Craven, Jane Arthur, Victoria University Press, 2019
I have a broth at a simmer on the stove.
Salty water like I’ve scooped up some ocean
and am cooking it in my home. Here,
gulp it back like a whale sieving plankton.
Anything can be a weapon if you
swallow hard enough:
nail scissors, a butter knife, dental floss,
a kindergarten guillotine, hot soup,
from ‘Circles of Lassitude’
Jane Arthur’s debut collection Craven inhabits moments until they shine – brilliantly, surprisingly, refractingly, bitingly. Present-tense poetry is somewhat addictive. With her free floating pronouns (I, you, we) poetry becomes a way of being, of inhabiting the moment, as you either reader or poet, from shifting points of view.
It is not surprising it has been longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
The collection title references lack of courage, but it is as though Jane’s debut collection steps across a line into poetic forms of grit. This is a book of unabashed feeling; of showing the underseam, the awkward stitching, the rips and tears. Of daring to expose. The poems are always travelling and I delight in every surprising step. You move from taxidermy to piano lessons to heart checks and heart beats, but there is always a core of exposed self. And that moves me. You shift from a thing such as a plastic rose to Brad Pitt to parental quarrels. One poem speaks from the point of view of a ship’s figurehead, another from that of Constance. There is anxiety – there are dilemmas and epiphanies. The poetic movement is honeyed, fluid, divinely crafted – no matter where the subject travels, no matter the anxious veins, the tough knots.
An early poem, ‘Idiots’, is like an ode to life, to ways of being. I keep crossing between the title and the poem, the spare arrival of words punctuated by ample white space, elongated silent beats that fill with the links between brokenness, strength and pressing on.
I’ve known people who decided
to carry their brokenness like strength
I’m a tree
I mean I’m tall, I sway
I don’t say, treat me gently
No¾I say, cool cool cool cool
I say, that really sucks but I guess I’ll survive it
or, that wind’s really strong
but so are my roots, so are my thighs
my branches my lungs my leaves my capacity to wait things out
I can get up in the morning
I do things
I heard Jane read for the first time at the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize session at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2018. Her reading blew my socks off, just as her poems had delighted American judge, Eileen Myles, and it was with great pleasure I announced her as the winner. Eileen described Jane’s poetry: ‘poetry’s a connection to everything which I felt in all these [shortlisted] poets but in this final winning one the most. There’s an unperturbed confident “real” here.’ In her report, Eileen wrote:
The poet shocked me. I was thrust into their work right away and it evoked the very situation of the poem and the cold suddenness of the clinical encounter, the matter of fact weirdness of being female though so many in the world are us. And still we are a ‘peculiarity’ here and this poet manages to instantly say that in poetry. They more than caught me. I like exactly how they do this – shifting from body to macro, celestial, clinical, and maybe even speaking a little out of an official history. She seems to me a poet of scale and embodiment. Her moves are clean and well-choreographed & delivers each poem’s end & abruptly and deeply I think. There’s a from the hip authority that inhabits each and all of these poems.
I am revisiting these words in view of Craven’s multiple poetry thrills. So often we talk about the way a poem steps off from the ordinary and blasts your heart and senses, if not your mind, with such a gust of freshness everything becomes out of the ordinary. This is what happens with Craven. A sense of verve and outspokenness is both intoxicating and necessary:
I’m entertaining the idea of never being silent again,
of walking into a room and shouting, You Fuckers Better Toe the Line
like a prophylactic.
from ‘Sit Down’
A sense of brittleness, vulnerability and self-testing is equally present:
I’ve been preoccupied with what others think again.
I’ve been trying not to let people down.
Nights are not long enough.
Lately there’s been more sun than I would’ve expected.
I keep the weather report open in its own tab and check it often.
The movement between edge and smooth sailing, between light and dark, puzzle and resolution, and all shades within any dichotomy you might spot – enhances the reading experience. This is a book to treasure – its complexities and its economies, its confession and its reserve. It never fails to surprise. I am so excited she will be reading at my Poetry Shelf Live session at Wellington’s Writers Festival in March (see below). Triple yeah!
Jane Arthur was the recipient of the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize (2018). She has worked in the book industry as a bookseller and a book editor for over fifteen years. She has a master of Arts in Creative Writing from IIML at Victoria University of wellington. She was co-founder of the The Sapling, an online site for children’s literature. She lives in Wellington.
Jane will be appearing in my Poetry Shelf Live session at NZ Festival of the Arts,
Michael Fowler Centre, Sunday 8 March 2020 12:30pm – 1:30pm
Victoria University Press page
Poetry Shelf Monday poem: ‘Situation’ by Jane Arthur
Poetry Shelf audio spot: Jane Arthur reads ‘Snowglobe’
Poetry Shelf: Conversation with Sarah Broom Prize finalist, Jane Arthur