Poetry Shelf review: Janet Newman’s Unseasoned Campaigner

Unseasoned Campaigner, Janet Newman, Otago University Press, 2021

Poet Janet Newman lives at Koputaroa in Horowhenua, where she farms beef. Her debut collection, Unseasoned Campaigner, is nourished beyond description of scenic beauty to a deep love and engagement with the land and farming. Women writing the land is not without precedent. Ruth Dallas comes to mind initially. She spent time as a Herd Recording Officer during WWII and found cities restrictive and dull afterwards. When she was living in Dunedin in later years, writing enabled returns to her beloved rural settings. Janet dedicates several poems to her. The second poet that springs to mind is Marty Smith, whose rural background has featured in her poetry, and who is also unafraid of over and underlaying an idyllic landscape with the grit and reality of farming life.

Janet’s first section, ‘How now?’, places the reader one hundred percent in rural experience: managing livestock, a diarrhea-soaked calf that doesn’t make it, drenching, the slaughter house in graphic detail, blood and sweat. There are water restrictions, water anxiety, drought. A dead river. More dead stock. Horses led to shade and grass. Scenic routes and beauty spots are off the menu.

I applaud this revised view but it is the people who hold my attention to a significant degree. While farmers are currently under scrutiny for diverse reasons, particularly climate change, some are speaking out about how tough it is. Listening to RNZ National’s excellent Country Life, it is clear there is no hold-all definition for the contemporary farmer and their diverse practices. In the book’s middle and final sections, Janet also opens up what “farmer” means, and that adds significant and poignant layers to the first poems.

In the second section, ‘Tender’, Janet draws us to close to a father, and I am assuming her father. He was a complicated, multifaceted human being: a farmer, father, husband, war veteran. He was a man of few words and myriad actions, toil and more toil. He cursed war on television and kept a belt by the door. He is memory, because he has passed, and he fills the speaker with mourning. The poems are vividly detailed with the physicality of daily life, and it is through his presence farming is made prismatic, beyond stereotype. When I pivot on the word “tender”, I see the poems as an offering to both mother and father, to us as readers. I see too the tenderness in the care of animals, and tender as the sore spot that is parental absence, maternal and paternal memory.

His language is electric rhythm of pump and wire,
gush of couplets from the artesian bore,

a flighty heifer enjambed
with a low rail,

stanza of cloud over the back paddock
threatening rain,

the fuck, fuck, fuck
of a dead bull in the drain.

from ‘Man of few words’

The mother is an equally haunting presence with her preserves, her baking and her plums. She too is drawn close through a focus on the physical detail of everyday actions. She is mourned and, in dying first, is an unbearable hole in the father’s life. The parental poems scratch the surface of my skin. Preserving, for example, brings back my own pungent memories. And preserving is also the tool of the poet, poems are stored in sweet and salty brine, held out to be savoured by both poet and reader.

Preserving

Red plums give up
round plump bodies
when I cut out their stones.
I hear my mother’s long-ago voice:
‘Don’t overdo it.’ The boiling
and much else. In the photograph
she is smiling behind glass, my memory
of her steeped in absence. Now,
even that faithless call sounds sweet
as in preserving jars sour plums
surrender to sugar syrup.

The third section, “Ruahine”, moves and adjusts to loss. It also finds footing on scenic routes. In the final poems, the poet is out driving and absorbing the birds and trees, mesmerising hills, the land bereft of vegetation. The landscapes have widened further to carry farm practices, daily challenges, connections to the land and to making a living. But of course it is not as though the farmer is blind to beauty. The final cluster of poems become song, act as sweet refrain, where upon in each return to a view, the view shifts in nuance. Just like poetry. Just like the way life is nuanced and resists deadening dichotomies. ‘Beach’ catches the elusiveness of what we sometimes see and feel so exquisitely:

Some days the clouds disappear
on the drive to the coast

the way the things you wanted to say
evaporate when you get there.

Sentences float to the pencil-line horizon
between sky that is nothing but blue

and sea that is as blue as …
but words fail you,

smudge like fishing boats
in the distance without your binoculars

from ‘Beach’

Janet writes with poise, each line fluent in rhythm and accent, and in doing so achieves a collection that matches heart with sharp and bold eye. Her collection belongs alongside the very best of Marty Smith and Ruth Dallas, a fine addition to how we write the land, whoever and wherever we are.

Janet Newman was born in Levin. She won the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Competition, the 2017 Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems and was a runner-up in the 2019 Kathleen Grattan Awards. Her essays about the sonnets of Michele Leggott and the ecopoetry of Dinah Hawken won the Journal of New Zealand Literature Prize for New Zealand Literary Studies in 2014 and 2016. She has worked as a journalist in New Zealand and Australia, and a bicycle courier in London. She has three adult children and lives with her partner at Koputaroa in Horowhenua, where she farms beef cattle.

Otago University Press page

Review: Siobhan Harvey for The NZ Herald

Interview: Standing Room Only, RNZ

Feature: Koputaroa farmer and poet Janet Newman writes thesis on ecopoetry

Interview: Janet Newman discusses ecopoetry, RNZ

Interview: The Big Idea

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