Tag Archives: Jenny Blackford

Jenny Blackford’s Girl in the Mirror

Jenny Blackford, The Girl in the Mirror (illustrated by Fiona McDonald, Eagle Books 2019)

In what seems another lifetime, I was professionally immersed for something like 15 years in literature for children of primary school age – the brilliant range of writing arrayed between little children’s picture books and beginners’ chapter books at one end and YA fiction at the other. I haven’t read a lot of it since. The Girl in the Mirror reminds me of what I’m missing.

It’s a time-slip/ghost story: Maddy moves to a new home with her family. As a new girl she has to deal with school-yard politics, and find a way of making herself at home in the new house with its unruly back yard. Her parents, like so many parents in books for this age group – perhaps like so many parents in real life – are oblivious to her struggles, they can’t hear the clattering footsteps of the little-boy ghost on the stairs, and she knows it would be pointless to tell them about Charlotte, the girl from a century earlier, whom she sees in the old-fashioned mirror in her bedroom.

It turns out that Charlotte has problems with a nasty aunt, and that nastiness somehow spills over into the present, threatening the very survival of Maddy’s baby brother. The two girls help each other with their problems, and the ghost of Charlotte’s little brother, already a ghost in her time having died of whooping cough, intervenes cheerfully in Maddy’s life.

With a wonderful lightness of touch, Maddy and Charlotte show each other things about their respective ages: whalebone corsets and skits that end above the knee; the symptoms of whooping cough and the wonders of the Internet.

All that, plus a garden full of poisonous plants, and ominous redback spiders. Which leads me to Fiona McDonald’s illustrations: apart from two full-page ink drawings, most pages have a single tiny redback spider next to the page number. Then at two points in the narrative the illustrations mirror the action, and those spiders multiply and spread up the margins in a delightfully creepy way..


The Girl in the Mirror is the 18th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy of the book is a gift from the author, Full disclosure, in 2009, soon after my tenure as editor came to an end, The School Magazine published a short story, ‘Bertie’, which Jenny Blackford has expanded to become this novel.

AWW 2017 challenge completed

aww2017.jpg This is my mandatory round-up post about the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2017. I undertook to read 10 books by Australian women writers. I read 14. Here they are. I’ve tried to be clever with the lay-out. My apologies if it shows up on your screen as a jumble (as it certainly will on a phone).

Seven poetry collections:

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Jennifer Maiden
Metronome

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Kathryn Lomer
Night writing

 

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Shevaun Cooley
Homing

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Aisyah Shah Idil
The Naming

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Emily Crocker
Girls and Buoyant

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Four novels, three of them e-books:

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No More Boats

Felicity Castagna
No More Boats

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Three memoirs:

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Cathy McLennan
Saltwater

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Maxine Beneba Clarke
The Hate Race

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Not a dud among them!

I’m signing up for the 2018 challenge.

My general gender stats: This year I read 20 books by women and 46 by men.

Shocked at my own gender bias, I can massage the figures:

  • If I don’t count comics, the male-written books come down to 24, or 29 if I count each comics series as a single work
  • If I include journals, add 5 to the women’s score and 3 to the men’s (or 6 and 3 respectively if you count Southerly 76.3, jointly edited by Laetitia Nanquette & Ali Alizadeh)

So, with a bit of creating counting, I have read 26 books by women and 32 by men.

Jenny Blackford’s Loyalty of Chickens

Jenny Blackford, The Loyalty of Chickens (Pitt Street Poets 2017)

chickensLike 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
red-feathered hens
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:

Earth-shaker, bed-shaker

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,
domestic earthquakes
permanently stilled.

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
sleep-deprived bedfellows.
May the merciful goddess
muffle our night-time senses
forever and ever. Amen

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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.

Jenny Blackford’s Duties of a Cat

Jenny Blackford, The Duties of a Cat (Pitt Street Poetry 2014)

1dcThis tiny book of 12 poems about cats, with seven charming ink drawings, would make an excellent gift for a cat-lover. But, dear reader, before you start thinking about cute internet kittehs, think of Christopher Smart considering his cat Jeoffry:

For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.

or, much more recently, David Malouf’s ‘Eternal Moment at Poggio Madonna’:

Miss Mischa in her cool
reclusion curls on the mat.
Has a feel for
creaturely comforts and has sniffed out
this spot, though nothing
in nature or that the eye
can see marks it as special.

Cats and fine poetry are by no means incompatible.

Pitt Street Poetry – publishers of, among others, Lesley Lebkowicz, Geoff Page, Eileen Chong, Luke Davies and Mark Tredinnick – have not lost their judgment. Jenny Blackford turns a loving, amused, admiring and sometimes unsettled eye on the creature from another species that shares her home.

It’s not irrelevant that some of these poems have been previously published in The School Magazine (though not yet in my long-ago time as editor) and in science fiction/fantasy magazines as well as literary journals for adults. The cats of these poems have eerie science-fictional qualities, as in this from ‘Their quantum toy’ (the whole poem is online here):

I’ve seen him levitate, I’ve seen him
lift, weightless,
impossible, from lawn to fence,
or rug to bed,
up from the ground without a hair
or muscle moved.

They can have great child appeal, as in ‘Soft silk sack’, which begins:

Cat puddles
against the floor
his body flat as milk

But there are poems that start cutely like that and end, for example, with the cat’s  eyes as ‘ chips of blue-grey glacial ice’. Like cats themselves, the poems can be charming and dangerous in the same breath.

So yes, this would make a great present for someone who loves cats and isn’t allergic to poetry, but also for someone who loves poetry and isn’t allergic to cats.

awwbadge_2014The Duties of a Cat is the seventh book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Added later: I should have mentioned that we did publish two of Jenny’s ghost stories when I was editor of The School Magazine, that she and I are Facebook friends, and that she gave me a copy of The Duties of a Cat  as a gift.