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:
Jean lives at Lake Macquarie, NSW. Her website is jeankent.net.au
Views from the desk, Kilaben Bay
A PLATFORM FOR LEGENDS
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 slightly twisted 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.)