Carol Jenkins, ‘Xn’ in the Australian Poetry Journal

Review by Christopher Ringrose in The Australian Poetry Journal issue 4.2


Carol Jenkins has followed up the success of Fishing in the Devonian (2008) and the chapbook Night Croquet (2009) with a rich, varied collection, Xn. Like Geoff Goodfellow, she is excellent company, if at first she appears more reticent than him. Her poems unfurl in a sequence of witty surprises, teasing riddles, odd angles, and subtle sound patterns. The botanical poem ‘Perianthetical Apple, Cherry, Plum’ is phonetically luscious in the Hopkins manner, as she addresses the trees in blossom:

Be flower wrap, pollen pot, carpel king,
tepal tide, bee bait and wasp impersonator 

house of plum state, modified leaf palace that duples
into picnics, prints, pillow words and porcelain . . .

Carpels, tepals and perianths are grafted appealingly on to more familiar poetic diction. Fishing in the Devonian attracted attention, in part, for its blend of the poetic and the scientific, and there is an element of that in Xn. ‘Evolution by Engulfment’ makes phagocytosis intriguing (yes, I did look it up, to find that it was ‘the ingestion of bacteria or other material by phagocytes and amoeboid protozoans’). ‘Zero-vs-Nothing’ and ‘Exit Speed’ neatly apply the language of mathematics and physics to relationships. The miniatures in ‘Set Pieces’ (the titles of Jenkins’s poems are always worth a second look) work the notation of mathematical sets into conundrums. An ordered pair (a, b) is a set of mathematical objects, but

A disorderly pair approach a revolving
Door, A says you go first, B says, no, you

C queued behind, huffs O it doesn’t matter.
How many times will the door rotate before C leaves?

Such virtuosity means that Jenkins is able, Rumpelstiltskin-like, to spin straw into gold. A visit to the Butter Museum in Cork, Ireland, generates echoes of Donne, Marvell and Escoffier, the argot of butter (‘milkers, maids and buckets / pails, skimmers, dippers, creamers, / keeners, dashers, table churns . . .’), curious fossil butter and ingenious rhymes. The twenty or so poems that make up the virtuoso sequence on eggs leave one wondering what can’t be brought within the orbit of the egg-as-subject-matter, whether it’s irremediable catastrophes (‘The egg is the great fall guy, exemplar of what can’t be undone . . .’), unspecified mishaps (‘believe me nothing is over easy’), or the shift into body chemistry of ‘Miscarriage II’:

my body was
home to you, and in that quiet sense
of each, you trusted me completely

back then your dark stains of wasted protein
held my throat so tight I could not think
to say goodbye.

In fact, such modulation of tone and subject matter is one of the features of Xn. It is easy to highlight the cleverness and linguistic vitality of the collection, but it is also worth stressing the way that Jenkins’s poems can embody profound and moving expression – of love, grief, desire, exuberance, or anxiety, for example – without relinquishing her characteristic wit. There is the meditation on marriage in ‘Surrender comes with twenty different speeds’ (as usual, the key word in the title is examined at many levels); the haunting airline journey in ‘Owl Service’; and ‘Parking backwards at Beauty Point’, a poignant elegy for the writer Kerry Leves. Such poems (and one could cite many other examples) make you realize that Carol Jenkins is, finally, hardly more reticent than Geoff Goodfellow. There is no doubt that Goodfellow wears his heart on his sleeve (or would do, if his singlet had sleeves), but Xn, too, draws you into its writer’s orbit —into a relationship.

Christopher Ringrose

Read the full review in The Australian Poetry Journal 

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