from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Listening to Frost’ by Jan Napier

Napier, Jan. Listening to Frost. Cottesloe: Sunline Press, 2020. 117pp, ISBN: 9780648486558.

Veronica Lake

The cover of this collection of poetry is festooned with images of icy swirls and fragile strands of frost spearing across the page in a series of fine patterns. Appropriately, the title of this collection is Listening to Frost. The poems included are full of precise threads of language and delicate images, creating patterns not unlike those made by frost on a cold, clear night, or those on the cover. Listening to Frost, published by Sunline Press (2020), is Napier’s second collection, and her deft control of both phrase and form clearly demonstrate her maturity as an experienced poet. Divided into five sections, the headings of each are lines taken from the poems within. These work almost as one-line poems on their own. ‘Of Pulse and Bone’ and ‘Years Leak Like Sap’ cut to the heart and prepare the reader for the work which follows.

The phrase ‘Listening to frost crack the tin roof,’ (36) from the title poem, hones in on sound imagery and echoes the way in which Napier ‘cracks’ open language. For example, in ‘The Quiet Breath of Poets’ (104), sound pervades. There are children who shriek, wharf side cranes that clatter, car doors thudding, planes droning and crows that dirge. These onomatopoeic words are juxtaposed with the poet’s quiet breaths and their inked syllables speaking for them. A lovely balance of oral imagery is presented as well as an understanding of what it is a poet tries to achieve in their writing. This balance is key to all the poems in this collection: nothing is overdone, and that kind of clarity is invigorating.

Napier is adept at incorporating figurative language in many of her poems. Phrases such as ‘Youth has come and gone like a war’ (54) and ‘shoals of memory flash and dart across neural calms’ (59) are explicit. By using similes and metaphors, Napier adds nuance and emotion to the poems—the torrid experience of being young is neatly summed up, the sadness of old age and gradual loss of memory is somehow made beautiful as well as melancholy. Throughout the collection lines sing out with colour, such as ‘she’s a pale lotus floating’ (67) and ‘a rain of failed comets tailed into ash’ (112). Such imagery invites the reader to visualise the events of each poem by asking them to participate in or see what is happening. I found myself floating like a lotus in my imagination and watching for comets falling in the night sky.

Central to the heart of the text, and most poignant, are the poems gathered under the heading ‘Rain Falls Soft’. These poems tread a delicate path exploring the difficulties of ageing and coping with the loss of a parent. Napier writes about her mother, who serves as a conduit for those of us who connect with our own mothers during their final years. Alzheimer’s as a condition has an ongoing impact on family as they can only watch and support their loved ones. Napier’s treatment of this subject, describing it as a ‘dithery tempest of fret’ (59), with eyes that are ‘oceanic and fathomless’ (60) and where the inmates of an aged care facility ‘drift thistledown and dim to windows; stare out at trees’ (69), captures the fragility of the elderly as they dematerialise. The villanelle, ‘Sleeping Like A Mouse’ (75) brims with love and compassion as ‘mum curls softly into the circle of herself’, with ‘paws tucked to chin like the dormouse in Alice’. Here, Napier depicts the brittle, sad atmosphere of a ‘home’ that isn’t one at all.

While many of the poems take time to examine the beauty of nature in a series of meticulous and detailed observations, Napier is not afraid to tackle darker subject matter. ‘Unit 2’ is confronting in its representation of domestic violence. The poem is quite terse, with repetition of the phrase, ‘it’s not’, linking a sequence of horrific events and slowly building to the final statement:

for that blinking blue line
that kills you. (21)

The poem captures the helpless anxiety of an outsider listening to the escalation of violence next door. Likewise, ‘Dark Roses’ investigates the ‘indigo flowerings’ of bruises under children’s skin in a house where gin is ‘tabled in place of porridge’ (91). Napier pulls no punches in setting out these details with explicit and grim precision. They describe issues which need to be considered by society.

Throughout the collection, the hand of a confident and experienced poet is demonstrated. There is no waste of language. Instead, there is a crystalline clarity to each poem, like frost; crisp, delicate and crackling with insight.

Veronica Lake is a Churchill Fellow (2010) and a teacher long associated with literature. She collates and edits Primo Lux, an annual student anthology of poetry. She is a member of the Voicebox Collective, OOTA Writer’s Group and Poetry WA. Her poetry has been published in journals in Australia and New Zealand. Her first collection of poetry, Dragonfly Wing (Sunline Press) was published in 2019.

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