Ashleigh Young's launch speech for Craven

My favourite image in this book is of a figurehead in the shape of a woman on the front of a huge salty ship. The woman is pressing ahead through the ocean while being pelted with bugs. She is serene and stately, despite her somewhat undignified position. In the poem she tells us that, despite what you might assume, maybe she isn't fighting her situation. Maybe she isn’t trying to turn things around. ‘Maybe I’m not really thinking anything,’ Jane writes. ‘Maybe I’m just salty and stuck.’

It’s possible to be both stuck and forging ahead, while saying, ‘That sucks but I guess I’ll survive it.’ Jane’s book enacts that stuckness and that forging. It is also a very salty book. It’s a book about romance, especially the less celebrated forms of romance, like hoping that your partner won’t get punched at the bus stop. It’s about the barrier between the inner and outer selves, not only in a metaphysical sense, but in a basic physical sense – the pulsing, gristly, ‘flesh origami’ that is the body, and the way it continues to transport a person around, whatever our feelings about that; the way it overreacts to danger or harbours violent impulses.

This is a book about self-loathing and self-forgiveness, about the slow digesting of experiences that at first seem impossible to live with. In one poem Jane swallows a strange assortment of items and then presents a tidy bundle of bones and feathers and calcified organs on her tongue. (I’m saying ‘Jane’ instead of ‘the speaker’ or ‘the poet’, which poetry school says is bad manners and wrong, and maybe it is, but sometimes when a writer keeps describing a heart – a literal heart, that most-hidden muscle – then it’s hard to resist the idea that this is one particular heart. But maybe it is isn’t.)

I think that most of all this book is about the mechanics of persistence – of moving gallantly forward through the bugs, through the eels, or even staying in one place, like a plastic rose tied around a lamp post, or like the endless moment when you keep mishearing someone repeatedly. Alongside that tenacious hanging on is a sense of awe – at the world and at oneself. Jane writes: ‘I am pinned down and oh / what a view. You lot in graves, you’re okay / you should stay there’.

I was reading Jane’s Q&A on the Unity blog today and she reports that she was literally pinned down when writing this book – either by two small dogs, or by her sleeping baby. Thank you, Jane’s dogs and Jane’s baby, for their crucial role in the writing of this book.

I want to come back to the saltiness, which is important. Every so often that calm ‘sallying forth’ breaks open and the poet has an exasperated outburst and starts knocking people’s drinks out of their hands. Maybe these are the two defining states of this moment in history: a steely resolve, and a cataclysmic fury. In New Zealand fiction, and maybe in life, there’s often a character who is quiet and reserved until they explode with rage, and then they go back to being quiet and reserved again, like nothing ever happened. Jane repurposes this typically Dad-like rage and makes it something new, subversive, and even democratic – available to all of us. In her poem ‘Sit Down’, snapshots from contemporary life and pop culture zoom out to show Jane screaming in the background. ‘A YouTube montage of animals being friends with each other / with me screaming in the background.’ Or ‘A reality show about billionaires and their personal chefs / with me screaming in the background.’ And, finally, ‘The moon behind trees / with me screaming in the background.’ Even though so much of humanity is unbearable, it’s also unbearable to be alone.

‘I’m entertaining the idea of never being silent again,’ she writes, ‘of walking into a room and shouting, You Fuckers Better Toe the Line.’ I love how we go from zero right up to 100 in an instant – there is no in between, we go immediately to swearing. Why wouldn’t you if you’ve been silent for a long time? ‘Let’s all be modern witches,’ she implores, ‘cursing whatever we please’. There are quieter outbursts, too. In her poem ‘Brangelina’, a literal angel, glowing and feathery, comes down out of the sky and interrupts Jane’s thoughts about Brad Pitt’s custody battle with Angelina Jolie. The angel whispers: ‘Brad is an asshole.’

The truth keeps coming. It crosses the permeable barriers of doubt and gets right into the brain. It animates these poems the way a punch-up animates a sports field. And there’s a sense of release, of finally!, when clarity anounces itself and the thing is said, and the poet gets a little closer to knowing who she is and what is true for her. Like the realisation that she should never have let herself be forced onto a dancefloor in the first place. Or the realisation that it’s easier to condemn strangers for being shits than it is to condemn friends for being shits. Or that it’s okay to make a big deal of it. With each of these realisations, the salty lady on the ship inches gallantly forwards.

As Eileen Myles said last year, when she judged Jane to be winner of the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize, ‘There’s a from-the-hip authority that inhabits each and all of these poems.’ That authority is never preachy or righteous, because you know it hasn’t been gained without struggle. These poems dig and dig to get to the heart of things, like in one of several poems that describe piano practice. ‘Your sister says you suck and you know this, but underneath you think you might be okay, and underneath that you think you’re terrible, and underneath that you think maybe this means you’re great because geniuses never know they’re geniuses, and deep, deep down, you wonder what you really think.’

I also want to mention a quality of immediacy, of a goose-pimpling present moment. Eileen Myles also wrote of Jane: ‘The poet shocked me. I was thrust into their work right away and it evoked the very situation of the poem. They more than caught me.’ To be shocked by poetry is a rare thing. I love this quality in Jane’s writing: an abruptness, a boldness, but an immediate depth. In ‘The Lonely Paparazzo’ she writes: ‘I splice out the almost imperceptible beauteous / hideous moment and hold it aloft.’ She splices out that moment over and over, as when a technician examines her heart and she looks at the image on the screen. ‘Watching it you can’t tell what from what, all you know is / the image is moving and you are alive.’ Or when she thinks about questions like, ‘The line between a dead body and human remains / What is it?’ She keeps us teetering there between the beauteous and the hideous.

It takes a lot of risk to be both abrupt and meaningful, and Jane takes risk after risk in this book, which I admire deeply and am jealous of. Somehow she can run headlong at silliness, creepiness, excess, even sentimentality, and at the last second she veers away and leaves them in her dust. She takes us somewhere real and often magnificently strange. I love her image of Juliet Capulet fleeing from her tomb, leaving dry branches in place of her bones, for people to perform their grief over. ‘I charged out into the shadows / carrying my huge heart.’ Then Juliet cuts off her hair and starts a new life with a crown of mushrooms on. These poems, too, are charging into the shadows, carrying their huge heart, with their weird crown on.

Craven p/b $25