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Review: Jennifer Harrison's 'Folly and Grief'

Black Pepper, 2006

ISBN 1 876044 45 4 133 pp.


Folly and Grief is a dense and generous collection of poems from Jennifer Harrison, her fourth. Within the range of her recurring obsessions Harrison offers quirky observations in finely honed language that is lyrical and imagistic, and in a form that is structurally confident and varied. The blurb describes her work as ‘ravishing’, and this descriptor is apt. A ravishing, stylish poet.

The book is divided into two sections - folly and grief. - each with a long title poem to conclude. It must be said that her favoured subject is perhaps an unusual one for poetry. Harrison’s concerns are dominated by an interest in theatre and performance, ostensibly the characters from Commedia dell’Arte. Why not? Poetry will question everything. She asks of Pierrot: ‘Can’t you find something new to write about?’ The poems are not ‘theatrical’ as such. They are not dramatisations of stock characters, but take their essential traits, and apply them in highly poeticized and lyrical ways to the business of contemporary living. They deal with the real world by exploring the manifestations of archetypes in a variety of performance styles. In Clown she concludes:

I have metaphor, and behind metaphor more costume.

All these performers, in their various guises, serve as more personal metaphors:

A juggler first conquers clumsiness
then writes the same poem, over and over.

The analogy is precise. Harrison’s notion of performance is not restricted to Commedia dell’Arte. Her stage is broad. But like Dorothy Hewett she keeps returning to the same subject. It includes a multifarious array of poems dealing with a range of activities which, at least on a superficial level, might be regarded as some sort of performance. There are poems exploring the circus, juggling, carnival, side show alley, busking, acrobatics, clowning, ballet, film and so forth. It is a rich source of imagery. Even skateboarding fits into this street theatre aesthetic. A ventriloquist’s dummy, as do all the others, clearly has deeper symbolic implications.

While not every poem alludes to theatre or performance, it is clearly a recurring conceit for which Harrison has a predilection. About the only activity that is not addressed directly is performance poetry. Harrison is too lyrical for that. In this sense the poems approach a Brechtian sense of life-as-performance; a witness-at-the-car-accident type of theatre. There are domestic scenes which collude with the reader to strip away the fourth wall and eavesdrop. We even observe childbirth as a kind of beautifully moving performance. Some poems take the form of a poetic monologue, but usually they treat the theatre-as-subject with more impersonal lyricism. The point of view is not solely descriptive, but seems to take on an oblique stance which allows ‘feminism’s busking licence.’

Her preoccupation with ‘theatre’ as a topic is intriguing. It is difficult, for example, to get the juggler’s sense of perpetual movement down on paper, yet Harrison approaches this with some typically arresting imagery:

We’re afraid he’ll slip and fall on the wet road //
but he juggles his macabre salad well.

There are, of course, other pieces concerned with such subjects as painting, disease, storms, fishing, travel, friendship; a broad ranging canvas in fact.

Being a psychiatrist by trade Harrison occasionally slips in a quiet psychological reference, which presents a nice synthesis of her various disciplines - theatre, psychiatry and poetry.

Do you understand how I’m forced to defend myself
in dreams of rabbits and ferris-wheel rats?

While some of the poems deal with the rather ‘tawdry’ world of street theatre, Harrison’s language is highly refined, eloquent, even tending to the mellifluous, when sometimes what we want is the grunge. Mostly however there is a balance in her imagism between the earthy and the porcelain:

The lips of a ferry
licking thin cream from the river

Sometimes this grandiloquence can be irksome. One can only take so much of ‘fecund glades’; sunsets that ‘glowered like a necrosis’; or phrases like: ‘scholium illuminates / porcelain’s tissane history.’ (Huh?) Sometimes the analogy drawn between circus tricks and writing is stretched a bit: ‘near the sea wall / the unicyclist in my pen // travels so far’

On balance though this is a small quibble. More frequently there are striking images such as:

a string of light rising
through the lake’s handbag of fish

Part two of the book still retains the performance conceit in a substantial number of the poems. The circus tropes predominate, but in a more elegiac tone. Folly and grief: it is a balance of symbiotic opposites. Here grief takes the stage in a variety of domestic and tragic scenes and, as such, seems to reflect a more dolorous view of the world with images that pull you up short like: ‘the sky’s blue mastectomy.’

However there is nothing morbid or depressing about this, even if the language is more conceptual and sombre, the energy somehow static. The poems are still dense with ideas. The imagery has a surreal edge:

Broken stones forget their dry kiss and giant moths
touch the moon with flaming wings.

While the landscape is largely one of grief and loss, the mood is not one of mourning; the language is paradoxically exultant. The reader does not grieve.

I might have lost my way, forever,
in mourning’s indifferent mime.

The reader is distanced by this more philosophically abstract quality of the language. One has to work for the rewards. Although as soon as you think this you come across, for example, the moving poem of the loss of her father, (Galleria), and think you’ve been reading these all wrong.

Harrison’s control of form is measured and precise. Structurally the book hangs together with a sense of well-balanced wholeness. (The cover, showing ancient ceramic acrobats, is perfectly representative). Each poem displays Harrison’s attention to craft, and there is a diverse range of poetic structures.

There is danger in a book this long of the reader tiring of the style. However Harrison is astute enough, and too much in control of her craft for that. There is enough variety to keep the reader consistently engaged. If anything, I preferred the first section of the book, a little folly over grief, but this is splitting hairs, both are marvelous.

Chekhov once said that ‘every time I come out of the theatre more conservative than I go in.’ Harrison is more optimistic. She says:

I pass through ghosts
each time I leave the theatre
each time I feel the kindness of the sun.

This is a dense yet celebratory book; sprawling, yet tightly controlled; a cross-pollination of subject and genre that is eccentric and appealing, with a powerful use of language, and enough confidence to carry the idea. Sometimes it leaves you slightly gobsmacked.