John Foulcher, Newcastle Writers Festival, 2nd April 2023

Launch speech for Jean Kent: The Shadow Box

I’ve always been a big fan of Jean’s work. My first encounter with her poetry was in her 1988 National Library Prize winning sequence, ‘Verandah Poems’. In the sequence, the verandah, the liminal space, becomes the conduit between past and present, deftly weaving them together to show how the present embodies the past, how memory is the way we balance and make sense of our lives.

In The Shadow Box, this approach is sustained for an entire book. The book explores a period in her grandparents’ lives, when world affairs disrupt what promised to be predictable path towards family life. The journey begins just after their wedding in 1914. Jean’s grandfather enlists and is swept up in the First World War, firstly at Gallipoli and then in Egypt and Palestine. Not to be left behind, her grandmother follows him, meeting him for a brief period of time in Egypt and in an interlude in Paris, where the war is resonant but absent. 

This could have been the stuff of a fascinating but distant story, a brief snatch of personal history better suited to prose than poetry. But poetry delivers the story a significance that only a poet in complete control of her gift could realise. This not a disembodied past, it’s not a ‘story’ as such. It exists now, in objects, letters and experiences which are part of the poet’s life and give a lush, tangible quality to things that happened over a century ago. This way of engaging with the world is seen in the opening lines of the book’s opening poem, ‘Polishing the Kurrajong Hallstand’:

The hallstand my grandmother carved is the colour

of ironbark honey. Even unpolished,

it is deep and rich.

These are vivid, sensuous lines, they bring to us a tangible portrait of the hallstand which becomes, in its fragility, a ‘crafted past/that must outlive us’. Its very physicality is the means by which the poet begins to unlock a ‘silenced time’.  In the book’s opening section, objects continue to incarnate the past: a photograph, a maternity cape, a vase, a paperknife, a fragment of cloth and two dried daisies, ‘frail as peeled skin’.

With these in hand, Jean brings to life the detail of a time which would otherwise be lost, where fragments of letters combine with the poetic imagination to create something which is neither the actual past nor a recreated one; it’s a kind of ‘new’ past which exists within the boundaries of each individual poem, as palpable in its conception as those frail daisies. It’s a past that’s vivid, alive, whether in the brutal details of the Gallipoli invasion – ‘All around . . . the silenced bodies begin’ – or the bluebells in the Bois de Boulogne, which recall bluebells back home. In the poet’s words, they’re ‘sudden bright flashes/like little mirrors of the sky’. Most significantly, it’s a past where two long dead relatives are resurrected in the pure white gown of the pages of this elegantly produced book.

I think this is Jean’s most compelling work. Poem after poem shows a delicacy of touch, a rightness of phrasing and an eye (almost paradoxically) for the vividly immediate – it’s like a finely wrought tapestry, where intricacy and exactness of detail culminate in a meticulously crafted whole. Take for instance, the wonderfully haunting ‘The Pyramids by Moonlight’ which so effortlessly tangles fragments of letters with rich imaginative insight. It suggests the ways in which inner and outer worlds can complement and betray each other.

In the poem, the poet’s grandmother confesses that her visit to the pyramids in daylight was disappointingly mundane – ‘the Sphinx was a big grubby cat/lost in a hollow and surrounded by clamouring/guides and child beggars.’ A return trip at night, however, reveals a completely different scene: ‘the cat grew monstrous . . . /and the pyramids towered creamy white and silent/under the polished steel sky’. That’s the poet’s observation – all we know of her grandmother’s reaction to it is a phrase lifted from her letter: it was ‘quite up to expectations’. Subtly and insistently, the poem reveals the fleeting, almost fickle nature of experience and the impact of such experience on the development of one’s view of the ‘otherness’ of the world. The moonlit reverie of the pyramids reminded me of Mrs Moore’s experience at the fictional Marabar Caves in EM Forster’s A Passage to India. It’s a moment when the strangeness, the vastness of the universe and our little place in it become visceral.

Similarly, the evocative ‘A Plague of Mice’ presents a variety of resonances, painting the poet’s grandmother’s experience of the relative safety of Sydney on her return from the Middle Eastern war arenas. In the poem, this woman with a newborn baby is woken from a restless sleep by her fear that the child is being attacked by the mice which have overrun the city. The corpses of mice who have feasted on ‘Strychnine-sugared lucerne’ are juxtaposed with echoes of the ‘corpse count’ from the war and ‘the terror of the telegram’ under the door. The woman’s response is to sew, to stitch things back together as the night drags on, napping until the morning ‘above the trapped mice feet of her mending’.

These poems demonstrate Jean’s control of connotative, evocative language, but she’s equally adept at wresting everyday language into poetry. In the semi-found poem, ‘A Laconic War Record’, for instance, fragments from her grandfather’s letters home are twined together into a graphic account of the jagged, anxious nature of the individual’s experience of battle and recovery. Here, the poet’s gift is arrangement, discernment – she knows when to step back and let the words do the work, whether they’re hers or not:

Palestine. Slept last night in a field of poppies and daisies.

On the way to the front. Guns quite close. Plane down

both men burnt.

                     Our old friend the Turk

visits us every day        and generally gets a warm reception.

In these lines, colloquial language combines with the rhythm of speech to create a sense of tension at odds with the mellifluousness of so many of the other poems here.

World War I was one of the darkest chapters in human history. The indifference of leaders who inflicted such callous brutality on their citizens has been graphically documented many times. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to believe The Shadow Box is set against the backdrop of this savagery – there’s such beauty here. Jean’s book reminds us that, even in the most terrible times, human beings are capable of love and compassion. It shows us our shared humanity in the most nuanced ways, in the extraordinary plight of ordinary people. In a time where some histories are privileged over others, it reminds us that all histories are valuable, how we need to hold onto individual pasts if we want to understand better the present which we occupy and the way it will shape the future. In the shadow of the horrors of the Ukrainian conflict, it also emphasises the imperative of holding onto our past in the hope that, perhaps just once, we may not have to repeat it.

The Shadow Box is a wonderful book by one of the country’s most consummate poets. It’s one of the best poetry books I’ve read in years and I fear can’t do it justice in these few minutes. This is an achievement of real significance, Jean. Congratulations.  

John Foulcher