The Lake Macquarie Launch of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks was a wonderfully happy occasion. Many thanks to all my friends, neighbours, fellow writers and supporters of poetry who came along to Toronto Library to celebrate with me. And thank you, too, to those who couldn’t be there, but sent messages saying they would be there in spirit. You all made it a very special day.
Judith Beveridge launched the book with a characteristically generous and insightful speech, which she has kindly passed on to me to post here.
TRAVELLING WITH THE WRONG PHRASE BOOKS Launch Speech
This is a most handsome and beautiful production by the new comer to poetry publishing Pitt Street Poetry and I’d like to congratulate John Knight for this endeavour and enterprise and especially for having the great good sense to start the new press with two wonderful collections – both about Paris: John Foulcher’s, “The Sunset Assumption” and Jean Kent’s “Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks” which we are celebrating today.
As you can see by the title, Jean Kent’s book is essentially about language – how our voices, our speech, our verbal utterances in many ways describe and prescribe our identities. If we are in a place where we don’t speak the language, or even if we just speak it a little, we quickly feel displaced, de-positioned, uncertain, wrong and powerless. “Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks” is a moving account of this experience – and who better than the poet, the one to whom language matters most, to elucidate this nostalgia, this longing for language to give us a home, a secure place in which to dwell.
When reading Jean’s book, what struck me time and again was the acute and loving attention she pays to her syntax, to her diction, to her lines, to her images and metaphors – it’s as if the experience of being in Paris and making her hesitant, provisional way through the French language, has made her even more alert, appreciative and responsive to the power and glories of English.
Jean’s poems are always constructed out of the most minute details observed from the world around her. She lingers on things and the words for things, delighting in their sound and texture. That’s why she is able to come up with phrases and images such as: “the phone roosts on the bookshelf”; a description of “three Germans cracking their teeth on consonants”; the image of a bitumen road in Lithuania as a “long black armband, untied, as far as anyone can see.”; a street that’s “whispering with rain”; black women in a market who are “unicorned in turbans”, a lift that “bone shudders, up-down, up-down like a coffin trying to rattle free its skeleton”. You can see how all these lines suggest the sensuousness of her language in response to the physical world.
If you look at the titles of the poems, you will see how many of the poems are about speaking: Eloquent Coins, The Language of Light, My Father-in-law Translates a Lithuanian Poem, Voices on the Paris Wind, Reading Les Murray in rue Geoffroy l’Asnier. Jean has fun with language too, and I point readers to the poems, “Off the Map in Montmartre” and “Outside a Shop of Perfect Traps” for very funny puns and associations that delight and despair at being simultaneously within and without words – that peculiar place where foreign sounds can make a sudden connection to the mother tongue: here are the first two stanzas from “Off the Map in Montmartre”:
In the City of Lovers, sightseeing together,
we come uncoupled. The handcuffs of devotion
cannot hold together our distracted stares.
My Paris dangles like a bangle from long ago.
Yours has no links with that. You want to walk the rues
and see what’s hidden. Any ruse will do
to get us out of the guide book, away from the well-trotted on
Nostalgia for Australia, for Queensland, for Lake Macquarie, for home is never far away in these poems, and indeed it is Australia’s light, its broad spaces, its summer heat, its flora and fauna that provide the poetic and visual backdrop through which so many of the Parisian scenes are viewed and evaluated. This aspect is developed beautifully in the “Post-card Ping Pong” series, which brings a little bit of home, via the visual imagery of the post-cards to “the limbo land of the language bereft”.
Jean’s book also suggest that it is through the sudden speechless moments where our too-easily relied upon expectations of cordiality and access begin to crumble that we begin to acknowledge a world that can be fundamentally outside us. This is beautifully portrayed in the poem “At the Patisserie” which describes an encounter with a surly, sulky sales girl as the couple attempt to buy bread. The pun on the French word “pain” for bread and the English word “pain” is so deftly used.
I found that “Travelling with the Wrong Phrase Books” kept me delightfully engaged with its narrative power, with the way the imagery and tone negotiate the very subtle changes of mood or modes of feeling. Jean’s poems have that admirable ability to grow in intensity out of their own emotional necessity; these poems seem to rise to discoveries of – and are themselves – epiphanies.
Reading of poem: “Pansies in Ramioji Gatve” p 18)
The pansies of Panevežys
no longer exist.
They are a favourite flower
my father-in-law speaks of,
their phantom faces still cheeky as the children
at his old school
knocking over inkwells
whenever the adult life he’s escaped to
turns its back.
Behind the fence in Ramioji Gatve,
if there were ever lilacs and pansies
round his lost family home,
the turned earth no longer tells us.
But because today we are in Lithuania —
and yesterday were in Germany
last week, France —
so these playgrounds of faces
can still plant themselves in my mind
as pensées — ‘thoughts’ —
which in another past will also be
posies of memory:
no rewritten history
will ever quite white-out.
Not quite at home in Paris, yet giddy and intoxicated with it, Jean’s poems speak to the experience of trying to inhabit a place that always holds itself apart from the speaker. Caught and held in the play of contradictions, the poems explore difference made vibrant by the mind’s questions about homeland and exile, about separation and belonging. The books ends so memorably with these words:
When we fly away from here,
the Paris air will gulp…. all traces of us
as lightly and forgettably as dust –
but now, though we have only to open our mouths to know
how indigestible we would be here,
on the edge of our leaving this twilight sluices us into itself
with all the other driftwood of this shifting place –
and as you float with me under jet trails
dissolving like suds in the upside-down sink
of the still-bright sky
the welcome anywhere swallows
flash their tiny anchors
and tack us home.
As I said the poems in this volume are full of fine moments of attention and crystalline, lucid images. There’s humour and playfulness of language too, and Jean’s poems work to discover value and meaning in the world through the redemptive power of perception and imagination. Jean explores in luminous and enriching ways the relation of the self to the world, and the hesitations of everyday life.
I think it’s true to say that poetry always returns to the inner, private life, to the hidden feeling, the buried motive, to the details that embody emotion. Each poet for us defines a world and it is important for us as readers to be exposed to as many of these differing worlds as we can. The Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky has said, “ Languages are many but poetry is one.”
Jean has, in her latest volume, found a convincing and rich poetry that makes us feel welcome and makes us value the work that poetry does, which is to say things with a “passionate syntax” on the margins of the sayable and allow readers to become participants in their own relationship to the world.