Craven by Jane Arthur

Craven. Jane Arthur (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2019). ISBN 9781776562879. RRP $25. 80pp.

Reviewed by Thomas Hamill

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I’m not good at Christmas. At age 13, I was an avid reader, and was once given a very fancy bookmark. At the touch of a button, this bookmark would magically illuminate the page in a deep crimson red for ‘under-the-covers’ reading, so as not to disturb my stepbrother sleeping in the same room. The thing is, I was grateful, but I think the expression ‘tell your face’ was perhaps appropriate and I was rightly chastised. Since then, I have never really been able to judge what is and isn’t appropriate in the gift-receiving stakes. Do you jump for joy at a knitted scarf? Do you sob uncontrollably when you receive a picture of your dead hamster Snuffles? Do you give a polite nod and nothing else for a Farmer’s gift voucher? I just don’t know. As I read Jane Arthur’s extraordinary debut Craven, I am repeatedly reminded of my deep-rooted anxieties such as this one. Crucially, as I delve deeper through the poems, I am being empowered to overcome them.

Craven is Arthur’s debut collection. Although you wouldn’t know it — her delicate and accomplished style has the feeling of someone who has been around poetry and literature for years, and I wasn’t surprised to read that she has been in the book industry for a long time. Craven is a collection that holds a varying mix of mid-length and short poems. Craven is also split into three sections, although the purpose of these sections is a little lost on me. Overall, there is a calm assuredness in the style of writing throughout the book. I feel like I am in conversation with Arthur discussing the peaks and troughs of life over a glass of red wine at the kitchen table, and that we are both showcasing our feelings without knowing it. “Oh, Great” is one such poem where a colloquial moment belies meaningfulness:

            I was trying to decide           
            whether it’s better the oceans are rising
than if they were drying up –
I mean emotionally, not scientifically – and
I couldn’t decide which was better
or worse, an abundance or absence,
to drown or to die of thirst.

Cleverly, Arthur omits a question mark, inferring that this poem is a musing rather than a grand statement that requires an answer. Despite the potential seriousness of the topic, together reader and writer are invited to consider the situation gently, and to not cave under the topic’s weight. Similarly, in a short poem later in the collection, we read about “A Sharp Large Knife” that likes ‘chopping onions’, which then leads to pondering the fact that ‘it’s ok, they’re already dead / though I am weeping, too’. Everyday inconsequential reflections are captured and paused upon, giving a sprinkling of deep meaning.

This is not to say that there aren’t moments of real heft in Arthur’s writing. Among the conversational poems, some pieces have a weight that cuts through and stands out. The poem “Reach” explores male dominance and the imbalance of power in a relationship. The man ‘would take everything I handed him’ while the woman would ‘laugh … afraid of having that much power.’ It is a challenging topic that is treated with measure and poise. Further to this, and in what is something of a showstopper, “The Real Reason Why Hollywood Won’t Cast Jane Arthur Anymore” explores the haze of new parenthood, as well as the feeling of being newly trapped in a world that you can’t control, with a life that you now have to guide through it. The structure of the poem sums up this challenge. Neat passages are justified left, while lines of seemingly broken text sprawl at random across the page. The dichotomy of finding order in the chaos of modernity is laid bare for all to see.

But, for me, the real strength of Craven is in its conversationalist tones. “The Sum of Your Life” is a delightful encapsulation of this. It is a short eight-stanza poem that gives a snapshot of fleeting thoughts, which you could have at any moment on any given day:

            The discomfort           
            of mishearing a stranger
over and over.

            An epiphany           
            followed by the realisation
it’s the same one you had at sixteen.

Like so much of the collection, this poem really is full of vulnerable charm; Arthur leaves so much of herself in the simplicity of her words. “Situation” demonstrates this further. The voice in the poem states that ‘I’ve been preoccupied with what others think again’, and that ‘nights are not long enough’ for all these musings. Then follows a series of questions that many of us silently think at some stage but never have the courage to ask out loud. Not just for Arthur, but for all of us, so often these ‘questions come up at inconvenient times.’ The poem ends on a final rhetorical note that neatly encapsulates the mood of much of Craven:

            Maybe healthy emotional behaviour wasn’t modelled to us as children.           
            So we bite. We draw blood. We take things that aren’t ours. I don’t know.

Nothing is too challenging in the language and syntax of this neat statement. However, behind these simple words, there is deep introspection and meaning. Questions are constantly raised and left for the reader to answer; it is therapeutic. As such, I realise that the more I read, the more I am thinking back to my own anxieties and using the poems as a catharsis for my own neurosis; I’m imbuing my experiences through Arthur’s words. “Messing Up the Scales” is one such example. It is a narrative poem that describes arriving at a piano lesson, and feeling the intense embarrassment of putting some of yourself out there in performance:

            …Your face reddens           
            like your fingernails when you realise

            the children outside           
            can hear you, too.

Reading this, and realising how much it can be applied to my own adult life, gave me a real sense of relief. Someone else has had these experiences, and they are okay! They are maddening, at the time traumatising, but these experiences are part of existence and have been shared by many before. Craven is a collection that has something for everyone, and explores life’s highs and lows in simple and reassuring words. It is a pleasure to delve into the collection, as it offers hope, charm, support and, most importantly, empowerment, to anyone who reads it: ‘I can get up in the mornings / I do things’ (“Idiots”). Simply, Jane Arthur has delivered a wonderful debut collection full of vulnerability and charm. The fact that I’m using it as some kind of self-help book to get over my Christmas unwrapping traumas is neither here nor there, and as poetry, it is wonderful. But for the record, now that I’ve read Craven and feel better about life and my own quirks, when I receive my next fancy bookmark, I’ll feel emboldened to react with a polite smile and a hearty thanks.

Thomas Hamill is an English Literature graduate of the University of Warwick in the UK, now living in Tāmaki Makaurau. He is inspired by nature in Aotearoa and loves exploring this theme in his own writing

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