Jennifer Compton revisits, ponders and critiques one of her earlier poems, ‘Woman With Japonica’, from her first book of poetry.

I went out for a walk and a wander yesterday, because winter’s back had been broken and it was time to get out of the house. As I turned left at our front gate, I noticed, in next door’s unreconstructed garden, a stunted japonica that was squeezing through the fence, had begun flowering. It hadn’t been flowering yesterday, I swear.

Two lines from a poem I wrote back in 1980 when I was writer in residence at Canterbury University in Christchurch came back to me.

Because I know one japonica
I love all japonica

And that’s true enough still. I do like the way it is a thrusting, hardy, difficult plant. It invades any available interstice. The knobbed twigs head off in all directions at once, and the delicate, ephemeral blossom grows at intervals inconvenient for successful flower arrangement. The blossom doesn’t last; the branches do. Most of all I like the paradox between the frailty of the flower, and the rugged, angular wood. And as a grace-note, the blossom appears when the branch is leafless.

Later, yesterday, while on the train, I spotted a burgeoning japonica that was more than a metre high. It had achieved an intense circular design that turned in on itself, and, perhaps because it was the very first day of flowering, there was a triumphant aura hovering about it.

Tonight I pulled out the book (From The Other Woman – Five Islands Press, 1993) that my japonica poem is in, and looked at it again for the first time for years. It was very disappointing.

My memory of the impulse to write the poem still glowed somewhere in my mind, but now I could see that I hadn’t pulled it off. The poem seemed inert, and, yes, jejeune. It hadn’t travelled well. It hadn’t lasted. And yet I had been so adamant, way back then, that I had achieved a poem. Or else I wouldn’t have insisted it was in my first book. I remember being adamant, although I can’t remember why. Oh well. You live and you learn. Time is the best critic.

Woman With Japonica

in a hand knitted
apricot twinset
(triple knit)
between me
& her japonica
a winter bitten shade
of apricot

because I know one japonica
I love all japonica

that japonica
part of the view
that no longer fills my eye

I painted a picture
of japonica
before I knew japonica
because I liked the name

everything I’ve ever thought I’ve owned
has become part of the world again

it’s like saying
‘White horses.’

As I interrogate the poem I blench at its careless use of the word ‘love’. Do I believe that the writer of this poem ‘loves’ japonica? Well, no, I don’t. Why does the eye of the poet notice the hand-knitted twinset is triple knit? How is that part of the story? The penultimate stanza seems so drenched in self pity I wonder that I can bear to bring it to public attention.

everything I’ve ever thought I’ve owned
has become part of the world again

What a slack, fake, cheap striving for portentousness! How I am blushing! ‘Winter bitten’ strikes a false note too. And as for the last stanza, how would anyone ever understand that? How would any reader know that the poet had brought from her Tretchikoff-ridden childhood a secret and shameful liking for the idea of waves breaking on a beach being like white horses?

Well enough. I could go on and on, pouring scorn on this poor little piece of work. But I shall finish by declaring that it is simply a poem that doesn’t come off. I hadn’t understood myself.

Jennifer Compton is a poet and playwright who also writes prose. Her book of poetry Barefoot, published by Picaro Press, was shortlisted for the John Bray Award at the 2012 Adelaide Festival. This City won the Kathleen Grattan Award in New Zealand (Otago University Press, 2011). Ungainly has just come out with Mulla Mulla Press. She features in Going Down Swinging No. 30 and the current print/audio edition, No. 33.

Engraving of Chaenomeles japonica from Flora Conspicua by William Clark and Richard Morris (1826)