Jan Dean’s new collection, Intermittent Angels, is a book I have been anticipating for a long time. This is a substantial volume of her always surprising and rewarding poems, and I feel honoured to have been asked to launch it.
I first encountered Jan’s writing over twenty years ago. After a long career as an art teacher she was embracing poetry with great enthusiasm, both through her own writing and through her involvement with local poetry groups such as FAW and Poetry at the Pub. Like many creative people who wait until late in life to develop their gift, she was in a rush to learn and develop, and with many years of witnessing the world to draw on for her subject matter, she also had something fascinating to say.
What Jan had then – and still has – that put her into a category all her own, was a totally original vision of the world. In the blurb for the back of Intermittent Angels, I comment on what I see as her ‘gift for sliding sideways with her words, making every aspect of her engagement with the world magical’.
Her imagination, childlike wonder and relish of language have continued and flourished, without any sign of ageing. Those qualities alone could make for stunning poems … but in this book we also have extended narratives in other people’s voices, great depth of understanding about many different ways of being human (and sometimes almost divine), and a wonderful development of connections between the poems – so that the book as a whole feels as beautifully crafted as any of the many art masterpieces that hang in the background of Jan’s world. Her universe encompasses Brett Whiteley, Joy Hester or Holman Hunt just as naturally as scenes of Broughton Island, Minmi or suburban Newcastle.
Jan’s poems are gloriously visual, but they are also chock-full of extraordinary stories. One sequence which I particularly want to mention is ‘A Castle in Queensland’, which began after Jan visited Paronella Park, near Cairns.
Paronella Park is a rather bizarre castle in the rainforest that was built in the 1920s by a Spanish immigrant and his wife. Given Jan’s boundless curiosity and delight in other people’s histories, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that a Spanish style fantasy place in Far North Queensland would set off a mini-novel in poetry for her. But I don’t think many other poets would be able to respond with as much passion and fascination as Jan has.
When I discovered Paronella Park back in 1974, it was quite run-down and almost disappearing into the surrounding trees … It has now been rescued from ruin – in reality, so that it is a flourishing tourist attraction – but more interestingly to me, it has become vividly alive in Jan’s sequence, which captures the characters of Jose and Margarita, re-imagining their transition into this foreign country, and the challenges of their marriage as well as their work, turning Jose’s strange dream into reality.
Jan’s vision of what all this must have been like is also beautifully responsive to the landscape and weather of North Queensland.
March is the month
of waterfalls. It pours
for days on end
and I implore it to stop: Silently.
If I spoke aloud I’d gurgle.
Anyone who has lived in North Queensland will surely laugh in recognition of this!
Equally recognizable is Margarita’s humid sleepless night:
I argue / with the mosquito net and lose.
Less predictable, though, is what happens next, as Margarita goes outside, wrapped in a sheet to swim in their pond – watched by a figure in the dark: an Aboriginal man. The poem ends with the sheet billowing and submerging around her. Then comes a moment to take our breath away, as she says:
The floating parts are wings. I doze
assured I am swimming with angels
overseen by a lord.
There is a mystical beauty reminiscent of an Arthur Boyd ‘Bride’ painting in this scene. It happens suddenly and effortlessly – and it’s the kind of shift into another state of being that happens again and again in Jan’s writing.
It’s not just her artist’s eye, with its love of colour and texture and striking images, it’s also her ability to paint with words that keeps the poems so vibrant and unexpected. ‘Leap and Glide’, her homage to both John Olsen and Gerard Manley Hopkins, is also, I think, a good description of her own style:
keeping riotous colour under control
while life throbs. There’s no let up
in this sprawl and scrawl where radiating lines
become flower, sun or finger stubs, just as long
as you’re dizzy and delirious …
Dizzy and delirious? Yes – Jan can pull that off with great panache! But her writing also has much empathy and sensitivity, especially in the many poems that draw on her own family and her ancestral background. Whether it’s in the ambitious and sobering sequence addressing her forebears who were transported to Australia for minor crimes, or the tender portrait of herself as a tiny child sitting in front of her father on his horse in the poem ‘Crossroads’, or in a memory of a visit with her own children to Broughton Island – ‘The Green Kingdom’— where the reality of emerald and aquamarine waters (and possibly dolphins) slides into an acknowledgement of how time changes places, but still leaves a residue of hope – these poems bring us a beautiful shifting of moods in a world where
Timeless cycles of flight, rest and nest, play out unimpeded.
So much in this world of Jan’s “deserves notice” – to quote ‘Flower Pecker’ her little gem that celebrates the mistletoe bird. Whether that means choir boys with chewing gum, butterfly kisses, a long-ago holiday job in a Drapery, musical Xmas cards, a migraine, dresses made in honour of women killed through domestic violence … or an acknowledgement of how elephant wrinkles now “put smiles on (her) sleeping face”, Intermittent Angels has room for them all in its wonderfully generous pages.
I want to quote at some length from just one poem, which I find particularly haunting as well as humorous. It could be called an ekphrastic poem, except that there is so much art in the poem it is more like a gallery of a woman’s life, captured in paintings.
Woman in a Turban
With arms raised above her head, in the manner
of a flamenco dancer about to clap, she reached a higher level
than haute couture. Tied carefully turn by turn, she twisted
a towel around her head. It could just as well have been an eel
or a giant snail, as she emerged from the bath one evening
in the 1960s, when steam, mirror and faded light
conspired to create the miracle. At first, she chuckled
at the echoes of a Turkish scene and dismissed her connection
to the grand odalisque minus a fan, but while she stared
she became convinced she’d found her signature
since her swathed head evoked the qualities of a mask
lacking hindrance to sight and breath.
Her reflection resembled Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring
but there were other precedents, like the sage beauty
of African women, turbaned and tall, as they floated brave
colours down Fleet Street on Monday mornings.
The poem goes on, with effortless twists and turns of its own, memories of a mother on the social pages and the possibilities of turbans to “salve all woes” … a tour de force of imagination and humour which ends, wryly and (for the poem, if not the now-elderly Vermeer girl), with a devastatingly brilliant reference to another turban painting, which is both shockingly sad and beautifully right. I won’t spoil the surprise by disclosing that. Like so much in this collection, this is a poem to read and re-read, with delight, chuckles and admiration.
Jan prefaces this collection with a quote from herself:
“The angels in my life are either wondrous or wicked; often both.”
Intermittent Angels begins delicately with two tankas that introduce us to that possibility of angels in Jan’s world, and to the idea that signs of them may be “left to save us”.
The book ends with the charmingly titled ‘Takeaway Tanka’ – a final drift of little visions of reality that, for my money, are as good as the presence of an angel. This is the last one:
when all is done and said,
angels don’t leave footprints
yet folk recognise the signs
when they know what to look for
The signs in this collection are truly “wondrous” and sometimes “wicked”. What they have led to is a marvel of a book. I’m delighted to be able to wish it on its way out into our earth-bound world, where I hope it will enrich the lives of many readers.
Jean Kent 29th March 2020
The first launch of Intermittent Angels was originally scheduled to occur during the 2020 Newcastle Writers Festival. Due to COVID19, the Festival was cancelled. After a very long wait, the book was eventually launched at the Newcastle Museum on Sunday, 13th April 2021.
Intermittent Angels is published by Girls on Key Poetry, NSW (Editor: Anna Forsyth)