Book Review: South D Poet Lorikeet, by Jenny Powell

Reviewed for Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2019, published in 2019:

The first 30 or so pages of Jenny Powell’s new collection, South D Poet Lorikeet, have the echo of a story. An etching of a life, from birth through girlhood into womanhood. At times ominous, at others lovely, I can’t tell you who she is. Is it Lewis Carroll’s Alice? Is it ‘Big Alice’ from Kathryn Madill’s cover image? Is it a version of Powell? Is it many girlhoods stitched together? They all seem representatives of a girl who doesn’t feel safe, who doesn’t seem to be known by those around her so it’s fitting that we don’t know who she is either.

The collection begins with the title poem, ‘South D Poet Lorikeet’, and a dramatic home birth in the ‘heart of South Dunedin’. It then introduces the girl/s and their girlhoods. These girls are shadow girls, pale girls, trouble girls, perfect girls. Lost girls. Then something happens to the girl – she grows up. And she marries and has a child and the tone of the poems shifts for a moment. A ominous, painful girlhood is left behind by a woman who is loved so much her family posts ‘love letters by air mail for me / to read in the sky’ in the poem ‘MAHA’. And then she is gone. The collection moves on. The poems continue to be artful and original, but I miss the girl and the woman she became. I try to see if I am catching glimmers of her in the following poems (is that her leaving the lights on in ‘When We Turn away from Sadness’? Or doing her makeup in the car in ‘Stockings’? I don’t think it is, though I want it to be). The poetry continues to show Powell’s skill and experience but once the girl/s/woman leave the text the collection loses some appeal and drive for me. I don’t find myself anticipating so eagerly the next poem.

The second part of the collection does remain consistent in its recall of colour. It is as if Powell remembers in colour and you’ll find references to colour in a majority of poems. ‘Lost Girl’ is ‘wearing her true colours. / Skin Girl in the pink’; ‘dots of white smile show / through the gaps of crust’ in ‘My mother my mother my mother’. There is a search to describe the exact shade of red in ‘Red Chambered Heart’ – is it the red ‘of tropical fish / adult flamingos / watermelon flesh / hibiscus flowers’? There is no doubting the colour it is when ‘On the road / every traffic light sniggers red,’ in ‘Girl from the Moon’. Once I noticed the prevalence of colour I went back and reread poems and sure enough it’s there as if the pages themselves are splashed and painted in colour.

The slow revealing of story which occurs in those first 30 pages is replicated in the single poem ‘Black Stars’ near the end of the collection. In it Powell slowly untangles the horror of stumbling across a huge number of dead bees. And then, in the last poem ‘Evolution’, we find again our lorikeet, this time worn on a white t-shirt, here again with a woman in pain. South D Poet Lorikeet is a collection worth reading, I only wish the mysterious girl from the first 30 pages could have continued the whole, colourful, journey with me.