Columbine (new & selected poems) : Jennifer Harrison

Book Description

Book Sample

Launch Speech
Book Reviews
The Canberra Times
Australian Book Review

Book Description

In her busking cloche
velvet dress and army boots
her Salem air of ashes
she clears a space in Harvard Square
to play the musical glasses.

Reading all of these poems, from first to last, is to marvel at their gorgeous awareness, and language, to feel a subtle but palpable transmission between figures of being, as if Michelangelo’s unfinished figures merge with the teenagers in their yearning, merge with the anxieties and anguishes of cancer, and of love. They are present in the inner joy and grief of Colombine when she shockingly performs a self-imposed penance on her own body and breast, echoing an early poem, in Jenny’s earliest book, about the body and the breast, the unfinished and unknowable power of material of the sculpture... and the breast of the poem. There is an uncanny single being emerging from the material. It is her poetry’s own kind of love and nurturing, not to impose, but to be. It is brilliantly done throughout.
Philip Salom

A major contribution to Australian poetry which demonstrates Harrison’s evolving career and mastery. Its depth of intellectual and emotional registers, in addition to its sustained craft, makes this poetry demanding yet also immensely rewarding and enjoyable.
Judges comments, Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards

ISBN 9781876044657
Published 2010
250 pgs

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Book Sample

from "Fugue"

Swann’s Way

          Just a century later
desire seems almost too tragic,
happiness mute as Proust’s sorrowful lover,
chilled and shadow-bound,
loitering in the snow, smoke-breath evaporating
beneath the Neverland of a shut window.

Remember Swann chasing that ultimo kiss,
his finches gossiping in the pulse of Odette’s wrist?
A pair of leopard-skin boots, newly unwrapped,
might thrill the future’s mirror-ball dance,
but radio-sex in a Ford under the stars
remembers literature as a blur of backs.

Perhaps all the summery Swanns
are just this moment striding through the city
imagining a flower, a bird, a moth, a trick—
their yet-to-be-encountered loves
alighting, tasting the evening’s transience.

Satisfaction—another evasion—
seems as tricky as the perfect talkshow title—
When your best friend sleeps with your illegitimate son
or Nineteen times a bridesmaid and never a bride—
       Perhaps Proust might ask the warring couple:
how shall we talk through this puzzle

of loss and loss whittled? How shall
we negotiate the stellate structure of snow
and the sepulchral nature of ash
whilst singing back the sirens of their vast seas
until the future is pulled from adriftness
and the empty kaleidoscope
is left to some other childish memory?

Perhaps we might visit the orange grove,
the pipped olive, the vacancy of marble
and reacquaint ourselves
with Europe’s multisyllabic kings and queens,
their tragic fleets and coincidental destinies—
                    but then, again,
perhaps it’s better to switch channels
and see what’s on SBS digital 2, where all day
language pours from a global cup.
Just watching the cars swim along Punt Road
fills the night with epic smoke.
Love, the one interesting theme, dazzles you
every time, like a catfight heard far away
in an alley off your own familiar street.

from "Colombine"

XXVI . . . La Guaiassa

In a theatre with flowers for footlights, by a palace
or a coastline, I look at you through the eyes of a mask.
Paint me with coloured wax, tattoo my scar.
My body undressed. Hands looking at the shape of myself.

It’s a surgery of sorts—to move, to be still, to act.
To applaud the audience’s thrumming tympanum.
Colombine’s past is longer than the past of mothers.
She is gravel, collected. No one will stun her finally

with glitter. In the plays of Plautus she’s Scaphe,
the servant of a lady musician. Today, she’s writing
a little something on the pleasures of anonymity
like bodacious George Sand on the Lakes of Lombardy.

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Launch Speech

"She’s too good"

Philip Salom (poet, novelist and critic)
North Fitzroy Arms, 20 October 2010

I have a theory concerning the way literary prizes align with literary books, and especially poetry books, and how they don’t: some poets are just too good to win the proper level of acclaim for their books. Jenny Harrison has won acclaim, without doubt, but not as much as she, per book, should have. I’d like to suggest that she is one of the poets I am thinking about. She’s too good.

