Working in the Cracks Between by Jenny Argante

(Ocean Books, 2012)

Review by Vaughan Rapatahana

Jenny Argante’s thick new collection of poems reveals a poet who likes to use a lot of words: her poems are generally verbose, sometimes overly so. They congeal the pages in massive dollops and one gets the distinct impression that the poet herself is also larger-than-life, for not only are her poems spread on the poetry sandwich as lambasted in massive helpings by a big-bladed knife, but her thematic stance is also right up front – and fair enough too, given the sinisterness of what she is often writing about such as in ‘crack baby’ and ‘Zimbabwe’.

Argante is a real heart-on-the-sleeve writer – sometimes overly so, for some of the many poems about dysfunctional male-female relationships & marriages gone way sour, are almost too personal for the so-called ‘average’ reader. They tend to turn-off because of the specific detailing that can only be of relevance to the director and the directed as written about within – generally some male afflicted by the very fact that he is a man: “perpetual male, always more trouble than they are worth.”

There are several poems concerning females having hard times, generally at the behest of some male figure who is violent, ignorant, violently ignorant, ignorantly violent, and sometimes these ‘work’ / sometimes they do not – an accolade I would grant the entire collection, for there is a tendency throughout to go for the overwritten jugular. Example:

Why let the buried multitudes enchain
Tomorrow, and constrain the future
Masking it with stain
Of unsought failures?

Wow!

Argante is also not a poet who displays a preferential penchant for metaphor – except in small doses: hers is a full frontal verbal assault, not always with succinct imagery to parlay her points. Rhyme is a spasmodic guest at the party too, whilst other than the found poem ‘a flawed precept’, innovation has largely stayed away..

Now Jenny has informed me via email that this collection is indeed her “life’s work” her “heart and soul”, but I do question the need to lay it on so thick, eh, and to be so over-the-top self-possessed on occasion. Her best poems – and make no mistake she can and does write well in places – are less self-focused and less wordy and do contain ‘succinct imagery’. Examples of well-crafted poems in this large collection are: ‘cactus flowering’; ‘a man alone’; ‘communication’; ‘windows’ – which, to give the big lie to my earlier point above, does revolve cleverly around metaphorical nuances; whilst examples of evocative imagery are: “Their breath wrote words he didn’t understand” and “I keep hearing her cry, each space is an ache” and “burned out by some interior explosion, dry-boned and witless.”

Finally, I will return to a frequent complaint I make when reviewing the work of reasonably recent immigrant poets now resident in Aotearoa, even if it was not their place of nascence: that there is bugger all reference to anything remotely reminiscent of the poet actually being in the country, let alone – God forbid – to any aspects of multiculturality. Given that Argante is self-confessedly, “mundanely English” [“there are no Maori warriors”] one would expect at least some more local place names, some referral to New Zealand mores, some portrayal of the adopted country per se; but – except for a few poems towards the end of the collection – there is no such: these poems could be written anywhere BUT in/about Aotearoa actually, as many so obviously refer to Shropshire and Wolverhampton.

Does this matter? Well, yes. Given the poet being the editor for the new Bay of Plenty publishing house Ocean Books, with a manifesto to the effect : “One of our primary aims is to connect with our local Bay of Plenty reader market”, this lack of such connection – to me, at least, admittedly – is a bit of a worry, eh. For I am most definitely such a reader, being ensconced on the East Coast for many years.

Ultimately then, while I most certainly share Catherine Mair’s opinion that “Isn’t that the point of writing [to be accessible and not shallow] rather than to show how clever or inventive the writer is”, I cannot agree with Mair that “Argante’s [confessional] work comes into the top drawer category.”

Not yet anyway, eh. Not enough of the “work in secret, in the cracks between” from the titular poem and ironically, from the same poem, too much of the “laying down [of] thick slabs.”

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