Jenny Blackford, The Loyalty of Chickens (Pitt Street Poets 2017)
Like Jenny Blackford’s earlier book, The Duties of a Cat, this is beautifully presented collection of poetry. This one’s bigger – there are more pages and more poems, and it has a broader scope of subject matter and tone.
As in the earlier book, there are sweet celebrations of pet cats (‘All that he asked / was total control’) and a range of animals wild and domestic, including the chickens, which, according to the title poem,
show no loyalty. It seems that any girl
who’ll delve a scoop of free-range mix
is She Who Brings the Grain,
or close enough for these
to worship her.
Jenny Blackford’s biography mentions that her work is published regularly in The School Magazine. One of the attractive features of this book is the way poems that are eminently suitable for children are mixed in with poems of mature sensibility, with no sense of incongruity. The lovely imagistic ‘sweeping’ (‘the wind is sweeping / the tide out to sea’), is followed by ‘South Steyne’, which recalls childhood events from an amused adult perspective (‘The South Steyne ferry was heaven / for me, though doubtless hell for parents’), and then by ‘Some slight redemption’, a meditation on Coventry Cathedral as a monument ‘not to war / nor even peace / but to forgiveness’.
It seems inevitable that any collection of poems by a person of a certain age that touches on domestic life will at some point touch on dementia. This collection manages the subject with tenderness and humour in ‘Dipping into that Lake’: ‘There are fairies at the bottom of Mum’s garden now / and butterflies, and owls.’
The poet lets slip at one point that she graduated in Classics from Cambridge, and classical references are scattered through the book, but the erudition is lightly worn. A personal favourite of mine (for reasons that you can easily guess) happens to be an example of this. There’s the whole poem:
According to inscriptions
in a lost Poseidon temple
soon to be discovered
somewhere in southern Greece
Poseidon Earth-shaker is patron
and protector of snoring men.
Without his godly nasal power,
so many men of twenty, forty, sixty
would be discovered (in soft morning silence)
smothered by bed-pillows,
The temple vaults hold tributes
from his snoring worshippers:
gilt effigies of elephants,
yellowed tusks of snorting walruses,
and woolly mammoths’ freeze-dried trunks
as fat as anacondas,
all given to the god
by grateful bed-shakers.
I would happily have the poem end there but of course it goes on:
In Aphrodite’s nearby temple of love,
ears of silver, gold and clay
are mounted on the walls
or heaped in shelly stacks,
donated by the snoring men’s
May the merciful goddess
muffle our night-time senses
forever and ever. Amen
The Loyalty of Chickens is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy was a gift from Pitt Street Poets and the author, whose work I first met, and published, when I was editor of The School Magazine.