The exciting thing about a New and Selected Poems is our chance to read all the poems in their relationship with each other. Therefore I am now in fact re-launching the four earlier books, launching one new book of new work, and I am ‘launching’ in the overall sense - and I mean celebrating - the Jennifer Harrison this entire book reveals. And what a poet she is. Right from the start her poems are just so bloody good: so linguistically focussed and thoughtful, so felt in ways never sentimental and never without sharp questioning. It’s no wonder her work has been compared to great poets such as Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood. She displays the same fluent formality and high intelligence. She has intensity and insight, she has the everywhere presence of deft construction and depth of engagement major work requires. Jenny’s poetry is capable of being inward and particular - and then broadly expansive and confident. So she has range. With such expansiveness she is capable of delaying closure and opening the conceptual and psychological possibilities of the poems further towards richer, more complex travel. Many poets cannot. Even in her smaller poems she often extends the effect through sequencing - each smaller poem like an organic charge, like organic batteries, a flow of isotopes.

But the poetry is always about the multiple nature of Being. It’s clear to me, now, just how much that exploration of being is also a poetry of drama; and that she is a dramatic poet. She writes within a kind of larger, ever-present Theatre of Ontology - exploring so many aspects of being and self-awareness and doubt and love and uncertainty, all there in the mix. Sometimes it is frighteningly literal, as in the actual operating theatre, the Oncology of her first collection, Michelangelo’s Prisoners:

her mastectomised body
her naked side, a pigeon’s breast
of ribs so flat they could be Jung’s own
archetype, a complimentary male-chest.

It hits her in the baby’s mouth
peels the billboard off her sex
and flattens the frothy dress.
What can a stitch do with how good the knife feels?
She will have no pedestal.
She will look her father in the eye
a clear gaze which travels into his
so that he remembers Florence
where Michelangelo
left his prisoners unfinished
to state with impossible perfection
that it is not the anguish of the chiselled stone
which matters.
It is the standing-still which kills.

 ‘Michelangelo’s Prisoners’

and later, in her third, Dear B - where cancer marks a shadowy and sudden re-appearance, the fluctuating theatre of the body and being; here are the intense poems from Dear B, the ‘Boston Poems’ sequence, for example, confronting for their pain, and their cancer-grief, but also paradoxically arresting, for their merciless precision and attack:

...and a young girl
leaves chocolates on the table
for the doctors to eat

become quiet now

listen to this man’s hand
on my breast

I want him to auscultate my heart
with careful ears
divide good
from bad with his scalpel

I trust he knows my name...
I ask questions
but more arrive
later when I’m at home
alone in the dark with my cells
lie down in a sweet place

lie down
Diary, ‘Boston Poems’

In Cabramatta/Cudmirrah, her second collection, the in-between book, her poems seem to enact memory much more, taking voice back into into the actual locations of her childhood, so here the poems are more about naming and returning, and these poems are more reflective and honouring of the apparently real - such as named personages and landscape - than the other books. It does allow her, though, a pointed sense of those fitful, exaggerated years of childhood, of that hunger and mixed-up yearning to be more intensely, to be more fully, in place, but also to escape from it: to where life is... After all, it’s always somewhere else.

By the time we reach the fourth book, Folly & Grief, she has begun to develop longer, more philosophical appropriations, quite specifically, of public performers, ritual performances, the buskers and the public entertainers (and perhaps unsettlers) who are given energetic and probably unexpected life under such great titles as ‘Glass Harmonica’, ‘Funambulist’, ‘Tamagotchi Gospel’ (that’s a beauty) and the incredibly named ‘Hand, Chainsaw and Head...’ Talk about expectation!

