Writers in Residence and Other Captive Fauna
(This review first appeared in Breif 38)
This collection should be compulsory for anyone interested in innovative writing from New Zealand, and Scott Hamilton’s introduction offers a fantastic entry-point into what is a startling and difficult oeuvre. The opening piece, “A Quiet Shape”, is dense and somewhat daunting; but like the best of Jenner’s work becomes a sparse lyric, steeped in the detail of minutiae and with a diction pillaged from various sciences (in this case anatomy and biochemistry), and is as rewarding as the best texts of other notoriously difficult writers such as Samuel Beckett.
However unlike Beckett these texts are not empty, devoid of meaning, or demonstrative of hopeless existential angst. There is a profound thirst for knowledge at work here, a keen mind, and a very sharp wit. This comes across with great joie de vivre in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Shirt” an analytic and self aware investigation into absurdism, reminiscent more of Donald Barthelme channelling Ludwig Wittgenstein than James Joyce.
Barthelme and Joyce, alongside Beckett, are good comparisons, as Jenner shares with them an astute, occasionally hermetic (and I do not mean this in a pejorative sense) wit. This is bolstered by a keen eye and ear for the absurd, and a healthy sense of the play and the performative in language. A good example of this is the piece “Arthur’s Pass”, the pun in the title being intended I’m sure, most likely with a grin and a knowing wink. The circular recurrence of the text mirrors the figure-of-eight path of Arthur’s run, with all the implications of a symbol for infinity. The paragraphs themselves in the third section (“He Fits Her Description”) rush headlong onwards, “don’t stop, no, you’ll never stop” (36), lacking final punctuation marks, having an impetus all of their own independent of speaker, narrator or writer. This piece reminds me somewhat of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”, a favourite in creative writing classes, but my opinion is that Jenner has outdone him. This being said I must add that I was never a particular fan of Cheever.
In an uncanny parallel with Scott Hamilton, who has written a fantastic introduction to the volume, I too first encountered Jenner’s work through his piece “Progress Report on an Annotated Checklist for a Motuihe Island Gazetteer of Ethnographical Topology and Comparative Onomatography”, though this was in an old back-issue of Parallax, the short-lived journal of “Postmodern Literature and Art” edited by Alan Loney 1982-3. I’d become interested in ‘Language’ writing through the work of Michele Leggott, and was surprised to find that Charles Bernstein, co-editor of the movement’s eponymous magazine, had been published in a NZ journal, and was interested to find what other gems were there. There was Jenner’s prolix title, alongside the work of such as Tony Green, another innovator long overlooked (in New Zealand at least; he has recently recorded for the PennSound archive of audio poetry based at Pennsylvania State University). I encountered Jenner’s poetry through the long out of print volume A Memorial Brass, produced by Loney’s Hawk Press, and am glad to see his poetry, as well as his prose, included in this volume.
Poetry, though, is often besides the point when it comes to Jenner’s work, which can oscillate between genres, or (again with a grin and a wink) refuse to fit nicely into the category of either poetry or prose (again, much like Joyce in Finnegans Wake, or in the later chapters of Ulysses). Take, for example, the following passage from “A Concise Natural History of Southern Malawi”:
tropical boubou ma tew tew ma tew tew three-streaked
twitter swizzle bunting larklike twitter zack blackcap tew tew (82)
This piece, like “Progress Report…” titles itself as a scientific treatise, however rather than masquerading as such on a textual level (as “Progress Report” does, at least at an initial glance), “Natural History” functions in a similar way to the avant-garde poetics of Gertrude Stein, Ronald Johnson and Clark Coolidge, privileging the phonemic aspects of the words, their sounds and feelings, over any normal coherency. The piece as a whole is held together thematically by naturalistic and taxonomic references (in keeping with the title). The result is a piece of great beauty.
This is a fantastic, and long overdue book, full of the unexpected, that constantly startles and surprises. It doesn’t get boring, it doesn’t get old, and I have a suspicion that it is one I will return to and find completely different at each reading.