Jenkins, Carol. A Crooked Stile. Puncher & Wattmann, 2019. RRP: $25.00, 98pp, ISBN: 9781925780499.
I’ll admit it. The title and cover of Carol Jenkins’s most recent poetry collection had me feeling trepidatious. I was primed for her usual wit and wordplay, but I also steeled myself for a possible dose of (gulp) light verse. Sure, we’ve had vibrant flashes of fun and humour from Jenkins for as long as she’s been publishing poetry, but always expertly woven through forensically astute observations of the human and natural worlds. A Crooked Stile, with its quirky hand-painted lettering on watercolour-washed front cover, looked, at least initially, to be a thematic shift toward the folksier side of things. Outside of poetry, Jenkins has previously published an illustrated novel called Select Episodes from the Mr Farmhand Series which follows the adventures of small plastic figures, a book as playful as can be, so I couldn’t claim complete surprise as I prepared to read what looked to be her lighter latest poetry offering. Long story short—I’d obviously forgotten the worn but wise adage concerning books and their covers (and let’s add titles), as there’s nothing remotely slight about this excellent new book. Perhaps I’d also forgotten that to read a Carol Jenkins collection is to give oneself over to a highly curated literary experience.
This collection is a distillation of all that has come before in the poetry of Carol Jenkins—fresh scientific observation of the world around us, windows onto human desire and the connections we make with one another, and the possibilities of fun inherent in the English language. In fact, its tonal balance is spot-on. As suggested above, this book may have even made me re-examine my own lopsided idea of how ‘serious’ I seem to need poetry to be.
A Crooked Stile generously gives the reader more than seventy new poems. Interestingly, they are not organised into any titled sections, though clear themes and subjects do emerge. The collection’s first offering is ‘Flirt’, a brief and intimate love poem containing the line ‘Take for granted doesn’t even start to say’ (9). The longing, lust and shared history of romantic partnership are explored in this and other poems such as ‘Waiting’, which a note reveals was written in Spain.
I have five minutes to write to you so I’ll not
mention, Companero, how I am wanting to hear
you laugh, waiting like a match in the box,
waiting like shoes under the bed, waiting like the spoon
in the drawer ready to dip into the velvet cream of you, (17)
Read in so-called ‘COVID times’, Jenkins’s travels stir up another desire: wanderlust. When we can’t be there ourselves, poems set in Spain, Canada, Japan, India, Vietnam and even the currently troubled USA take on a particularly rosy glow. ‘Picasso’s Dog’, ‘Fire Night: Les Merces’ and ‘Algodon de Azucar’ build a Spanish travelogue complete with art, entertainment, food and drink. In ‘Calle de Caballero de Gracia’, the poet keenly portrays the sight and sounds of a knife-sharpener in the streets of Madrid:
curving the blade in even strokes
along the stone, his left hand playing
on slips of air, old legs quickening as stone
and blade rasp out their song. (18)
The single poem from A Crooked Stile that has stayed with me longest is set locally, ‘The RMC Gunn Veterinary Science Building’. While doing the routine rounds of Sydney University biology labs, the poet stumbles upon a wholly unexpected discovery. The jarring image of a flock of sheep in a uni building just off Parramatta Road lingers in her mind as she walks past a cricket green at the poem’s conclusion, just as it does in the mind of the unsettled reader. Rarely has such a prosaically titled poem paid off so stirringly.
In other pieces, such as ‘The Lens’, Jenkins explores our perception of the world around us. The squinting test of visual acuity she conducts to determine whether or not she still has ‘that small frustrum / of correction, my contact lens’ (21), becomes a metaphor for the way we see the world in general. In ‘Severe Weather’, a torrential downpour on the motorway dangerously alters the driver’s perception of her immediate environment. Present in this poem, as in so many others, is the language of the lab, the physics classroom, the scientific paper: ‘inertia’, ‘vortex’, ‘dilate’, ‘operculum’, ‘nexus’ (12-13).
It’s this fresh handling of science with its wondrous revelation, its clean adherence to accuracy, but also its colder, darker, more clinically empirical aspect that continues to mark Jenkins as one of the very best ‘science poets’. The term might sound limiting to some (and certainly would be if she only wrote well about Science—something this and all of her varied body of work prove is certainly not the case), but Jenkins can wear the title proudly. Since Fishing in the Devonian, she has written on Science like nobody else.
But what of that whimsy and wordplay? Offsetting the intimate, the painterly travelogue and the sharp observations of the natural world are poems that want to have a laugh. From the subtle wit at the end of the touching ‘My Daughter’s Ear at Sixteen’ (‘I hear / Austen suggest I’m a narcissist swimming in my gene pool’ (28)), to the almost-nursery-rhyme nonsense of ‘The Horse’s Leg’ (‘should she leg it home alone, / or wait until her pony phoned’ (40)), Jenkins makes the convincing argument that there’s room in contemporary poetry for a bit of levity.
The series of punctuation poems halfway through A Crooked Stile are particularly enjoyable. Various types of punctuation are personified in likeable pieces such as ‘Diary of a Comma’ in which the titular mark bemoans its complex relationship with one particular category of writer:
today, dizzy, first here,
then there, taken out,
put back, deleted
[…] please, please,
not another poet. (60)
Then there’s the clever ‘Abusing the Full Stop’ which, after covering every conceivable usage of its namesake, ends with the lines ‘post-fall disowned diacrit, com’s high tech / partner, ahoy-er of abbreviation, period drama: / in a poem one’s company two’s a crowd..’ (64)
Like Fishing in the Devonian and Xn before it, A Crooked Stile showcases Carol Jenkins’s lyrical prowess. For this reviewer at least, its expert balance of light and dark is elucidating. I’ll be on the lookout for its golden ratio in others’ works.
Benjamin Dodds is a Sydney-based poet who grew up in the NSW Riverina. His work appears in journals, anthologies and newspapers and has been broadcast on ABC RN. He is a proud public school teacher. His second collection Airplane Baby Banana Blanket (Recent Work Press, 2020) is available now.