampton Asylum”, we see the poet in the asylum, remembering the way he used to enjoy wandering the countryside. The poem begins:
Some days I dither in the half-light of memory
some days I do not
this morning the wind is whistling
enough to make an oddling leap
The poem, “John Clare’s later life” recalls his years in the asylum ‘where light thickened / at his window.’ In the next poem, “The hostage who altered his outlook” (which is divided into four parts), Hutchinson writes about a hostage, blindfolded, beaten, subjected to a mock execution and confined to a cell. In his solitude, the hostage recalls:
Now and then, wheels lumbered down a road.
A Siren shrieked. There were rapid shouts
as if from a boy with fruit to sell.
“Early in the story: Katherine Mansfield” is a five-part poem, which begins with “Unfinished letter”, based on a letter from KM to Victor Sorapure, in which she thanks him for ‘the little fern’ and says she will keep it by her bed. “Up the stairs to the stable gallery (ii)” is based on a letter to S S Koteliansky. Here, Hutchinson describes a stable and its occupant:
A mouse with a quince-seed eye
blinks a moment rests
beneath an eyelid.
“Leap (iii)” is based on a letter to John Middleton Murry, in which Mansfield is seen
she learns the grammar
of a novice
and assemble in sober
Verse iv, “Katherine”, describes the poet herself from a letter to Murry:
She is a tambourine bell shaking
she is a thyme leaf of the pestle pounds
she is a bird with an injured wing
she is a cello bow sweeping deeper
The final verse, “The sky is blue in Fontainebleau”, is from another KM letter to Murry, where:
Quinces are being turned into jam
and through the orchard
a bell rings from the village school …
The final poem in the collection is “Colette travels through her room”, where we see her:
Beside a poised paperweight
beside glass walking-sticks
Colette surveys the terrain of her bedroom …
This lively book in all its glory – sights, sounds, personalities, poets and people, and the physicality of things is open to all readers. Single-minded, open-hearted, Hutchinson propels the poems ever onwards, connecting the poems and their images. Going with her, we can undergo an interesting journey.