Tuning Wordsworth’s Piano by Jane Simpson

Tuning Wordsworth’s Piano. Jane Simpson (Brisbane: Interactive Publications, 2019). ISBN 9781925231915. RRP $29. 51pp.

Reviewed by Kay McKenzie Cooke

I found the title of Jane Simpson’s poetry collection, Tuning Wordsworth’s Piano, rather intriguing. I wondered what the title was hinting at. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. The title poem is the first poem in the book and yields strong clues.

Unspoilt Nature is nature writ too small;
nature at our feet;
nodding daffodils saying ‘Yes’,
green the obverse of grey paths
in the Victorian Botanical Gardens
where children cavort and disks wheel,
Orphic artists paint concentric circles,
create the sun – sing the music
of the spheres.
(“Tuning Wordsworth’s piano”)

This poem sets the scene for this thoughtful poetry collection. All the poems that follow similarly expose the poet’s love of the sublime, the spiritual, as well as her love for humanity and nature. Small delights, such as plants in a garden and time spent among the trees, bring peace and a sense of wonder. An additional sensibility towards literature, art, and music — the finer things of life — infuses this collection. There is also a thread of reverence and compassion for the tender, vulnerable, and small.

Simpson asks of things that are still growing, ‘taken from your grove / can you thrive, alone, in the city?’ (“Rewarewa”).

There is also an admiration for how humble things, when observed closely, have the ability to highlight the universal — the macro contained in the micro.

Rain beads on brassicas,
the meniscus, taut

between white veins, is a jewel
that reflects the beloved,

would reflect the Milky way
were it not for the snap

of ice on opened leaves.
(“From a bed of stars”)

Like a gardener delving into fertile soil, Simpson’s metaphorical digging into the natural world often turns up personal insights. I think these small poems were the ones I enjoyed the most. Anyone who can discover the sacred in a bunch of silverbeet has my attention — ‘silverbeet are fluted / columns down a temple wall’ (“barocca pearl”).

Simpson’s mindfulness towards the elements and the environment is especially evident in the mid-section of the collection. Here, the poet describes her cycling tour of the Catlins. For me, this section holds the book together. Despite its vivid descriptions of buffeting wind and rain, I am tempted to describe it as the book’s quiet centrepiece.  The focus is on Simpson as a (very grounded) pilgrim in search of, among other things, the late poet Hone Tuwhare’s crib (Northern readers, think bach).

Does she find the crib? Ah, well, since I enjoyed the subtle tension leading up to the answer to this question, I feel compelled not to spoil it for you.

The poet’s journey is impressively intrepid. And the heartwarming sequence of poems created because of this venture takes us along for the ride. Honest descriptions of the people she meets, of maps she follows, and the impact of the landscape as she forges ahead, pepper all the poems. I have a mental image of a hardy Simpson often halting her (surely) dogged progress, defying the battering of a strong easterly, to jot down lines inspired by this beautiful part of Aotearoa.

Campervans rush past to Slope Point
the minutes and seconds of extremity.
In front of me, ploughed hills are rolling r’s,
Rakiura stretches out, blue as a whale.
(“The map, CH13 Curio Bay”)

 It is in the third section of this book where Simpson (now off her bike) really hits her stride. The poetry here is strong, and it also reveals a love of life and its finer aspects. But now, this love is tempered with personal disquiet and grief. This is where Simpson’s poetry speaks in more political ways. She insists for more inclusion and equality in the church. One delightful poem about nuns at work is titled, “Feminine construct”. Through these poems, she shows a willingness to speak up as well as out.

I will see in their place Christa on the cross
back in the Manhatten Anglican Cathedral, bare
-breasted, sculpted in bronze;
scandalous and true.
(“This Good Friday”)

Did God not put the rainbow in the sky? In an ancient church
the priest wraps hands, two sons are exchanging vows;
what God has joined together let not man put asunder.
(“Sonnenizio on a line by R.S. Thomas”)

Tuning Wordsworth’s Piano is a book where observations are simple, singular, and tender. But at times, these observations can also appear opaque. Some of the poems, particularly in this third section, come across as enigmatic. This is actually not a bad thing in poetry, and Simpson’s light hand still does offer accessibility.

They glisten like the key
-hole slits either side and below
my belly I see every morning
in the shower –

a sacrament of life, body
and blood, my womb
(“Seeing Claire at Evensong”)

What carries this collection is the poet’s obvious sensibility, salted with compassion, as well as a searing and unapologetic honesty. Simpson is personal and true to herself. Her insightful poems acknowledge a spiritual side that informs the everyday and the ordinary, with all its anomalies, tragedies, and all its small and large sorrows.

I believe a fitting conclusion to this review would be a line from one of the poems describing Simpson’s cycle tour of the Catlins. This is where she had set out searching for the last home of one of Aotearoa’s favourite poets. It perhaps sums up, more than anything, Simpson’s compassion for the ‘unmarked’ as well as her reason for being.

The reason
I’m here – a pilgrim
to a poet’s unmarked crib.
(“With wing feathers trailing”)

Kay McKenzie Cooke (Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe) lives in Dunedin. She has had three poetry books published by OUP, with her fourth collection to be published by The Cuba Press in 2020.

To read more reviews, poetry, and articles, join the NZPS here. You can also find more poetry reviews on our website here.