The first poem Paula Jennings read during her Literary Festival session shares a title with her debut collection, Singing Lucifer. In her poem, as she points out, “Lucifer gets a slightly better press.” He is not merely the archetype of hubris and the architect of his own fall, but the revolutionary, “striking out for freedom.”
Poetry readings in this modern age of print are somewhat tricky. The audience is primarily composed of readers whose eyes are better trained than their ears for receiving a poem. In this context, Jennings’ reading is praiseworthy, because the sound of a downward movement resonates clearly – “This is the sound of Lucifer falling . . . “
“Singing Lucifer” is also of interest because it reiterates Jennings’ engagement with the position of the outsider. In her poem, the devil gets a fair press. Also noteworthy in “Singing Lucifer” is the unconventional deployment of Catholic imagery. She attributes her fondness for such images, not only to their lyrical, resonant quality but to her belief that they are firmly placed in a common culture, and so afford an ease of access.
The next three poems that Jennings read are from her latest collection, From the Body of the Green Girl – ‘Bruce’, ‘Driving at Night,’ and ‘Night Road.’ These night poems feature shape-shifting. In the ‘Night Road’, for example, a motorist crashes into a deer, an accident which kills both. But, in the poet’s imagination, they live, “She’s riding the road-kill . . . / both of them fresh/ from their recent deaths.” The surreal element in these poems is inspired not only by the poet’s preoccupations with themes of love, change and death; but also her firm conviction that “we are nature . . . we are the natural world.” How do such surreal poems take shape? “Night Road” began in her mind with the phrase “I’m riding the road-kill”, which startled her. But, she admits, it is rare for her to follow through with an idea in mind: “I’m writing to see where it’s going rather than to get there.”
The next question is about structure – Jennings’ poems are not bound by traditional forms. The fundamental building block is “sound happening.” Her poems take shape around her twin concerns of “where the breath comes” and “how the white space works.” The last few poems that Jennings reads are as yet unpublished and were borne out of conversations with dementia sufferers, in particular a woman named Jean.
The poems ‘Speaking to a Toy Dog,’ ‘The Cake’, ‘Watching Animals on the Playing Field’, and ‘Talking about Life’, present complex problems which, the poet successfully resolves. What is immediately apparent during Jennings’ readings is her compassion, her empathy with Jean’s hunger to be understood, and her drive to reinforce Jean’s meaning. Perhaps it is the fact of Jennings’ own status as a poet that lends these problems their urgency. ‘I would like to see poets employed in nursing homes,’ she says. An employment that would greatly foster understanding and creativity for all involved.
Does this mean her poems have an agenda? There is “shame around dementia,” she says but it is not that simple. ”All my poems are political with a small ‘p’ . . . [but] I don’t have an axe to grind.”
Even so, these unpublished poems appear to be agents of change. They invite us to sidestep the mainstream, and look in at niches which are not easily accessible. They are considerations of the condition best summarised in Jennings own lines – “In the days to come/ there will be/ a lot of us that are changed . . .”