Messages from the Antipodes

Ted Jenner

Ted Jenner, 'Writers in Residence and other captive fauna.'
Ted Jenner, 'Writers in Residence and other captive fauna.' Auckland: Titus Books, 2009.

In New Zealand the poetic generation of 1946 surveyed the boundary fences, then jumped over them. From the late 1960s this generation has set both the poetic and the critical parameters for general and specialist discussion. Career-long attention has been given to Ian Wedde, Bill Manhire, and Sam Hunt, who were all born in a year of notable publications such as The quest: words for a mime play (Charles Brasch), Jack Without Magic (Allen Curnow), The Rakehelly Man & Other Verses  (A.R.D. Fairburn), Summer Flowers (Denis Glover), and Seven Sonnets (Kendrick Smithyman). Edward (‘Ted’) Jenner also belongs to this mid-century lift in New Zealand literature, and while he is not mentioned in despatches as often or as fondly as his peers, he deserves to be.  

A poet whose focus is often ancient Greek texts, Jenner’s approach has been described by Jack Ross as ‘postmodern classicism.’[1] And this hits the memorial brass on the head. In part it explains, although it cannot justify, his neglect. For much of his life he lived and taught in Malawi, rather than impressing the gatekeepers of literary New Zealand; critical appraisal of his work is thus lacking. That said, there has been a late harvest of his oeuvre — and this feature is one small part of it. The two poems published here underscore his unconventionality as a New Zealand poet; they show how cleanly Jenner can suture familial knowledges with the global, so that Henry Vaughan, the Simpsons, and a parent’s death are effortlessly connected.   

Selected Bibliography
A Memorial Brass. n.p.: Hawk Press, 1980.
The Love Songs of Ibykos: 22 Fragments. Auckland: The Holloway Press, 1997.
Writers in Residence and Other Captive Fauna. Auckland: Titus Books,  2009. ISBN 978-1-877441-09-7
The Gold Leaves, an account of the so-called ‘Orphic’ gold tablets, with translations from the Ancient Greek. n.p.: Atuanui Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-9922453-7-5.
Percutio no. 10 (2016). Special issue devoted to two projects by Classicist and poet Edward Jenner. ISBN 978-1-877441-53-0.
The Arrow That Missed. n.p.: Cold Hub Press, 2017.

The Sprinkler

‘Then a hagiography of sprinklers / Blind survivors watching from inside’

–Lisa Samuels

Tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika
Listen to you chirruping on the lawn behind our moonlit curtain like a mating hydropter (the four walls of our bedroom traversed by the shadows of your flailing arms
Tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik
click your plosives, restoring us to the sweet musty odour of grass and earth after weeks of drought (we lie wrapped in a single sweaty sheet sleepless
tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika jak jak jak jak jak jak jak jak jak jak jak
jak jak jak gush your strident syllables from the twin nozzles converting all obstacles in your path into thin rain shadows of themselves, scattering phonemes over the grass, you lulling prattler, not a single lullaby in your repertoire but the thin dry metallic rasping of a colony of crickets at full moon, shooting your mouth off with a cluster of Bantu consonants, compiling your own dictionary of an imaginary language without vowels in a mouthful of dental and glottal stops spittle and spume
tika tika tika tika tika tika tika jak jak jak jak jak jak jak jak jak jak jak jak tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik you soften the roof of my mouth with the vocables you release in each sudden sharp shower that tumbles into the neighbour’s thickets of bamboo or cascades in random spicules bouncing off the hard baked soil, collapsing in dazzling shards or snapped strings of beads caught for a second in a chink of light from the bedroom window as the burning bush broadcasts its seeds, flushing and sluicing its dialects of Sotho with the percussion of a kiss. I soften my mouth and cracked lips with the percussion of a kiss. Banished from the bedroom
I swing on the verandah in a hammock and hear in my exile a voice from the midst of the burning bush in the heat of the night and even your seed will join the dust of the earth whisper the sibilants, the flailing arms gyrating in a wavering ellipse, the bunyips dripping from the acacia as they emerge from their cocoons, immaculate pearly globules pulse down the branches of the wattle, the green hose glistens in the moonlight like the rainbow serpent and writhes in the mire as the mimi ascend from their ninefold underground river, breaking out of their clefts and crevices with pale mouthless faces
jak jak jak jak jak jak jak jak jak jaka jaka jak jak jak jak jak jaka jaka jak jak jak jak jaka jaka jak jak exiled and swinging in my hammock under the heavens, I watch the eyes of the star people gleam like beads of water dripping from the leaves of the Banksia, the fuchsia buds clasp miniature scrolls of pink papyrus in their clenched fists, the half-moon flashes and sparkles along the coiled scales of the Bunyip Boori, the spittlebugs shrink into the soil, heads lowered to their cold white knees like the souls of the unborn — until the keeper of the waters, the blue-tongued lizard, licks them off his brindled moustache and lifts the stone plugging the artesian streams; the swell surges and gurgles, bursting out it floods the plain as our snake ancestor snuffles off his spume and rises into the heavens to form a rainbow in a shaft of moonlight.
So that in all this milky infusion of light and overhead the galactic spray of southern stars merging with the drizzle and foam from the hydropter’s whirling arms churning out imitations of itself in the pools and puddles welling up on our front lawn, from the pole of an axis a point moved, tracing widening gyres until it assumed the circumference of a sphere, and from that sphere issued a voice rasping as if from a throat clogged with rust: awake and stir all you creatures that dwell in the dust, chirp and chitter through the night absorbed in your primordial world, your voice rising in concert with our so-called poet’s, tossing restlessly there in the womb of his hammock, grappling with his phonemes and morphemes as he attempts to create Alcheringa in his own backyard at this end of the wide world without end
Listen. His tongue moistened by plosives swells towards speech searching for his sibilants and aspirants yet he’s still cheerfully churning out simulations and representations of himself even as the critics are preparing their programmed responses, swirling in circles around their customary epithets (‘that cyclical, archetypal, hermetic, bric-à-brac world of his’) according to their established codes, even as he drifts into sleep (finally) and misses the poems he turned away from his door empty-handed, slinking down to the bottom of the garden, heads resting on their soiled knees, misses even the authentic mimi dancing silently in the moonlight among the nasturtiums, grins spread from ear to ear on pinched faces the colour of paper, on cue as surreptitiously as the thin stream of menstrual fluid inching down his wife’s thigh.                   

