Koel (2017)

Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2017 (March 2017)


Jen Crawford. Koel. Introduction by Divya Victor. ISBN 978-0-9942596-8-4. Melbourne: Cordite Books, 2016. RRP AU$20.00. xiv + 81 pp.

Jen Crawford: Koel (2016)

This bird sits in a tree near my bedroom window and likes to start calling from 5am onwards and continues throughout the day!!
So says the online contributor of a YouTube video of a Koel making its distinctive call. The Koel, it appears, is a species of cuckoo ‘colloquially known as the rainbird or stormbird, as its call is usually more prevalent before or during stormy weather’, as Wikipedia adds helpfully.

This seems an acceptable way to begin my review of Jen Crawford’s latest book, given that one of its distinguishing features is the wonderfully erudite series of notes which occupy five pages of it. These reference sources as diverse as internet news articles, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality, and even a 1926 jazz recording by Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers!

It would be fair to say that the presence of these influences would not be immediately apparent to a reader. There are few landmarks, few solid places to stand: the admittedly somewhat tenuous narrative threads of such earlier works as Admissions (2000) or Pop Riveter (2011) have mostly been abandoned. Crawford’s own preface says of her writing process:
It seemed important to be as close to sleep as possible, so I closed windows and wore headphones. Not to shut things out or make them stranger, but to soften and modulate the tensions of exchange. (p. ix)
What, then, is she getting at in such poems as ‘abandoned house music’, which starts the book off? I suppose, most obviously, that she wishes to immerse us in a range of sensory inputs: to encourage us to use all of our senses, not just sight and hearing.

There’s more to it than that, though. If the collection has an overall theme, it’s the interconnectedness and indistinguishability of all things, living and non-living: animal, mineral and vegetable. It isn’t so much that Crawford sees humans as part of the natural world, as that even the biosphere itself is only part of the complexity of being she herself experiences and wishes to convey:
In Bangkok, excavators swim up and down the canals. They float on barges and scoop themselves through the water. The water pools and resists, carrying places to places on its way. (p. ix)
Note that Crawford uses verbs of active intention to describe what these excavators do. Are they alive? Perhaps the question should be flipped on its head: are you alive? How are you alive? What are the tendrils that connect you to the spaces you inhabit in what she refers to as our ‘epoch of simultaneity’?

It’s interesting that one of the very few poets referred to in her notes is Allen Curnow: specifically, his famous lines: ‘Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year, will learn the trick of standing upright here.’ Any number of New Zealand poets have — somewhat embarrassingly, if the truth be told — claimed directly or implicitly to be that child. Crawford’s poem ‘growing cloud’ seems, by contrast, to be mainly concerned with the experience of being overtaken by the pyroclastic surge of a volcanic eruption:
in the blanket becoming and not at the
same time wrapped
in the disappearance of
friction between your particles your larger
particles floating
in suspension in the solid-gas matrix … (p. 67)
In other words (to quote the original Ghostbusters): ‘Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.’ Worrying about standing upright begins to sound just a little bit ... introverted, wouldn’t you say?

Crawford’s latest book, then, is nothing if not ambitious, and — while there are certainly precedents for some of the things she’s doing: Chinese-American poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge is one of those mentioned by Divya Victor in her insightful introduction — it’s hard to be sure-footed when you’re working entirely in the dark.

A poetic that aspires to be all-inclusive can find the necessity for exclusion a very difficult thing, which is where Crawford’s careful attention to the details of her own life comes in. Not: what is to be human, but what is it to be me? Insofar as such a thing is communicable at all, that is.

One often says of a book of poems that it repays repeated readings. Jen Crawford’s positively demands them: it grows, and glows, more and more with each new ritual of immersion.


Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017. ISBN 978-0-9941363-5-0 (March 2017): 300-02.

[731 wds]

Poetry NZ Yearbook 2017

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