JEAN KENT was born in Chinchilla, Qld, in 1951. She published her first poems in a literary magazine in 1970, while she was completing an Arts Degree (majoring in psychology) at the University of Qld; her first collection, Verandahs, appeared twenty years later, in 1970. Since then, another eight books of her poetry have been published. The most recent are The Hour of Silvered Mullet (Pitt Street Poetry, 2015) and Paris in my Pocket (PSP, 2016).
Awards Jean has won include the Anne Elder Prize and Dame Mary Gilmore Award (both for Verandahs), the Wesley Michel Wright Prize, the Josephine Ulrick Prize and Somerset Prize. She has been a runner-up for the Newcastle Poetry Prize and winner of its Local Section, and was a judge of the prize in 2013. She has received several writing grants from the Australia Council, including Overseas Residencies in Paris in 1994 and 2011.
As well as writing poetry, fiction and (occasional) nonfiction, Jean has worked as an educational psychologist, counsellor in TAFE colleges, lecturer in Creative Writing, mentor and facilitator of poetry workshops.
With Kit Kelen, Jean was co-editor of A Slow Combusting Hymn: Poetry from and about Newcastle and the Hunter Region (ASM/Cerberus Press, Flying Island Books, 2014).
Her Flying Island pocket book is The Language of Light (2013), a selection of her poems with Chinese translations by Iris Fan Xing.
In 2020, Kit Kelen invited her to converse with him by email for his blog spot, The Daily Kit. Their conversation over six months, covering a lot of topics, including poetry, but also COVID19, the deaths of their mothers, gardening … and some very recent drafts of poems, can be read here:
On the verandah of my grandparents’ house,
the day falls asleep around me.
This is the roof of my childhood.
And this, the floor. Tin and wood:
silver-grey, sibling corrugations.
Like platforms for family legends
they wait, rehearsing allegories
as if it is always the end
of a sun-limp day, the lucerne cut,
wheat bagged and a needle in the hessian
beckoning its tail of string.
In the fragrant dusk, soil settles.
Crickets, ants and unseen lives
team over cracks in black earth’s surface –
years are strung like tales of Min-Min lights
along this world of roof-creaks,
board-sighs, a home paddock barracking
for the far-off calls of dinner plates,
falling tablecloths, cutlery and relatives.
Time melts here. Ghosts with glasses of Scotch
catching the last day’s light in their hands,
bend their knees, ease back
into squatters’ chairs. I wake.
A cool breeze is balancing
beside the verandah rail, roping it
and ruffling off, up into wisteria leaves:
sitting tenants now, under the roof.
Time melts. On the ends of long wooden arms,
ice, moonlit, hugs the air.
(From Verandahs, Hale & Iremonger, 1990; reprinted Picaro Press, 2009.
Also in The Language of Light, ASM/Flying Island Books, Macao, 2013.)
QUARANTINE CAMP, 1919
After the tents of war, now the tents of Wallangarra:
one last quarantine before the unfamiliar family
can escape to what they hope will be a home.
Seven days—seven and six a day—
under the sheltering granite ranges, fires
heat drums, the coats of the women skim just high enough
to escape the frost, the men in their new civvie uniforms
stand stiff as saplings, not happily transplanted, yet.
On the bare ground by the railway,
they should be thankful prisoners. So many huddles—
and in amongst them, this trio who will step away from here
into my family history: one man, his wife …
and a two year old girl, confronting this stranger, her father.
Just beyond the wahlenbergias, the shy native bluebells
at the camp’s edge, are the Pyramids of Girraween:
bald monoliths, made by volcanoes, not men.
Half a century later, I’ll try to climb one …
But it is too early for a returned soldier to brave
that skyline—better to bivouac here, picking bluebells,
waiting at dusk for a wallaroo in its shaggy greatcoat
to do a reconnaissance of this temporary invasion—
negotiate with it for peace.
After the certain attacks of war: now world deaths
from Spanish flu. In this border camp, learning to speak
with the wary trust of the child, what can my grandparents do
but hope they have outrun the final assault?
In training for a domestic truce,
trust there will be a tomorrow soon, flinging over them
only a tent of sky—as wahlenbergias, those fallen-
sky flowers, cheer the edges of the last road home.
(Published in the Weekend Australian Review, 12th Sept 2020)
THE LANGUAGE OF LIGHT
Weekends, Paris walks. Something shifts
underground. Like a Rubik's cube
the lines of colours realign, the harmony of humans
gently shudders the city’s symmetrical grid.
Like the still spaces we enter when music
moves us, weekends separate us from the deafness
of habitual days. More so than ever
here, on the other side
of our usual world —
here, where we live lit up
like cymbals always on the verge
of being struck. In the Luxembourg Gardens
I am one small vibration in the shivering of the city
toward some Sunday song. The babble of all the world
is being quietened here —
Poles and Italians, Australians and Africans,
small boys and motorised boats all blend into a buzz
swarming from under the acid-yellow horse-chestnut leaves
toward the end of summer’s silver
hived within the lake.
Weekends, Paris talks with less tension
accelerating its tongue. Even the tourist buses —
clattering to halts like the abruptly dropped snakepods
of bauhinia trees —
release people who become, after a little time here,
as calm as seeds
waiting to be planted. We almost believe
we could all belong — as we settle briefly
on these wrought-iron chairs with their ringletted arms
and verdigris-barred backs. We subside
on seats tattooed all over with holes
spraying sunlight onto the crushed white gravel below.
How many faces
have fallen here —
waiting for Paris light to persuade them
to float back up, to lift
towards it their first foreign shoots?
Weekends, Paris walks. It stalks us — as gently
as the grandparents we never knew, those ghosts
who passed through a war here
eighty years ago.
Like the nano-shifting of volcanic plates now,
something in us shifts. Whatever homes we thought
we had brought with us
settle like hidden pockets
in our winter coats — and we join the long lines
of stilled people in black swivelling towards
the slightest caress of sun. The light,
as it negotiates peace settlements
within this temporary country
of cold shoulders,
is speaking everyone’s ancestral tongue.
(From Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks, Pitt Street Poetry, 2012;
also published in The Language of Light, ASM/Flying Island Books, Macao, 2013.)