Keel & Drift by Adrienne Jansen (Landing Press, 2016), 82 pp., $22
Keel & Drift is Adrienne Jansen’s third book of poetry and is a substantial, broad-ranging and accomplished collection. Jansen is the founder of the Whitireia Creative Writing Programme, a programme that I was lucky enough to work on for several years. I recognise the locality in many of these poems – Titahi Bay, Porirua and Wellington with their drama of wind and rain and sea – and then there is the recognisable drama of families. The book is also deeply interested in migration, a contemporary conversation indeed, but one that Jansen has explored in her day job and her writing over decades.
In some of the poems the poet begins, but never quite completes, the trick of drawing us into the detailed speck or the vast universe at the edge of our usual world. She begins to turn the world small-side-out for us in the poem ‘Rock music’, in which the speaker, listening to a rock, hears tiny moments of growth, like when ‘a hair of moss anchors itself / with the smallest squelch’ into the chipped edge of a seed. This is magic stuff, and I’d happily follow this path further in. But the poem, indeed the poems generally, can’t help but notice human … humanness – our everyday size and efforts, and in the last stanza we are drawn out of the detailed world to see the speaker, in her full size, ear to the ground, and ‘your son staring from his bedroom window’. In ‘Crossing a line’ the flock of swans that crosses the path of her kayak are expected to fly off all together, leaving her to paddle on to wherever: ‘They’re a flock, / once these have gone, the others will go too’. But they don’t go as a flock, some stay and ‘are circling me steadily’.
In small, believable ways the poems do gain transcendence. ‘Local’ is a series of poems which follows a woman, a new mother, who is carrying a tray of eggs ‘on her fingertips, just like a waitress’. I can’t help thinking of Jansen’s hometown of Titahi Bay as I follow this young woman in her ‘long striped socks / and her tiny shorts’ as she strides ahead of her partner who pushes the baby in a pram. As they pass and pass again, the woman in the shop, an old guy with a zimmer frame, a kid texting, the singing man who ‘waves at everyone’, there is a moment when two sashaying women with ‘their church clothes on’ notice the young woman with her delicate burden and one of them digs in her bag and throws a lipstick onto the tray of eggs, and the girl ‘nips it off’ the tray and tucks it in her shorts. And there it is; human-sized magic. This neighbourhood walk has a fast music, drum music maybe, that picks you up and carries you through, and could be the theme tune to the book. Or one of them.
There is different sort of music in the book’s opening poem, ‘Surfing’. A young surfer is out on the water waiting for the big wave as night falls, and as he waits he sings ‘in his high voice, a strange / tune with no rhythm’:
He stays there after the light has gone,
singing in the dark,
and people who live by the beach
sometimes say they hear angels.
The poem presents possibilities for this singer – maybe it’s just a young surfer singing a strange song to stay brave in the dark, maybe it’s a god singing the world into existence, maybe it’s an angel. I also wonder if it’s a kind of lament. In the second poem of the book, ‘Horizon’, someone quietly dies in bed; further in, a young man commits suicide, someone has throat cancer and writes in sand with a pinecone and then a stone. The book keeps showing how close love is to loss and sadness to joy. The last poem of the collection takes us back onto the sea at night. ‘Night fishing’ opens with ‘the black hills sinking into the bay, / the sea breathing quietly’. We hear the line ‘zing’ as it unwinds into the sea. But in the second part something ‘darker than darkness’ is hooked and must be cut free. It feels mythical in the way that myths mix magic with deep human and geographical disruption. But in the opening and the closing poems of the book, there is someone on the sea at night and they are singing and they are saving each other. Between these poems are ordinary, sometimes invisible, lives – like the two Samoan women in ‘Museum’ who are polishing the museum’s floor:
we see our reflections in it.
They work hard to make us seem
twice what we really are.
Later in ‘Museum’ are these two lines:
The lifts open and close, empty or full.
They have a mind of their own.
These lines seem marvellous to me; I imagine a lift moving between the floors of the museum, between exhibits and artefacts, with a mind of its own, keeping its own counsel. I’m imagining this museum is Te Papa, where Jansen worked, but as with much of the book, many of the places written about are not named. This makes me feel that the poems are reaching beyond the bordering work of naming, to say something about our shared human lives, and our shared human endeavours. Jansen has written nonfiction books about immigrants from all parts of the world. She has told the stories of migrant taxi drivers, immigrant women and the Asian face of Islam in New Zealand. The poems contain a deep sense of what ‘home’ is, or could be, or should be.
There are some wonderful shape-shifting moments in the poems. For example in ‘Plain song’ when the remembered landscape of a bigger, wider land occupies the imagination of a man (a cello-playing farmer) and we see his mind with the big land in it, with the grain elevator that ‘angles up, then vanishes’. And, writing as I am from Edinburgh, I get a pang of homesickness for the muted beauty in these lines from ‘Transformation’:
Rain on the window
loosens the landscape.
Power poles warp,
wires sag and crinkle,
tail lights smudge
into thumbprints of red,
a road sign bulges,
roofs and trees leak
into a grey sky.
I am a college kid again, with my heavy backpack on, buying cream buns at Porirua’s Windmill Quality Cake Shop, swiping rain off the end of my nose, dreaming about the other worlds that were all around me.
LYNN DAVIDSON writes poetry, essays and fiction, most recently a novella The Desert Road, published by Rosa Mira Books, and Common Land, a collection of poetry and essays published by Victoria University Press. She has recently relocated to Edinburgh. A collection of poems set on Kāpiti Island will be published by the Scottish publisher House of Three, later this year.