Reading her poems has made me think - again - there is a great deal of the fabulist in her, at times akin to the wonderful Wallace Stevens. It’s in her earlier ‘music’ too, a flexibility of observation and expression, essentially the way thought is incorporated into feeling. And, even in the first book, a  delight in the arcane, almost gaudy, diction of medicine:

        Lipofuschin astroglia
clung to their hair, the Schwann cells steamed and synapses hummed
        their amazing tigroid sums.
So glamorous were the words, the people grew jealous
In vitro, they tended the genes
their dreams elbow-deep in cells. They saw memory
        clinging to a ridge with rope and icepick, such wonders
that their thoughts, too, darted like birds across the lazy-lipped
        breakers of the cortex—and even though
love escaped a crayoned equation and the future remained steadfastly
        fatal they entered this world conversing in riddle


Medicine, which is ironic in context, or... or camels, which are not!

Arabia of cassia, bats and cinnamon.
To rise from knees in the dirt. You sleep beneath
An exposed moon. If you were mine

I wouldn’t force you with reins at all, but
Swallow your weariness and follow your circles
Across the beautiful blasted emptiness. You accept
Mirages as real and drink from their waters.
For this, nomads praise you above swords.

‘The Dromedary’

I think Jenny has this same pleasure in words, and the exotic, but has possibly a greater range of feeling than Stevens, she is certainly more deliberately worldly, and astute on suffering, and complication,  whereas Stevens, brilliant and (finally) as inimitable as he was, was, as John Berryman grudgingly and slyly put it: greater than us, less wide.

From the poem ‘Pierrot and the Moon’. The two characters speak:

Only once have I seen the moon in Spanish-heeled boots,
light skirt, her tongue a mauve feather drifting between words.
She dusted the talc from sleep and stooped over me,
her voice a silver fork tuned to the shadows of verbs.

The clouds have no riposte, she began, we imagine them blown
about as though nothing offends the trees...
                                          ...I recalled the story of a man
who all his life had wanted to live in a house towed by a truck,
a wide load with a red flag, a house rattling on government land,
arriving someplace in the evening, always, like luck.

Only once have I seen the moon at night, beside me, on the ground,
her tongue a mauve feather drifting between a story and its flow.
I found her solemn, her gestures troubled as she pondered
the right phrases to speak. I found her too personal as though

she were trying to perfect the art of revealing oneself.
And I said so. I cannot easily, like you, live in a waste of time

Because Jenny is a traveller. This is also the verbal mask. And here the soft analogues of a poem made on and of the world, just as in Stevens, a poet creating a poem from reality, in the fictive place where the material that gives rise to the poem, and the poem as imagined on reality, are not different. And by soft I mean malleable and permeable, because to read these poems is to feel them as enterable, even, in flux, both the being and the material of the poem always becoming.

After Folly & Grief, in the new book, we meet the Fugues, the pantoums and the character of Colombine, where the poet inhabits the mask and character of Columbina from the Commedia Dell ’Arte. The Colombine poems see much and feel much, because Jenny Harrison the poet is deeply formed by the various chemistries of nurture and empathy, and they come of the presence of love, which is one of the constant themes of the books, not love as love poem, but love as a depth of assumption, as a dynamic reality, and as a crucial urgency and question. From the beginning, though, it seems to take the form of sound - which is the sensory heart of her poetry. So when the newest poems appear they take over sound quite utterly - the use of voice has been leading up to, firstly, the series of Fugues, more of the exotic:

The city puts a hand between my thighs when I sleep—
rosehips and tobacco scenting the mosaic air.

In the Basilica Cistern, the Medusa’s mossy eyes,
starved into cold wet stone, stare past me

at my son—and then at me—her desire, later,
kindling questions into the eyes of carpet boys
I find myself excavating religion, as if I hoped—
by absorption—to burn a little more brightly here—
I hate the way the Hippodrome waiters
with white starched towels flick the skinny haunches

of homeless cats—and it’s not, after all, the way
rosehip lingers for a moment on the tongue after tea

or the way pipesmoke sounds like a subterranean river
as it’s sucked through hookahs, long as eels.

