By Jenny Bornholdt
Godwit/Random House, $NZ37 | Reviewed by Andy Armitage

JENNY BORNHOLDT was named as the fifth Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate in 2005 and Mrs Winter’s Jump is the result of her two-year tenure. As with the four previous Te Mata Estate books, Mrs Winter’s Jump is currently available in a limited hardback edition of 2000 copies.

Bornholdt will be the last of the Te Mata Estate Poet Laureates. In May 2007, Judith Tizard, National Library Minister, announced that the New Zealand National Poet Laureate Award would replace the Te Mata Laureateship. The new Laureateship will remain a two-year tenure but attracts an increased grant of $50,000 (as well as a supply of wine provided by the Te Mata Estate). The New Zealand National Library will collect the working papers and published writings of each Laureate, presumably in addition to publishing a selection of poems at the end of each appointment.

Mrs Winter’s Jump is typical of Bornholdt’s earlier poetry in terms of its ability to demonstrate, as she says in one of the poems, that it is “In the unexpected places / we find what is dear / to us.” Bornholdt has an attentive, democratic and generous sensibility that interrogates and celebrates ordinary objects and situations.

Mrs Winter’s Jump opens with the poem ‘Summer’ that for Bornholdt means:

        New white sheets
        on the line.
        Even the pegs
        are warm.

This opening image does not just bring the peculiar light and heat of a midsummer day to the objects; these qualities become the object of the poem. ‘Summer’ is typical of many of the poems in Mrs Winter’s Jump, which employ Bornholdt’s economical poetic to produce sharp accessible images that can be both resonant and humorous.

Bornholdt’s subjects are as well selected as presented. ‘Photograph’, which Andrew Johnston included in the annual online selection Best New Zealand Poems 2005 (the poem was first published in the Arts Foundation Newsletter 2005), revisits a common subject of poetry. But rather than focussing on the photographic image, Bornholdt captures the staging and framing of the image – something she is so adept at in her poetry:

        A little to the left
        Neil, that’s nice, and
        John, if you could come in
        a bit, good, good,
        now Neil, if you can turn
        your body, this way,
        yep, just a little, yep,
        now turn your head [...]

Ironically, given its subject, and in spite of its humour, ‘Photograph’, is the only poem in Mrs Winter’s Jump that over-exposes its subject before the final (31st) line. The poems that stand out on the initial readings of Mrs Winter’s Jump are the short tidy pieces such as ‘Married Men’ (reproduced below in full):

        Married Men

        I have a friend
        who married men
        seem to go for.

        She’s their last chance
        at spring –

        notes slipped under
        her door
        like dried leaves.

‘Married Men’ is one of many examples in Mrs Winter’s Jump of Bornholdt’s ability to combine what seems to be the single most appropriate image with the situation she describes.

In the Acknowledgements of Mrs Winter’s Jump, Bornholdt thanks friends for supporting her through a period of illness during the Laureateship, and a number of poems in the collection deal with events that take their cue from the medical environment. ‘Medical’ (first published in SPORT 34) was selected by Anne Kennedy and Robert Sullivan for the Best New Zealand Poems 2006, and another of these medically themed poems, ‘Worth’, is to my mind one of the best in the collection. ‘Worth’ catalogues the ACC payout prices for severe injuries:

        The loss of two hands
        is worth two hundred
        and fifty thousand. Both feet
        the same. Likewise, loss
        of the entire sight of both
        eyes; the loss of one hand
        and one foot; the loss of
        one foot and the entire sight
        of one eye. [...]

Bornholdt engages with the mentality that produced this incongruous index, which combines severe injuries with monetary values. In doing so, she manages a quiet critique of contemporary social values:

        Nothing for loss of weight
        or love. Morale and perspective
        likewise miss out. But one foot
        is one hundred and twenty five
        thousand. Loss of one foot and hope
        is the same. [...]

The overriding disposition of Mrs Winter’s Jump, however, does not allow a prominent place for dejection. ‘Socks’, for example, one of the shortest poems of the collection (and reproduced below in full), delivers an instant of bathos with universal appeal:

        Socks

        I am sick
        Of socks.

        The losses.

Here Bornholdt’s sibilant bristle about the loss of socks provides a humorous lesson about the absurdity and futility of despair.

The central section of Mrs Winter’s Luck, takes its title from a sequence of photographs ‘Two Walk in Paris’ by Mari Mahr, whose photographs feature arresting geometric arrangements of natural and manmade objects and are accompanied by eight short poems by Bornholdt (numbered 1-8). The poems are Sapphic in their fragmented tenderness. Consider ‘5.’ (reproduced below in full):

        Cloudy today
        and the numbers all
        in the wrong order.
        Sometimes it seems
        the colour has leaked
        out. But here you are
        and your jacket
        is blue.

In focussing on the particular, and in discovering what is valuable in the most ordinary of everyday observations, Bornholdt manages to make the most tired of poetic subjects, such as romantic love, a worthy object for contemporary poetry. This is poetry at its best and is why Bornholdt’s contribution to a genre that so often loses its way is so important.

With Mrs Winter’s Jump, Bornholdt has proved herself a worthy Laureate and the new state-sponsored Laureateship a worthy endeavour; even if, at $50,000, it is only worth the loss of a hand, a foot, or the entire sight in both eyes.

When announcing the establishment of the Government funded Laureateship Judith Tizard advised that “Poetry is an important part of New Zealand art and culture. [...] In funding this new award, the Labour-led government is acknowledging the value that New Zealanders’ place on poetry and literature as a part of our national identity.”

Bornholdt has certainly helped raise the public profile of poetry in New Zealand (although the $4.6 million the Government is spending on the rugby ball venue at Paris certainly puts things into perspective) and the only regret I have about Mrs Winter’s Jump is that there are still copies of the initial (albeit recent) print run still standing on New Zealand bookseller’s shelves.