Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, <<terrain grammar>>. New York: theenk Books, 2018. ISBN: 9780988389199
<<terrain grammar>> is an intriguing book of 76 poems. I found reading this new book by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa to be an exercise in sustained curiosity, the poetry routinely returning to combinations of imagery and ideas that provoke enjoyable intrigue and confusion, from the juxtaposition in short stanzas like ‘faux radio / welt crash’ (2) ‘playbook distant / unborn rhyme’ (14), ‘blind violent sea / ceremonial autopsy’ (61), ‘anonymous rocks / vigilante reunion’ (77), to longer lines such as ‘a dead insect lands on my vagina footprints lost in deep snow’ (50) and ‘bone nostrils rain replace heart citizens mobile’ (73).
Difficulty parsing certain meanings in <<terrain grammar>> is softened by the reassurance from the book itself that the text has a deep interest in the mysterious, hidden or unknowable aspects of language; the ‘incomprehensible stammering of trees / impossible dialogue’ (19), ‘Logic of the swamp. / Dark, troubled past stripped of meaning’ (30), ‘joints of language hiding in melancholy trees’ (32), ‘imaginary languages / in fields of mysterious objects’ (64). In this poetic ecotone of the page, where language meets the environment and vice versa, the ecological language of ‘wilted flower code’ (16) or that ‘incomprehensible stammering of trees’ (19) is enigmatic, a conceptual space that plays out the limits of human language to convey complete meaning.
Another striking element in <<terrain grammar>> is how it operates with a particular poetic terrain on the page. <<terrain grammar>> has a table of contents but internally the poems are not demarcated by titles, resulting in varying degrees of clarity over where many poems begin or end. From the beginning, the second page of the first poem ‘<sawtooth>’ (1) reads like the beginning of the abutting ‘<classic stranger>’ (3), then the following ‘<methane dress>’ (4) can be read in sequence before the realisation that you have changed poems fully hits. It creates the effect of easily falling from one poem into the next without immediately registering the shift, a paratextual choice that captures the spirit of much of the text, mimicking Joritz-Nakagawa’s line ‘dreamy landscapes with flowing boundaries’ (16). This removal of title ‘boundaries’ in the text enables the reader to roam across the terrain of Joritz-Nakagawa’s ‘fields of mysterious objects’ (64) without signposts, providing a landscape of poetry where the reader is allowed to be lost as part of the reading experience.
The poetry itself ranges from a few short single-page poems, to the majority of 1-2 page poems, and to a few significant pieces and mini-collections. The biggest multipage collection, and one of my favourites pieces in <<terrain grammar>>, is ‘<love poems>’ (5), at eleven pages, just behind the 10 pages of ‘<self portrait> (66) and significantly more than the next largest of 5 pages. ‘<love poems>’ is a beautiful clash of fragments that builds a dreamlike external and internal environment, a city brimming with surreal and anthropomorphised life. There is a continual sense of everything watching and being watched, from the flowers in the ground, ‘flowers gaze sullenly / at a distance’ (6-7), to the clocks, ‘At a distance / a clock glares at me / At a distance’ (9), the river, ’a winking river / looks straight into a camera’ (6), to the drones in the sky, ‘data drones lie under digital clouds’ (5). Meanwhile, ‘squeamish computers conspire / with relentless rhetorical devices’ (8). Amongst this teeming environment, the love story in ‘<love poems>’ is assembled in pieces, in fragments of story ‘we kiss in black and white / on days stars died’ (5), ’my tear falls / on a mountain / in a lost photograph’ (9), ‘love is a faulty device’ (11). Here, the conceptual is technological, the organic is anthropomorphised and so is the technology. The distinctions of how things operate are blurred in this ecopoetic enmeshment where everything starts taking on qualities of its surroundings. From the ‘shudder of street / intersection of objects’ (14), to ’under the fern / half of bone’ (15), to ‘color and shape / a dark sea’ (15), the melting, expansive landscape contains multitudes.
<<terrain grammar>> also contains a few pieces of prose in addition to its main body of poetry, one of these being ‘<poetics statement>’ (60), a short prose piece which begins: ‘I want my poems not to be experiences but representations of experiences by other people that they never should have had or would have been better off just imagining’ (60). This is fulfilled with many of the more harrowing poems such as ‘<demifugue>’ (45) and ‘<nerve ending>’ (54) which explore themes of pain.
<<terrain grammar>> is a book of contrasts and ‘<nerve ending>’ (54) leads directly into ‘<hats off>’ (59), a delightful prose piece describing a dream about the poet building a spaceship with Tom Cruise and a ‘less attractive unknown white male actor’ and shooting out of a cannon screaming ‘lady gagagagagagagaga’ (59). Likewise, ‘<une phrase traverse>’ (40), is an a-z listing from ‘A is a child adult trapped in an aging body, protected by every1’ to ‘Z fails all tests of reality’, that ranges in tone from ‘N stills plays with dolls’ and ‘R puts every1 to sleep’ to ‘W is a paranoid schizophrenic with handguns hidden all over the house / X burned down his house when he got bored with it’.
Finally in the dynamism of contrast, situated against and among the exterior landscapes built out of references to rivers and hills, mountains, moors and forests, there is human life happening at its most painful and delightful and boring and just human. <<terrain grammar>> transverses the tangled nexus of language, meaning, environment, and humanity and invites the reader to do the same. It is well worth the journey.
Brianna Vincent is a current PhD student at the University of Auckland, her doctoral project focuses on potentialities of darkness in New Zealand and Oceanic poetry. She is also a research assistant for the ongoing Emily Cumming Harris in Australia and New Zealand project at the University of Auckland.