Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2018 (March 2018)
Ted Jenner / Jeremy Roberts /
Laura Solomon / A TransPacific Poetics
Ted Jenner. The Arrow That Missed. ISBN: 978-0-473-39818-7. Lyttelton: Cold Hub Press, 2017. RRP $19.95. 52 pp.
Ted Jenner: The Arrow That Missed (2017)
There are some great setpieces in Ted Jenner’s latest book, from South Island publisher Cold Hub Press. One of his principal subjects of investigation this time around appears to be ekphrasis, the description of pieces of visual art in words.
Take, for example, the piece ‘Snapshot.’ We begin with a careful evocation of a photograph of ‘Travis’ mother when I knew her in the ’70s.’
She is leaning nonchalantly against the driver’s door of the family’s Vauxhall. Her pregnancy is not particularly noticeable, and might have been overlooked but for the note Travis scrawled on the back of the photo, ‘Mum carrying me, Dec. 1960’.This opening makes it clear that ‘Travis’ will be as much of a player in what is to follow, as his mother herself, ‘Laura B.’ And, indeed:
It must be fairly obvious that this was the woman who introduced me, at the tender age of eleven, to the seductive charms of her sex (of women, I mean, not girls).As for her husband, Rob, he ‘had the reputation of being one of those geoscience graduates who knew the ropes but couldn’t pull the strings.’ He disappeared from his camp in Papua New Guinea two months before Travis’s birth. Despite some ‘unconfirmed sightings’ in Queensland, ‘after 1962, nothing.’
By now, I think, we’re beginning to realise that each new paragraph in Jenner’s prose poem / micro-fiction will bring some kind of revelation, a new stage in this gradually unfolding chronicle of complex and far-from-ordinary life:
Actually I have no idea where mother and son are either. When Travis was in his early twenties, I traced him to a phone number and an address in Balmoral, but he had no interest in in meeting up, let alone reminiscing about those early years when we were such close neighbours.Instead, he sent on this photograph by post. But why? ‘Was my ‘puppy-love crush’ so obvious when I’d done my best to conceal, it, being so shy and awkward at that age?’ Given the strength with which it still rages all these years later, it’s tempting to assume so.
What the camera didn’t fail to register on that day, however, is something I only discovered on re-examining the photo weeks later: a shadow snaking across the gravel of the driveway towards the car and Laura, which must surely come from the father Travis never met.It’s hard to imagine a more powerful way of evoking the mysteries of the past. This gradual exploration of the subtext of the photo, its details and implications, is a little reminiscent of Lake Mungo, that greatest of all Australasian films about the paranormal power of memory.
Certainly the result is a triumph for Jenner. ‘True’ or not, his poem runs round on itself with perfect economy and gradually mounting power.
If that were all that Jenner’s book contained, it would still be well worth the power of admission, but at least two of the following pieces, the beautifully complex and lyrical ‘Farewell and thank you, Muse’ and (perhaps most striking of all) ‘’The arrow that missed: a letter from the painter,’ continue this exploration of the power of cumulative paragraphs of descriptive detail within a complex exegetical framework.
What if this cosmos the gods created out of chaos were merely a function of our passion for ornament and order? Please don’t quote me on any of this, Kallias, or you’ll have me up before the Council on a charge of impiety, but tell me what cosmos was there in those handfuls of clay and mud we used to scoop out of the bed of the Kephisos when we were boys?This ‘imaginary letter from painter to potter’ refers to an actual painting on an actual pot (now in the Louvre) as Jenner reveals in his notes to the collection.
He carefully interrogates the strengths and restrictions of their respective arts as opposed to that of the ‘war poems, the Iliad or the Kypria, … the authors of which never concerned themselves with the actual material waste and debris of war that my father witnessed at Marathon.’
They never concerned themselves with such details precisely because such incidentals do not move fifteen thousand hexameters any closer to their pitiless and irrevocable climax.What the arrow this painter has put in to fill a gap in his picture may have ended up demonstrating is, it turns out, ‘that the gods sometimes fail to hit their targets.’ All of which implies:
That this world-order, this cosmos we Athenians prize so much has cracks in its edifice, is in fact fallible.Jenner’s book, then, considered as a whole, appears to be an examination of the ‘cracks in the edifice,’ the things we can never know, can never reconcile with one another, however deeply and carefully we dig, however precise our chains of reasoning.
Don’t let the slimness of the book deceive you: this is major work, by a poet who is building, brick by brick, poem by poem, book by book, a unique and inimitable body of work.
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018. ISBN 978-0-9941473-3-2 (March 2018): 308-10.
Poetry NZ Yearbook 2018