It’s not objective, discerning, or familiar—...


This is sexy and engaging. It is naughty and knowing.

And to begin with, these poems and pantoums use the drama of form, and the sound of form. We are caught up in the voices made of a shifting and repeating, of echoes and shape-changing. They become strong incantations. Any pantoum can become claustrophobic, in the best sense, the tightness of enclosure and repetition creating a dizzying affect, as the lines return... but they mean something different each time: a repeat is no longer a statement or a description of the merely local, or personal, but, increasingly, it invokes the Other.

In the final section of the New poems, ‘Colombine’ is a sequence of musings from the mask itself. Colombine is now a player in her imagination, or she is a player in Colombine’s. And in a time and place, centuries removed, in the outer history, of the great plague, for instance:

Laughter must be the blackest sadness
the beautiful pyre on which love dies, singing.
Only angels suppress laughter so as to be invisible.
Why would you want more than you have, or dream?

All day bonfires have burned along the winterbourne.
Dogs singed with excitement. The crowd
a swollen howl. We threw water on the stones
and the cries of the dying dried the air.

XI . . . the parents that have drowned

‘Colombine’ speaks an inner history, too, where both poet and reader can escape the temporal and the referential limits of the here-and-now, and of the autobiographical, and to attend in a different way.

So much of our day-to-day viewing experience is us being passive in the front of the very active; I mean, being hit full-on by lights and noises, by radios and TVs, rock bands and pop stars, by endless noisy bloody personalities and shameless politicians. We cop stand-up sales pitches, stand-up comedians, even stand-up poets, pitching directly and in heightened manner to our faces. How different then to watch musicians who play in orchestras, say, or in chamber groups, where they, in contrast, address not the audience at all, but the conductor... which is to say, they address the music. With its subtle but inventive lyrical strategies and masks, poetry like Jennifer Harrison’s addresses poetry... which means it addresses us, quietly, as readers who enter its space as observers and who are active, and who feel its presence within us, not in our faces.

Reading all of these poems, from first to last, is to marvel at their gorgeous awareness, and language, to feel a subtle but palpable transmission between figures of being, as if Michelangelo’s unfinished figures merge with the teenagers in their yearning, merge with the anxieties and anguishes of cancer, and of love. They are present in the inner joy and grief of Colombine when she shockingly performs a self-imposed penance on her own body and breast, echoing an early poem, in Jenny’s earliest book, about the body and the breast, the unfinished and unknowable power of material of the sculpture... and the breast of the poem. There is an uncanny single being emerging from the material. It is her poetry’s own kind of love and nurturing, not to impose, but to be. It is brilliantly done throughout.

This is just to give an overview. It’s Jenny we came to hear, reading them, and therefore with the greatest pleasure and admiration I launch Colombine.

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Repeatedly Satisfying
Geoff Page
The Canberra Times, 29 January 2011

Melbourne poet (and child psychiatrist) Jennifer Harrison published her first collection, Michelangelo’s Prisoners, 15 years ago. Since then there have been three more collections and a co-edited anthology, Motherlode: Australian Women’s Poetry 1986-2008. Now we have her selected poems and an opportunity to look back over her work as a whole.

As with most ‘selecteds’ these days, Colombine starts with a significant batch of recent poems and then proceeds to sample the poet’s earlier work chronologically. In this case the new poems are mainly in two long sequences, ‘Fugue’ and ‘Colombine’. One risk of this arrangement is that some readers may be disconcerted by the more recent work and prefer the earlier poetry with which they have been more familiar. A Sydney reviewer of Colombine has, in fact, already done this and it is possible to see why without necessarily agreeing with him.

In her first three books, Harrison ranged widely in her concerns and quite a bit in her techniques. There were poems (a whole book, in fact) which paid tribute to a favourite childhood holiday destination; there were others which portrayed, very movingly, the poet’s experience of breast cancer. Another sequence, ‘Cabramatta’, evoked the poet’s ‘westie’ childhood and adolescence in and around that particular suburb of Sydney (a rather different place from inner-city Melbourne, where she now lives and works). Although the imagery Harrison used in those poems was energetic and original, it was generally in the service of the poem as a whole and its subject matter.

