Emma Lee Reviews ‘The Alpaca Cantos’ by Jenny Blackford

Reviewed ByEmma Lee

‘The Alpaca Cantos’ Jenny Blackford

Pitt Street Poetry https://pittstreetpoetry.com/

ISBN 978-1-922080-94-3 $20

‘The Alpaca Cantos’ is split into four sections, ‘Stranger Homes and Gardens’, ‘The Alpaca Cantos’, ‘Lamentations’, ‘Love is a Battlefield’ and ‘Time and Space’. The first section is about sisterly affection and a love of the natural world, in ‘The matrix’

‘Our atmosphere
with all its clouds birds insects
rooftops treetops sky
lies barely fingernail deep
over its solid matrix.

Mother Earth.

We tiny soft-shelled things
crawl our small lives’

This isn’t a virtual world of green machine code, but our world where humans are insignificant in the wider scheme of things. It continues beyond the end of the quote so there are two balanced main stanzas and two single lines. The implication is that humans should be more in balance with the universe and more respectful of ecosystems that keep our planet alive.

Section two also has a natural theme, and, in ‘Long Camel Necks’, tourists in Peru aren’t taking photos of Machu Picchu, ‘But look at the llamas!// Long camel necks, tousled dreadlocks,/ lush long-lashed eyes. We focus,/ turn our backs on the rocks above.’ The title poem starters ‘Everyone knows alpacas/are seriously cool’, a grand claim which lists things alpacas are cooler than, with a final question, ‘Cooler than pizza?// Someone needs to write/ the Pizza Cantos.’

In ‘Lamentations’ the third section, ‘The crack’ starts as a warning against midnight feasts for teenaged schoolgirls because one failed to notice that while eating a slice of meat she was also eating the cracked china plate it was one, but then takes a sinister turn,

‘She didn’t wake for breakfast
dead in her blood-soaked bed
intestines cut
by tiny shards of gilt-edged china dish
or so they said’

The girl was from a respectable family so,

‘That plate was framed
for crimes against respectability.
ignorance stood in for innocence;
a pregnant teen meant social death
or a shotgun wedding.

But who’s to blame? The backyard butcher
led by sympathy or greed to wield
an uncoiled coathanger or stabbing crochet hook;
judgemental pharmacists; the unknown boy;
all the hormones driving him and her
to the sad terminus;
the unforgiving laws that punished love?
Did her parents even know
their little lamb was in the family way?’

Ironically the meat taken from the fridge was a slice of lamb, so the ‘little lamb’ was eating lamb; trying to regain innocence perhaps? Ultimately the girl’s death was due to ignorance, the family keen to keep up their ‘respectability’ didn’t tell her how to avoid pregnancy and turned a blind eye to the possibility of her and her boyfriend, assuming they knew about the boyfriend which they may not have done, going further than kissing. The girl discovers she’s pregnant and, knowing the shame she’d be about to bring on her family, sought a secret abortion, sadly from someone with insufficient medical knowledge who triggered a haemorrhage that became fatal. Even her death doesn’t trigger honesty. The parents stick to the lie that her haemorrhaging was caused by shards of china, a lie that other respectable families don’t challenge so the girl’s friends remain ignorant. The final question, however, seems to let the family off the hook. They may not have been aware of their daughter’s pregnancy before her death, but their ignorance allows them to believe in their respectability and pretend innocence.

Section four, ‘Love is a Battlefield’ turns its eye to courtship and eventual marriage, the section’s title poem watching young women dress up in skyscraper heels to hit the nightclubs, reminiscent of Pat Benatar’s song of the same title. The final section looks towards age, settling down with a soulmate. In ‘The Great Beast a husband holds out an album cover asking for a translation of the title, which is in Greek,

‘To mega therion, I read.
The ancient words were child’s play to me.
– The great big wild animal.

His eyes lit, quicker than silicon.
– Oh, you mean the Great Beast!
I blushed with shame.’

Should she have blushed with shame? Her translation was literal whereas her husband put it in the context of the title of a heavy metal album. In another context, her translation would have been fine.

‘The Alpaca Cantos’ is a collection of poems that show a reverence of nature, a strong concern that humans are destroying valuable ecosystems and hasting destructive forces. There’s a secondary theme of how human desire for respectability and keeping reputations intact is a cause of shame and darker consequences. Jenny Blackford writes with delicacy, a gentle humour and compassion.