Tag Archives: Jenny Blackford

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 to 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.