A review of The Loyalty of Chickens by Jenny Blackford

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Loyalty of Chickens
By Jenny Blackford
Pitt St Poetry
ISBN 978-1-922080-74-5, B format paperback, 90 pages. A$28.00

It’s rare to come across a collection that is suitable for such a broad age range, and yet Blackford, something of a literary jill-of-all-trades, manages it perfectly. Though her poems are lighthearted, often exploring the secret and not so secret world of animals and other aspects of nature, they are anything but facile. Often there is a dark heart, or a rich philosophical exploration of the nature of psychology, history and mythology. In my experience, children don’t seem to like poems that either lack complexity or that are too obscure, and so this collection is perfectly pitched and may well fit nicely into a curricula sadly lacking in modern poetics. The poems are often domestic and explore the familiar, such as birds eating tomatoes in the garden, constellations, making lunch for visiting workmen, memories, family history, the environment, a range of animals, and of course the chickens of the title:

This must be how Demeter felt,
With foolish mortals gaping at the barley
Sprouting round her treading toes.
Clumsy at best, I concentrate to keep
my godlike feet, striding divinely wide,
from crushing my borrowed worshippers
down into the earth.

The combination of immediate visual recognition with mythology, deep and close observation, and just a hint of transformation that goes one step beyond anthropomorphism, is a quality that distinguishes Blackford’s work. These are poems that only appear simple – the impact is immediate, but the way they open out slowly is deeply engaging. Though there are many creatures represented here.birds, insects, whales, polar bears, dinosaurs, crocodiles, rats, and even koalas, as readers of Blackford’s first book of poetry might expect, the cat is most richly depicted, in many variations with all of its mystery intact:

Before long, he revealed eternal truth to us,
speaking from a fiery whirlwind
and burning bush—or would have, if he’d ever learned to talk:
–I am the One True Cat. Thou shalt have no other cats before me.
They are false idols, snares and delusions.
Smite them! Chase them away!
I need no feline playmates, only you, my human worshippers. (“The Hero’s Journey”)

The book itself is beautifully presented, with a whimsical colour cover by artist Gwynne McGinley, and thick ivory paper inside.  The Loyalty of Chickens would make a very nice gift for pretty much anyone – a child, an adult, a poetry lover, or someone who needs a reminder that poetry can be pithy, accessible, wry and funny all at the same time. Many of the poems in this collection are humorous. The humour doesn’t just come from the funny antics of the animals that are profiled here, though there are funny animals – uppity cats, abseiling spiders, and even scary frog aliens — but also from poems about snoring husbands, funky car colours (I’d definitely prefer “Singularity” to my current “Magnetic”), the man-bun, the ocean as deep blue jelly or word play over a pile of mussels:

Imagine a modern midden
of mussel shells, mounding
higher with every pot
full of the fruit of the sea
that we humans have feasted on
time out of time. (“Sweet intertidal flresh”)

Though the poems are playful and appropriate for young people, they’re not lacking in sophisticated emotional power. Blackford explores a mother’s Alzheimer’s, death, nightmares, Green and Egyptian mythology, ecology, love and loss, often of the furry kind. The poems are rich and leave a lasting impression. The Loyalty of Chickens is an utterly delightful book that is a pleasure to read, and re-read.