In Folly & Grief (2006), Harrison changed her style somewhat. That book made an extensive study of street performers of all kinds: buskers, ‘living statue’ artists, jugglers, funambulists, magicians, fire swallowers, circus clowns, various commedia dell’arte figures and so on. Harrison’s technique seemed to be become more consciously sophisticated and image-driven, as if to accommodate this new, and relatively arcane, subject matter.

In several cases, for example in her classic poem, ‘Glass Harmonica’, Harrison achieved a genuine, even unearthly strangeness and a very convincing sense of metaphysics. Writing about a woman playing a glass harmonica in a cold Boston autumn, Harrison finished her poem with ‘...but today she has no bowls for death. // She plays a wintry madrigal. In the city of white swans / she reaches for the smallest bowl, / and then the smaller one.’

Now, in the new part of her ‘selected’, Harrison has gone a step further. In the opening sequence, called ‘Fugue’, the poet employs a variety of forms which rely on repetition, most notably the pantoum and variations of it. The cumulative impact of repeated lines (or nearly repeated lines) can be considerable but much depends on the quality of the line itself. Not every line a poet writes will, or should have to, bear such an emphasis. ‘We visit Rick Amor’s show at the Longwarrrin Gallery’ is probably not such a line whereas ‘Ozymandias brooding over beaches and abandoned cars’ (in the same poem, ‘Before the Funeral’) probably is.

This section also has a number of stand-alone poems, such as the gently affectionate ‘Admiral John’, which offer more familiar pleasures. Although she has been told that ‘Admiral John’, an admired figure from her childhood, has ‘died accidentally / shooting blackbirds down the back of Thornleigh Gully’ the poet knows better and asks: ‘Do the green years in your eyes / drift, still, like anger-fish? / Reflected in your polished shoes, / do dragonflies glitter over deep river pools? / Did the gunshot consume forever / the hot bad scream of the sea?’

In ‘Colombine’, the book’s 26-page title sequence, Harrison takes one of the figures who first appeared in Folly & Grief and writes what amounts to a long, eponymous dramatic monologue (in 12-line poems of three quatrains each) which contrives somehow to be both mythical and, at least partly, autobiographical. Again repetition is used but this time more as connective tissue than as a rhetorical device. Earlier, in Folly & Grief, Harrison had a clown declare: ‘I have metaphor, and behind metaphor more costume’. In ‘Colombine’ we have plenty of both—and, admittedly, the risk of the decorative.

On the other hand, the sequence does contain a considerable number of highly memorable poems, one of the most striking of which is number XVIII, ‘...the rim copper-bound’. It begins with ‘I’ve not forgotten how the child slid from my body’ and ends with ‘...I swim like an imperfect fish in her greater shadow’. In between we are given a vivid and often metaphoric account of the character’s (and presumably the author’s) experience of breastfeeding in lines such as ‘I’ve not forgotten the shit and vomit, the difficult milk...’ or the more imagistic ‘her body, pale as a morning moon against mine / and, in her breath, the imagined scattered noises of the sea’. For some, the ‘Colombine’ sequence may be an ‘imperfect fish’ but there’s a large amount of deeply satisfying poetry to be had there. The same can be said for Harrison’s selected poems as a whole. It’s no surprise that she has already become an influential figure for a highly talented younger generation of Australian women poets, many of them also from Melbourne.

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Poet of Pairs
Martin Duwell
Australian Book Review, February 2011, No. 328

Colombine selects from Jennifer Harrison’s four previous collections and adds a book-length group of new poems. In keeping with current practice, the new poems precede the selections, so that anyone wanting to consider Harrison’s twenty-year poetic career in terms of development has to begin some seventy pages in with the poems from her first book, Michelangelo’s Prisoners (1995). You met a lot of her distinctive interests in that book, and it still stands up well. She looks at what we would call embodiment from a distinctly scientific perspective, invoking the position of Humberto Maturana to write poems in which the sea, a major and polyvalent symbol in her work, can stand for the medium in which our embodiment occurs: ‘If each observation is a system / each thought an adaptation, then we drift / upon a spacious sea.’

Cabramatta/Cudmirrah (1996), her second book, is a kind of double journey into memory, focusing on grandparents. The opening section is a tribute to the western suburbs of Sydney, written slightly in the tough talk of that area; the second section is about her childhood holidays on the south coast of New South Wales. However, the issue of memory is not quite as simple as it usually is in poems where childhood sites are revisited. Her grandmother, we learn (less equivocally in the book than in the selection made in Colombine) is an Alzheimer’s disease victim, and the later poems are partly imagined to be conversations between grandmother and granddaughter, trying to prevent the past disappearing. Memory, the grandmother is imagined to say, ‘digs less for an accurate world / than for the fetch of the wave / and the tide which calls my name / most faintly inwards’.

Though Harrison’s next book, Dear B (1999), has rather the quality of a time-marking third book (and is selected from sparingly in Colombine), her fourth book, Folly & Grief (2006), contains her best work so far and deserves to be celebrated as one of the books of the decade. The overriding symbol is of performance, and the poems show an intense interest in commedia dell’arte figures such as Colombine and Harlequin, in buskers, ventriloquists, and sideshows. Often the result of building a collection around a constellation of images like this is a certain attenuated quality, but Folly & Grief is marked by an extraordinary richness of invention and poetic performance.

The new poems are divided (like all of Harrison’s books, except for Dear B) into two sections. The first contains many poems of travel, which again are far more ambitious and accomplished than the fairly tame poetic genre in which they have their origins: ‘In landscapes I think myself improvisatory,’ she says, gnomically, in ‘Uluru’. And the second section is a kind of biography of Colombine or, at least, the biography of someone who might be one of her incarnations: ‘An actress, I study the faces of birds and believe in science.’ Good as these new poems are - ‘Swann’s Way’ is a brilliant poem about love and life in the past contrasted to the present - it is hard not to think of them as being a kind of afterglow of Folly & Grief.

Colombine shows that its author is a copious, varied, sophisticated, and complex poet. When you first read Harrison’s early work, you are likely to be taken by the continuous presence of the sea and, in her later work, by the continuous presence of performance. As will be seen from the brief descriptions of the books which I have given, I think she is better seen as a poet of journeys, memories, and masks.

She is also a poet of pairs, sometimes the pairing of face and mirror-image, or of face and mask. If one wanted to provide an example of a moment when her poetry is at its most distinctively personal, it might be a small passage in the first part of Cabramatta/Cudmirrah, in which she speaks of the outskirts of Sydney which have, over the years since her own childhood, grown up around the highway as ‘dicotyledon suburbs / flowering into tidiness’. It is not only that the metaphor betrays her background in the sciences (this passage is considerably simplified from its initial appearance in Cabramatta/Cudmirrah, and one of the ways of looking at Harrison’s development would be to note the gradual disappearance of the technical vocabulary that is common in Michelangelo’s Prisoners), but you feel that the mirror-image of the doubling of the suburbs is what provokes the poetic response here.

The interest in mirrors (as an example of pairing) produces two of the best poems in Folly & Grief. ‘Baldanders’ (the title, German for ‘soon something else’, derives from Borges) is a complex, three-part poem made up of encounters with a kind of mirror-man; ‘The Fauna of Mirrors’ uses the idea of an eighteenth-century French priest’s catalogue of the beings that inhabit mirrors as the basis for what is, essentially, a personal poem.

Poet of memory or poet of pairs, Harrison is a challenging and significant poet, the quality of whose work needs defining and celebrating. A handsome, mid-career, selection of poems like Colombine might just get that process started.

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