TEXT review

‘close to the grief room’

review by Jo Langdon


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Jennifer Compton 
Now You Shall Know
Five Islands Press, Parkville, Vic 2015
ISBN 9780734050366
Pb 86pp AUD24.95


As its title intimates, Jennifer Compton’s Now You Shall Know is a collection comprised of disclosures – a book that, from the very outset, promises to confess, reveal or impart. Largely narrative-driven, the poems traverse experiences of loss and grief, time and ageing, and love and its complicated legacies. The collection is divided into a sequence of six sections entitled ‘… awaiting our delivery’; ‘… oh’; ‘… a rapt downwards look’; ‘… in the long run’; ‘… wrenched backwards’ and ‘… somehow urgent’. As the ellipses might indicate, these titles are drawn from the lines of the poems they announce, and they are certainly indicative of each section’s mood and focus. Individually and cumulatively, these works negotiate the spaces of memory in often ‘wrenching’ and ‘urgent’ ways, blending dry humour, the colloquial and the direct with lyrical and occasionally figurative moments, often to striking effect.

The initial, eponymous poem opens mid-air: ‘The aeroplane is hung in the sky from a clever hook, so we seem / to inhabit a thrumming stillness, but we believe we are travelling / forward’ (11). Composed in three sections, ‘Now You Shall Know’ shifts from the kinds of ‘transportations’ in-flight modes of entertainment allow – there is the ‘monstrous beauty’ of the opera singer Maria Callas’s ‘high / anguish’ – to the immediate setting of the passenger plane, when the aria’s ‘resolution to come’ is interrupted by the ‘paroxysm’ of another traveller’s cough. The two ensuing sections reveal familial memories – a mother and daughter sharing a bed as adults: ‘Two old women waking to the new day’ (12) – and bring the poem to its ultimate subject at its close:

I read that poem — she says — the one … 
ah yes — that one — the one about … we are in the busy corridor of

the hospital close to the grief room. And I know that she will die soon.
This is the hospital where I was born. Once again she reaches for all

her strength and pushes me away from her. I didn’t know — she says.
And that is enough. Go — the voice in my head says — just go. Now. (13)

This poem, which won the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2013, sets the tone and perhaps the overarching preoccupations of the works to follow. Now You Shall Know contains a number of elegies and elegiac poems, most of which centre on the death of the poet’s (or the speaker of the poems’) mother. (The dedication ‘For Dorothy Compton 1926-2011’ provides a context that does seem to invite an autobiographical reading.) As ‘okay the year of first anniversaries’ exemplifies, the poems that centre on loss and grief are often ambivalent in their approach:

— mother’s day, my birthday, the day she wouldn’t talk to me all the way home in the tram because i hadn’t won — all the days she and i celebrated together have had their due allotment — today is the first anniversary of the day of her death — she is truly dead — i got flowers at the supermarket — yellow tulips — i put them into the vase i had bought at an op shop that she had talked me into giving her — because she was so greedy because she was so needy — but now i have it again — and they are very beautiful — the yellow tulips, the fluted smoky rose-pink vase — lie down Mother lie down and die — (19)

There is a patent sense of unresolved, perhaps irrepressible hurt. Not only does this poem illustrate the kinds of milestones and memories that affect our sense of time, place and being, it draws attention to the role of physical artefacts (often suggestively brittle or delicate) in experiences of grief and remembrance. The preceding poem, ‘Provenance’ similarly recalls the mother’s ‘glass dog with one leg missing, which could stand if braced / against the side mirror of the dressing table’ (18). The poem closes, openly or irresolutely, with: ‘Does anyone know that my toast rack shaped like a swan / was a wedding present from great-aunt Nell back in 1971?’

Inheritance figures as something more physical and particular in poems such as ‘Your Mother, My Daughter, And You, Her Son’. Compton writes of her grandson, who appears across a number of poems:

You are more like your mother than anyone else.

For one moment on the 3D pic they took of you in utero
you were the image of your father, your mother tells me
babies do that because fathers need to know, they lack
confidence. (26)

The understated wit here is more overt in poems such as ‘The Shock’, which twins playful overstatement or redundancy with affecting depictions of sudden, distressing news and the vivid, visceral recollections such news can evoke:

The shock arrives shockingly down the wire
you will always remember
that pause, before she spoke
and how the air you breathed
changed shape. (14)

The poem’s next lines feature wordplays – ‘The conversation that was afoot / limps on’ – and illustrates the connotative charge of language. Something ‘monstrous’ is ‘putrid snot-green’.

‘After the Wake’ is similarly comic and dark at once, depicting siblings gathering for a photograph, and telling how

The one who had scanned the family album
for the funeral slide show had complained
how there were shocking gaps
no photo of her with this one or that
so now whichever of us went first
there would be a pic of all of us
holding on to each other’s hands. (16)

Stylistically, the centred layout of a number of poems seems a curious choice, and can tend at times to distract from the language and imagery at hand, although this might be a personal preference (or aversion) on my part. Throughout the collection, the language is often charged by a wry tone that works to instil some of the poems’ familiar phrases – ‘snowball’s chance of that’ (12); ‘I wept buckets’ (57); ‘the stars in their eyes’ (63) – with a sense of self-reflexivity. Some of the strongest pieces, for me, are those that deliver the often startling perspective of children, reminding us of the ways in which a child’s vision can see things ‘anew’: ‘That was a rabbit — I said. // It can’t have been a rabbit. It didn’t have any ears. A child / sometimes knows best’ (82).

Carefully layered, cleverly shifting poems such as ‘we are farmed out’ and ‘He Made Promises She Never Forgot’ also create avenues for alternate points of view, serving as powerful reminders that there is never a ‘single’ story. Altogether, these poems distil scenes that shimmer and darken by turns (or at once), inviting their reader not only close to an ambivalent, difficult grief, but to acknowledge and remember various yet interconnected experiences of trauma and pain – and the ways in which humour is often very much part of the texture of such occurrences and their impressions, too.



Jo Langdon’s first collection of poetry, Snowline (2012), was co-winner of the 2011 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize. Her recent poems, short stories and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Cordite Poetry Review, Mascara Literary Review, Australian Book Review, Westerly and Overland. She has a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from Deakin University, where she currently teaches in Literary Studies.


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Vol 19 No 2 October 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste