Jennifer Compton, Mr Clean & The Junkie Mākaro Press, 2015
Jennifer Compton’s new poetry collection, Mr Clean & The Junkie, is a fabulous read – the kind of book you devour in one gulp. It is a long narrative poem in four parts with a coda. Each section is written in couplets – shortish lines that deliver the perfect rhythm for the occasion. This is a 1970s love story set in Sydney (and briefly NZ), yet it is a love story with a difference. It reminded me a bit of Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author, in that the stitching is on show — how you tell/show the story, along with the choices you make, is as much a part of the narrative as plot, characters and so. The difference here, though, it is like a poem in search of a character in search of a film director in search of character in search of a poem. Self-reflexive behaviour on the part of authors has been done to death in recent decades, so it has the potential to appear lack lustre. Not in this case. I loved the way the poetry is a series of smudges. A bit like the way life imitates cinema as much as cinema imitates life.
I spent ages on the first page. It got thoughts rolling. I loved the voice. I loved the intrusion of the director (we figure that out as we read) and I loved the way I kept putting the poem in the role of the camera (long shots to gain wider perspective or distance, tracking shots, surprising angles, refreshing views) or the editing suites with jump cuts and smooth transitions. Or sitting back and admiring the composition within the frame. Or tropes. The slow reveal.
The two main characters (My Clean and The Junkie) are definitely in search of flesh and blood, yet you can also see this as genre writing – a narrative poem that is part thriller, part whodunit, part crime writing. Then again it is part feminist critique and part postmodern explosion.
Here is a sample from the first page:
Our hero is discovered sleeping.
We find him as the camera finds him.
Our hero is dreaming of the white mouse
cleaning his whiskers in extreme close-up.
As he dreams we snoop about his habitat.
Everything is there for a reason and we will
see it from another angle before we reach The End.
I imagine ambient sound during the credit sequence.
The mouse begins to run the wheel because
the wheel is there under his paws.
The slow zoom out reveals the wheel is in a cage,
And fade to the floor-to-ceiling, slatted blinds,
looming over our man asleep on his futon.
What do they look like? Bars.
The writing is tight. The plot pulls you along at break-neck pace and then stops you in your tracks as the director’s voice pulls you out of plot and character with wry stumbling blocks. Little flurries of sidetracks. Or how to proceed? The central idea’s beguiling (poem version of a film version of a love story), the dry humour infectious (after a curtain is pulled back to reveal a spectacular view of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and Opera House: ‘If you’ve got it/ flaunt it.’). But there is poetry at work here. It is there in the cadence of each line, the end word and the rhythm. It is there in the use of tropes that arch across the length of the book in little delicious echoes. The caged mouse on the wheel stands in for the symbolic cage of the hero (his father’s expectations and life choices). Most of all, however, the poetry sparks and flicks in the white space; the bits that are left on the editor’s floor or the angles that the director chooses not to show. Things are hinted at. Significant events that give flesh to character are caught within a line or two. That white space, that economy, is what gives this long poem its magnetic pull.
The collection is released as part of Mākaro Press’s 2015 Hoopla series. The beautifully designed books share design features and size, and include a new poet, mid-career poet and late-career poet. The other poets this year are: Carolyn McCurdie (Bones in the Octagon) and Bryan Walpert (Native bird). Jennifer is an award-winning poet and playwright who has lived in Australia since the 1970s. She has won both The Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry (This City, Otago University Press, 2011) and The Katherine Mansfield Award.
Reading Mr Clean and The Junkie is entertaining, diverting, challenging, laughter inducing. How wonderful that a poetry collection can do all of this. I loved it!