A world without maps by Jane Simpson

(Interactive Press, 2016)

Review by Fiona Farrell

The reference subject list on the title page verso of Jane Simpson’s latest collection, A world without maps, mentions ‘Autobiographical poetry/Grief-Poetry/United Arab Emirates-Poetry’. A no-doubt efficient summation, but one that gives little hint of this publication’s scope.

In 43 poems, divided into three sections, Simpson guides the reader on several intimate yet wide-ranging journeys, first hinted at in the cover photograph of a row of young women, their long hair loose and dishevelled by a dusty wind. From an initial glance, it is a disturbing image, though it is in fact a row of young Emirati women preparing to dance the khaliji, that frenzied, hair-tossing dance of Bedouin women, when restraint and inhibition are flung aside.

The first third of this collection, Desert logic, contains poems prompted by the author’s time teaching at a girls’ school in Dubai, travelling the region bordering the Arabian Gulf. For the author, this is a journey into the unknown. Her destination unrecorded on Google Earth, she sets out, the sensation of confusion and dislocation perfectly captured in the collection’s opening poem, “A world without maps”: ‘for those who don’t read maps / no maps exist’.

That sense of confusion, of entering strange worlds and the sustained attempt to locate one’s self within them becomes a metaphor unifying, not just this section and its exploration of the strangeness of another culture, but the entire collection. In poem after poem, the author creates maps to guide her through the territory of grief following her mother’s death and the deaths of friends, as well as the fractured social and political landscape in which she finds herself living.

The second poem in Desert logic takes its start from the difficulty of speaking with a taxi driver, upon arrival in Dubai:

We keep missing
each other
Kiwi mixed
with Buraimi
broken English

Again, this sets in motion a recurrent theme within the collection: the attempt to find language, not just for intercultural communication, but to define complex feelings of loss, love, and the vivid awareness of beauty in transient existence. Words open small windows that widen into moments of perception, even as a glimpse of the desert widens to an awareness of the immensity of time:

the millennia melt
dishes point to the sky
a purple smudge…
scientists study on the bridge
for crocodiles
when the Himalayas were young

A row of girls dancing broadens similarly into realising another version of the role of women:

Girls unspring buns
let tresses fall
move as hair airborne
flies from side to side
as if in defiance
the Principal looks on
in her eagle face,
aristocratic, before
the dervishes

Poems set in New Zealand offer other versions of femininity. In “The Prof’s wife”, a thumbnail sketch of a kind of woman is deftly worked: ‘Her armoury was wood and steel, clanking / in tired drawers, full of crumbs.’ And here is a poem about recipes:

My grandmother lives
In my kitchen cupboard
In pressed pages. Granny
Irene, fresh air and her
Froebel training, raw not refined…

The work is delicate, poised, meditative, the voice that of a woman of gentle faith and social conviction. The final poem concerns the writer’s home city, Christchurch, and its loss and destruction.

the city’s old body has gone
young couples gently
touch, peace and justice
rise, kiss.

How appropriate then that, as another reviewer, Bernardette Hall, has so perceptively written, A world without maps is ‘the work of a peacemaker’, one that ‘concludes with a kiss.’