t. 93, Jan FitzGerald, Wayfinder

Wayfinder by Jan FitzGerald.
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa Ltd. (2017).
RRP: $24.99. Softcover, 62pp.
ISBN: 9780947493493.
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.

Jan FitzGerald’s collection rounds off with the eponymous poem, the first stanza of which begins: ‘This waka I guide with chant and song/ for this is the whakapapa of past voyages,/ the voice of my ancestors/ who went fishing for islands’ (“Wayfinder”, p 60).

The islands and landscapes of this collection are varied, as FitzGerald takes the reader from scenes of her childhood and personal realms to broader pieces of history, looking particularly to aspects of Asian culture and events. There is no apparent order as she shifts between these two registers, and a third, which is that of instances from nature.

What they all do illustrate though is the randomness and breadth of life under the sun, and they show FitzGerald as particularly observant of natural processes and the adaptations of individual species within their environment.

To turn to this natural focus here first, in these works FitzGerald looks at a creature or species and how it operates in its surroundings. She speaks to the seahorse, ‘carrying yourself through reefs of coral/ with calcified dignity’ (“Seahorse”, p 11); of crabs, a ‘fire without flames’ under the watchful eye of the moon, the ‘Methuselah-hag’ which shuffles ‘across the mudflats on her sticks/ of pohutukawa’ (“Fire!”, p 51); or a rural scene in “Cows Crossing” told from their perspective, where it is a matter of being able to ‘watch the marking of non-time/ with our metronomic tails’ (p 18).

“Chrysalis” looks at the process of transforming and hatching, where a creature or ‘shapeshifter’ appears, metaphorically demonstrating kabuki theatre, through writhing and contorting to shed a dark kimono (p 26).

FitzGerald hints frequently at Japanese culture, for example in her poem “Letter to Tome Torihama (1902-1992)”, a thoughtful piece which reimagines a historical figure looking after kamikaze fighters in the Second World War, just prior to their last flights. She imagines their mothers’ gratitude as he treats the fighters with respect, feeding them their last meals, special rice ‘stained red by azuki beans’, before they depart in their ‘lying coffins’ (p 8).

Or in “Netsuke”, a samurai in relation to his sword, which, while a death weapon, is more than that, an instance where ‘dignity and violence engage/ in rosewood and ivory’ (p 19). In “Ruaumoko” she brings the focus to home, to her studio, which, while a sanctuary, has become even a spiritual retreat, with the tiniest of temple bells, ready to welcome a visit (p 37).

Some of her domestic pieces are the most moving, as she reflects on the passing of time, and individuals’ relationships with mortality. “Miss Molloye” pictures an ageing woman, living alone, pondering the presence of the new arrival upstairs. She thinks back on her life, feeling grief and the loss of interaction. The man upstairs is an unknown, yet she imagines him sitting with ‘a face as blank as alabaster’ as he ‘scrapes the labels off words’ (p 31).

These pieces are quiet. In the opening piece, “One poem”, the epigraph, she writes, ‘I will move silently/ through this world,/ a mouse hole,/ a gliding wing’. This sentiment is reiterated, and is one of the firmer images that remains, further on, in “Yesterway”: ‘she shows you/ how to attend/ in the pause before green,/ in the space between raindrops,/ how to listen with your feet/ and hear the world stop’ (p 47). Sometimes it is the silent, measured response that is the worthiest, and FitzGerald illustrates this vividly in pieces such as those above.


 Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.