Peat is an archive. The black soil, the tea-coloured water, the sticks and the great trees. Whole ecosystems from the past are safely stored down there.
Lynn Jenner’s Peat is unlike anything I have read before. It’s almost poetry, almost essays, almost a journal and yet not quite any of these things. The book is divided into two main sections: the first half consists of short pieces of reflective, observational prose alternating in topic between the life and work of Charles Brasch and the construction of the Kāpiti Expressway; the second is a rambling glossary built around twenty-seven “theme words” that the author identified as central in the process of researching and writing Peat.
From the beginning, Jenner is clear that these investigations will be different from her interpretive, collage-style treatment of the life of Houdini in her earlier, award-winning collection Dear Sweet Harry. “I would like to say, Mr Brasch, that I will not put words into your mouth as I once did with Harry Houdini. I am older now, and sometimes I would rather listen than speak. And you, if you will forgive my saying, do not have the sweaty East European warmth that Houdini has, either.” She goes on to warn herself and the reader against projecting thoughts and opinions onto an unknown and unknowable writer based only on the words they left behind; it is tempting to assume that because we are being invited to join with someone’s looking at something, we can also understand what is happening behind their eyes. The warning, near the beginning of the book, stuck with me, and I reminded myself many times to read only the words on the page, rather than filling in the spaces between the lines myself.
At times this was difficult; Jenner’s prose is deceptively simple, and often observes without presuming to comment on exactly what is being observed. She has an enchanting eye for detail that reminds me somewhat of Mary Oliver, but Jenner’s gaze falls far more often on the intricacies of people, buildings, road engineering and correspondence to and from a regional council. The overall experience is similar to that described by Jenner when reading Brasch—something like taking a rambling walk with a friend, giving them the space to curate their thoughts. A book, however, inherently lacks the back and forth of such a walk, and at times I found myself wishing that Jenner volunteered her opinions and interpretations of things a little more clearly, as there is no way to ask for clarification or deepen the discussion with the author beyond the page.
I didn’t realise before beginning this book that Jenner’s wide, wandering eye would fall as much on Dunedin—my home—as it does on Kāpiti. Dunedin is where Charles Brasch spent much of his life, and Jenner herself lived here some years ago. One of her rambling walks through Dunedin, she remarks that “sometimes in Dunedin at three o’clock, no matter what has happened before, yellow light falls over everything, creating a gold-edged warmth. This yellow light, which I first noticed through the kitchen window when I was in my late teens, stuck me then as new and beautiful. It made me look out the window each time I passed by.” Reading this on my balcony in the late afternoon, looking over the Dunedin hills drenched in just this light, molten gold against heavy sky, I was moved almost to tears with something massive and indescribable.
Despite the construction of the massive, concrete Expressway (with a capital, that’s important), Jenner still expresses that she feels Kāpiti to be “a temporary place”, sometimes standing in contrast to her and Brasch’s architectural musings on Dunedin; however, this sense of transience is more broadly tried for size on the whole of New Zealand and its artistic culture—do we even have a coherent artistic identity? What is it? What is the author’s place in that community as a Pākehā woman? If you’re looking for answers, this is not the book for you. Jenner resolutely defies edges and endings; every observation captured on paper has a sense of the world it is from hovering around and beyond the page. There is only an abstract sense of wholeness or narrative; rather, this is like going through a photo album, or a box of treasures collected over years. There are always details unseen, forgotten and yet to come, and there are many details with a sense of weight but no easy shared explanation of why. In some places this verges on frustrating—there is a clear sense that a particular detail is important, or carries significant weight with the author, but we are left to wonder why.
In fact, in one of many moments of wry introspection, Jenner questions the collection of life-scraps she has pulled together. “I am attracted to details although I wonder if there is any piece of information you could say with certainty was never going to be useful. There must be a boundary somewhere between collecting and hoarding, but I am not sure I know where it is.”
My notes for the remainder of this response continue for several pages. A loose-leaf file of notes and photographs is, it turns out, far harder to summarise than a traditional story. If I kept going until I had mentioned everything that made me smile, or made me sit back and think, this would likely approach the length of the book itself by the end. I will therefore conclude here by saying that this is a book I found myself wanting to read outside and slowly, and that since, I have been finding shining fragments of Peat embedded in the scenery and surroundings of Dunedin.