–Ashwood, Melbourne, 2014

The Sprinkler: A Commentary

A few years ago, I became fascinated in the sound of swishing and meshing waters made by sprinklers! I made a few notes on the ‘soundscapes’ of these devices, intending eventually to write a poem about at least one of them in the manner of Francis Ponge (1899–1988), the French poet  who wrote intricate descriptions of very common objects in (usually) short prose poems. Because they grapple with the problems of expressing the nature of, for example, a snail or a telephone in a medium quite alien to them, i.e. human language, these texts say as much about their author as they do about swallows and washing machines. In a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, in April 2014, a sprinkler running nightly on the lawn of a friend’s house confronted me with an ultimatum: the time has come; explore and express me! — but not in the Ponge way, the object in all its dense and unfathomable ‘thingness’; run away with my ‘music’ and take it from there!

Apart from ancient Greek poetry, another passion of mine is modern French poetry, above all the prose poems it features so prominently. I am particularly interested in the way this sort of poem gives its practitioners (Fargue, Deguy, Char, Ponge) a flexible and adaptable approach to poetry in both content and technique. Consequently, I saw far greater possibilities of giving free rein to the ideas I wanted to express in prose than in the use of a syllabic verse or stanzas. The prose poem is at last gaining some currency in the Anglo-Saxon world, even in New Zealand where it has been regarded with a degree of suspicion. And yet so much verse I read these days in this country sounds to me like prose chopped up into its phrases and units of meaning for the sake of emphasis or convention, my own included. ‘Meadowbank, One Evening,’ for example, I regard as a mixture of prose poetry (the first seven sections) and verse (the last two). Sections nine and ten, on the other hand, consist of unmetrical lines (without a beat- or syllabic-count) cut up into short units for the sake of variation and convenience.

The twisting and twining waters of … the ‘hitherandthithering’ muzak of … a sprinkler? This was another attempt at a poem reproducing sounds just as in ‘A Concise Natural History of Southern Malawi’ (Writers in Residence and other captive fauna, 2009), I tried to embody as many bird and insect calls as I could in the texture of the poem. The metallic rasping of the chorus lines (‘tiktiktiktiktik,etc.) represent the sprinkler as a kind of mating insect, a ‘hydropter’ (‘water-wing’) as I call it (a shameless neologism!) with a strident chirruping. Alliteration, especially of s and b, abounds, but the ‘hydropter’ does more than scatter phonemic particles that mimic the characteristic clicks and smacking lips of the Bantu languages; it releases a cascade of images that recreate the exile of the Jews and their search for the Promised Land along with Aboriginal myths of the freeing of the waters. The hose becomes the Rainbow Serpent, the fertility spirit associated with the regenerating rains, while the whirled and whirling waters and the multiple droplets and beads of ‘rain’ recreate the bunyip and the mimi, respectively the monsters and the ‘good fairies’ of Aboriginal myth and lore. The phrase ‘at this end of the wide world without end’ is taken from Michel Butor’s Letters from the Antipodes (1981), which is the translation of a section of a much longer work of his called Boomerang (1978), based on the author’s three visits to Australia. The Alcheringa that the poet is attempting to create in his backyard is the ‘Dreamtime,’ the age of the first ancestors of mankind, the half-human Beings who, in their journeys, made rivers, trees, waterholes, and plains.

