Poetry Shelf review: Biter by Claudia Jardine

Biter Claudia Jardine, Auckland University Press, 2023

research the difference between Proteus
    and Proetus
because we are going to do this properly, alright?
of course readers will know the difference

things have not been the same inside my brain
since I watched you examine that bicycle tube earlier

 from ‘Raspberries’

Claudia Jardine brings her classical background (an MA in Classics with Distinction) to her poetry writing. She loosely translates some epigrams from the Palantine Anthology, a collection supposedly compiled by the Byzantine scholar, Constantinus Cephalas, in the tenth century. The work is said to have been written by various authors from C7 BCE to C7 CE. The inclusion of the epigrams with Claudia’s contemporary poems, forms a reading experience that is both unique and rewarding.

Perhaps every reading experience is unique, with its particular threads, epiphanies, diversions, soundtracks. In my experience, a poetry book offers diverse engagements and reactions depending on the context in which I read it. I often read a collection several times, especially individual poems, and the poetry refracts and reflects in glorious new and revealing lights. I am musing on the way what I have just read, written or spoken about, might be affected by what I have been dreaming of, what the weather is like, what music I am listening to, what I have previously read of the poet, books I have read that are similar, the espresso I have just drunk and the pastry I have just consumed. Maybe all these things feed into the mysterious and nourishing reading process.

I first read Biter when Tāmaki Makaurau was in a local state of emergency, our nearby roads were flooding, and there was the prospect of loss of power. I was curious how the weather outside, my cosy reading nook, the flicker thoughts of anxiety would affect the deliciously layered collection. So many reading channels to negotiate. Herein lies my reaction: the gap between the present tense poems (personal) and the past tense poems (epigrams of antiquity) is energising. Claudia admits she has taken “creative liberties” in her translations, as though a little of the present rubs into the past. I am wondering as I read if the impetus of an epigram to be succinct and witty, with perhaps a tiny twist in its tail, is a key element in the contemporary poems.

your delightful image appears in my whirlpools and rivers
my open sea
my glass of wine

from ‘Mad Dog” Palatine Anthology V.266

Claudia’s epigrams are sprinkled throughout the collection like sherbet, they fizz in your mind, little fascinations, so sweetly formed, and then, invitingly, hook you into the enduring power and reach of love, sexuality, hunger, recognition. Even the impulse to write, to translate internal meanderings into poetry, feels like a constant we have been doing for eons.

when we do meet
I lose my mind for a minute
briefly consider painting my name on a little boat
and staging my own death
float downriver just to hear you call me

from ‘Field Notes on Elegy’

Claudia writes with a musical ear, an ear attuned to the vibration and pitch of vowels and consonants, the sublime aural effect that may be invisible stitching or high viz.

If there is wit in the epigrams, there is acute wit in Claudia’s contemporary poems. There is such wit I am laughing out loud, relishing the humorous twists and turns. Her father, for example, is a professor who has no idea how to open a block of cheese.

At home, only he can claim the title of Professor,
but the way he opens a block of cheese
is akin to unwrapping a bar of chocolate
by putting it in the food processor.

from ‘Thoughts Thought After Surveying the Contents of the Fridge’

Expect family pets, rural settings, coffee, a tampon star sign, having sex, sister talk, back seat fumbling, a karaoke machine, kissing. Expect human experience veering and igniting all directions. Savour Biter‘s economy and richness, the love and longing, the then and now, and toast a collection that demonstrates the irreplaceable blaze of poetry.

discipule, quickener
in the focus of this somewhere I will miss
the staggering days of not knowing what to do with my face
when you are holding it

from ‘Adoration of the Magi, Ōtākaro’

Claudia reads three poems from Biter

Claudia Jardine has an MA in classics with distinction from Victoria University of Wellington, where she won the 2020 Alex Scobie Research Prize and a Marsden Grant for Masters scholarship. Her first chapbook, ‘The Temple of Your Girl’, was published in AUP New Poets 7. Her ancestors are from the British Isles and the Maltese Archipelago, and she lives in Ōtautahi.

Auckland University Press page

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