Book Review: Selected Poems, by Jenny Bornholdt

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cv_selected_poemsIn Deborah Smith’s intriguing cover photo for Jenny Bornholdt’s Selected Poems, the eye is drawn to the bright fly agaric mushrooms torn up by the roots. They sit like thought or speech bubbles above the woman’s head. Laid out carefully on paper towels, the dirt is still fresh on the base of their stems. Of course, the metaphor here is obvious, but digging a little deeper (excuse the pun) it astounds; not dissimilar to Jenny’s work. Firstly, parboiling these mushrooms (to avoid poisoning), renders the eater literally intoxicated. They are psychoactive, mind-altering little beasties. They come with a warning. You get the picture. These are not morsels to be trifled with. At first glance, they are things of beauty and objects of intrigue, but they carry a deeper magic (literally).

This idea is brought to the fore early on in this book, particularly within the garden, where an unearthed white onion flower is, ‘a plain enough thing’ but truly, it is a ‘decoy of simplicity’. This speaks to the viewer of an art work hanging in a gallery, or someone reading a poem excerpt. Every poem in fact, has a whole world that has contributed to its creation, a process that is dynamic and ongoing, as the reader or viewer plays their active role. The last stanza sums this up perfectly:

So we have a white flower
propped on the top of a green stem
a plain enough thing
while underneath
the feelers are out
hooking into other systems
forming a network
the flower an undercover agent
posted on the watch
a decoy of simplicity.

For a dexterous poet like Jenny to call a flower simply, white and green, speaks to a simplistic way of looking at art; reductionist. Jenny is a poet whose senses are alive to wonder and the interconnected ideas and neural pathways that form the root system of a poem, or a group of works. It would be too easy to equate a poetry collection with a book of pressed flowers but Jenny’s poems here are a living collection.

For the editor and poet to handpick poems for a collection, from a body of work that spans around 30 years, is no mean feat. We live in a day and age where music albums and other artistic media are consumed piecemeal, with songs and poems extracted from their original contexts. Many consumers latch on to the singles, or the anthologised poems, without ever reading or listening to a collection in its entirety. In a way, the cover image speaks to that. There is still dirt on the roots. These poems have their genesis elsewhere. If you want to go further down the rabbit hole, so does each individual poem, before it is strung together in any collection. It is like a bunch of flowers. The number of possible arrangements is infinite and each presentation offers another layer of meaning. The whole is larger than the sum of its parts.

Of course, there are is the inevitable search for aesthetic links to The Bill Manhire School of poetry. Leading the way as the country’s first laureate and with Jenny under his wing for a time, both poets do share a delight in the ‘tender observation’ (NZ Book Council) of the everyday.

In her author photo, also by the renowned Deborah Smith, we see a retro watering can. It’s a symbol of looking back over the planting, watering and harvesting of ideas; the work. There are many fertile minds in the world, but few with the dedication and skill to cultivate longevity and a poetic life, such as Jenny Bornholdt’s. Of course, a laureateship and several other awards go a small way to recognising the results of her commitment to her craft and her contribution to the New Zealand poetic landscape, both through her work as an anthologist and or course, as a poet.

It is with that knowledge that the reader can pick up this fine volume and examine each fragment, each piece, knowing that they have been extracted purposefully and with great care. Prepare to be intoxicated by the work of one of her generation’s finest poets.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Selected Poems
by Jenny Bornholdt
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776560660

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