Eventually a voice from the sprinkler, as it churns out ‘imitations of itself,’ has the temerity to accuse our poet of doing something very similar, i.e. churning out ‘simulations and representations of himself.’ I’m borrowing a line from Jean Baudrillard here and suggesting that poetic effusions and the critics’ responses, are, like those of the media, all preprogramed, whirling in constant, ever-widening circles around their chosen themes and subjects, each according to its established code or model. Drifting off to sleep on his hammock, the poet misses the poems he denied himself that night. But has he missed the poem? Hasn’t this simulation of his, this simulacrum, which even incorporates the critical response of the voice in the sprinkler, replaced the poems he missed by falling asleep? Isn’t the simulacrum of a poem just as real in this postmodern world of ours in which the simulacrum has become the real?

I wrote this poem in the summer of 2015, and it was first published in Victoria, Australia, in the Transtasman issue of the online Cordite Poetry Review in August the same year. 

 Ted Jenner, The Love Songs of Ibykos, Auckland: Holloway Press, 1997

Ted Jenner, The Love Songs of Ibykos, Auckland: Holloway Press, 1997

Meadowbank, One Evening
i.m. Margaret Jenner 1921–1997

They are all gone into the world of light.
–Henry Vaughan 

The nor’easter purses its lips at the windowsill of the Games Room, a stubborn
    trumpeter with the massive dimples and swollen cheeks of the ward sister who
    whistles down the corridor, beckoning for the bodies of her saints.

.  .  .

Birdsong and sunlight in the West Ward at evening.
A bouquet at Reception awaiting collection.
Grandfather clock chimes the quarter hours in the entrance hall.
The late sun in the North Wing is suffused with the colours of its curtains: orange
     and gold, saffron and orange, a ruffled tawny gold.

.  .  .

High ceilings with the faint redolence of ginger and pepper throughout; a voice at
       the end of a corridor begging medicine and forgiveness.

In the East Ward, the wallpaper is fleecy cirrus on a dark blue background. (The
      angels have absconded with the trumpeter.)

.  .  .

There is a single chequered ball lying on the linoleum in Physio; a row of walking
      sticks marching in step to the door.
On the ceiling, fluorescent lighting hums ‘like the angels,’ said Flanders to Homer.
     ‘And if you’re feeling lonely, it’ll keep you company day after day.’

.  .  .

Outside the entrance to Ward 3, the tropical fish describe slow, elegant parabolas,
     their compressed sides covered with minute silver scales.
‘Nurse! Nurse!,’ cries a voice in the distant East Wing. ‘Help me! Help me! Help
     Emily, please.’
A swordtail drifts closer to the glass, dips its tail and releases a stream of miniature

.  .  .

The calm and resignation of the evening prevails in the Community Hall, the
     furniture subdued, somnambulant.
Both sexes assume a metallic sheen, clothed in the sun’s last rays, this film of
     burnished copper.

.  .  .

Calm too on Sarah’s sterner face, like that of a matriarch on a marble sarcophagus,
     right arm outstretched, extending a shallow dish to the invisible officiant,
Her teacup proffered to the duty sister passing down the West Ward, quickly casting
     a glance at each of the eleven souls in her charge.
‘Which one will catch the Seventy-Seven before morning? (Who’s off upstairs
    without legs or leave, then?)’

.  .  .

Your Panadol, mother.
‘Mum, your Panadol.’

.  .  .

memories and morphine
standing in the doorway
of the draper’s shop
sheltering from the rain
with Pilot-Officer Banks
your first beau’s fingers
suddenly tightening
on your shoulder blades


the flying boots of dead airmen
you stacked neatly in the Nissen hut
jackets and goggles
hanging in rows, eerie
as the drone of a Ventura
feathering its propellers
at the other end of the ward

.  .  .

Ceilings in rooms where
insects of light catch
in a coil of midges

Ceilings in rooms where
you waited all night
to toss that net of midges
                           into day.

.  .  .

sit    walk with us
vanish alone

to the horizon
you are not

lonely    distant
as its light

Meadowbank, One Evening: A Commentary

My mother died of a ‘cerebro-vascular accident,’ in the words of her doctor, early in the morning of November 4, 1997. I finished this poem sequence in March 2015, and it was published in the literary journal brief towards the end of last year. Why was it published so long after the event?

The period of illness that led to my mother’s death was so protracted and painful that I hesitated to share the details and the circumstances with the public. The sequence (especially the first seven sections) was assembled from the remarks and observations I recorded in a notebook starting in July 1997 (about the time my mother found her closest relatives unrecognisable) and continuing until her death in November. She died in Meadowbank Hospital, an institution for the terminally ill in the suburb of the same name in the city of Auckland. Sections of the poem were first written in Malawi, Africa, when I was lecturing at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. The poem was abandoned soon after — I was dissatisfied with what I had written, and the subject matter once again seemed intractable. In fact, I didn’t approach the subject again until I had published two books that I had also embarked on in Malawi — a book of poems and short fiction and another on some funerary inscriptions in Ancient Greek. By this time, the first version of this poem consisted of a few fox-marked and dog-eared sheets of paper.

Several months of observations have been telescoped into a single evening. In the corridors of the hospital, there was always a draft (which I described back in July 1997 as ‘a strident hum never amounting to a wail’) and an almost preternatural light in the North Wing. The light suffusing the curtains and the curtains in turn suffusing the wards and corridors with their own warm colours form the central image of the sequence, the metaphysical aspect of which is at once suggested by the epigraph from Henry Vaughan (1621–1695). But Vaughan wrote about the dead vanishing into ‘the world of light,’ i.e. something approximating to the Christian conception of Heaven:

                                 I see them walking in an Air of glory
                                       Whose light doth trample on my days …

The patients in this poem of mine, a poem written by an agnostic, go into ‘a world of light,’ Heaven being merely one of several possibilities. There is an awkward tension, amounting to an acute irony (which I felt keenly at the time) between the metaphysical ‘world of light’ and the terrestrial light which mimics it in the wards and corridors. Continuing in this vein of cruel mimicry, the wallpaper is ‘fleecy cirrus on a dark blue background,’ the angels become ‘insects of light,’ and my mother’s spirit is asked to ‘walk with us’ though it is as ‘distant’ as the horizon’s light.  

The pathos inherent in the situation is outweighed by all the awkward and acute ironies, as I noted back in 1997. The ‘walking sticks’ march ‘in step to the door,’ the fluorescent lighting ‘hums like the angels’ (a quip from an episode of The Simpsons), Emily’s mournful cries (‘politeness on the verge of despair,’ as I described it in the notes) are interrupted by observations of the tropical fish, observations which inform the description of the patients gathered in the Community Hall (‘Both sexes assume a metallic sheen’).

Sarah’s pose, ‘like that of a matriarch on a marble sarcophagus’ (seventh section) reminded me of the effigies on the lids of Etruscan sarcophagi, one hand clutching a shallow bowl of libation. The duty sister’s almost aggressively cheerful asides (‘Which one will catch the Seventy-Seven,’ etc.) are replaced by a voice urging my mother to take her painkillers. This shift to a personal focus occurs immediately after the duty sister’s questions which now begin to sound both leading and rhetorical.

My memories of my mother’s memories are somewhat hazy (why didn’t I take more notice of my parents’ reminiscences?), but I can vaguely recall an incident (rather innocent) involving a boyfriend outside a draper’s shop. As a nurse in the Royal New Zealand Air Force stationed at Rongotai Aerodrome, Wellington, during World War Two, my mother occasionally had to stack the belongings of dead airmen in the Nissen huts they had used as their quarters. The aircrew were being trained in the Ventura, a patrol bomber in operational service with the RNZAF in the Pacific.

In September last year, I made a return visit to Meadowbank Hospital, or rather its site. Its four stories had been reduced to large chunks of concrete, the demolition almost obscured by rows of apartment blocks. That is another detail which I could not work into the poem. Likewise the ‘Climbing Compassion,’ a rosebush in the back patio of my parents’ house which suddenly burst into flower two days after my mother’s death.

[1]  Jack Ross, “Troubling Our Sleep: Ted Jenner’s Postmodern Classicism,” Ka Mate Ka Ora: A New Zealand Journal Of Poetry and Poetics no. 8 (2009).