Chantal's Book (2002)

Cover illustration: Anne Ross / Cover design: Timon Maxey

Chantal’s Book. ISBN 0-473-08744-8. Wellington: HeadworX, 2002. 112 pp.


Melting the Ice-Block
E-Mailing Venus
A Woman Named Intrepid
There’s Something about Chantal …
Situations i: Albany
1 – Edge City
2 – Between OR and Main Campus
Situations ii: CBD
1 – Auckland nach dem Regen
2 – Between “The Newton Boys” and “The Big Hit”
Situations iii: Tauranga
1 – Poetry Festival
2 – Girls on Film
Situations iv: Coromandel
Chantal at an Opening
Chantal’s Housewarming
Christmas Cards – Tension Headache – The Madwoman in the Bus
– Her Plastic Shopping Bags – Thoughts of Jackie-Anne
Lock, Stock , and …
All at Sea
Proverbial Philosophy
Not the Director’s Cut
Body Fictions:
1 – Water-marbling
2 – Insight in
3 – The music of the rain
Valentine’s Day ’99
The Consolations of Chantal:
1 – Mute
2 – Walk Back
3 – The Mask of Zorro
4 – Bound
5 – Aztec
Freeman’s Bay
Sound Culture
The Reason Why
Phoenix (after Giordano Bruno):
1 – Tell Briar I got a hammer
2 – … life is not in our hands …
3 – les sages et beaux paysages
1 – ACTS
2 – Whatever you do
Chantal: A Creed

Lessons of the Genji: Around the South Island at New Year

Gathering I: Motueka Midday
Gathering II: Canaan Downs
Gathering III: Zone Five
Shades of Meaning at Cape Foulwind
Time and Space on the Okari River
Perseverence Rd
Gematria on the Great Divide
Death and The Maiden
Approaches to Aoraki
Tautuku Bush Walk
Waituna Gorge
In the Footsteps of Ice Giants
Extreme Green
Der Berggeist
Now Entering Parnassus
Christchurch from the Air
Chaos AD
What You Read in My Diary
The Bachelors of the Quintessence


Jack Ross's new book is a witty addition to our genre of experimental poetry. It explores the male perspective of love in a contemporary relationship, using postmodern styles/forms of analysis of the text, Romanticism and traditional thoughts and feelings. Rich in detail, typography and quotation, the book finishes with a long sequence 'Lessons of the Genji' (extracts from which were first featured in Poetry NZ 22).

'Prose sections and widely various poetic formats meld into each other creating a kaleidoscopic pattern of references and images ... [Ross's work] represents L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry at its best ...' Alistair Paterson.

Jack Ross lives in Mairangi Bay, Auckland, on the North Shore. He has published the book of poems City of Strange Brunettes (Pohutukawa Press, 1998) and the novel, Nights with Giordano Bruno (Bumper Books, 2000). He has been an editor of The Pander, and more recently of the poetry magazines Spin and brief. His articles, reviews and interviews have been widely published.

Cover illustration by Anne Ross
Book Design by Mark Pirie
Cover design by Timon Maxey

ISBN 0473 08744 8

RRP NZ $19.95
RRP Aus $17.95

Online Text:

Chantal's Book




HeadworX Publishers
97/43 Mulgrave St

RRP: $NZ 19.95

[Tracey Slaughter: Poetry NZ 25 (2002)]

Reviews & Comments:

  1. Alistair Paterson. "Launch Speech." The Birdcage, 10 November 2002.

    ... Chantal’s Book shows him for the outstanding literary figure he is and the book itself – and I speak without puffery or pretence – is a landmark in contemporary poetry writing – of a similar quality but very different in kind to Baxter or Curnow’s poems at their best.

  2. Bernard Gadd. Spin 45 (March, 2003): 61-62.

    This is ... a book of love poetry for Chantal, but very much of the 21st century, with a keen sense of the ambiguities and contraries of love, a questioning of its permanence and capacity to change the lovers, an almost edgy ambivalence ... A variety of poetic techniques are employed, often giving the page the appearance of a layered modernity. But the poetry is essentially accessible and direct.

  3. Hamesh Wyeth. Otago Daily Times (26/1/03): n.p.

    Most importantly of all, Ross is often amusing. Ross is a soul consumed with vagaries of the heart. Using examples of film, music and literature Chantal’s Book ends up being a charming book. I even like the strange bits.

  4. Trevor Reeves. Southern Ocean Review (2003, January 12): 62.

    Congratulations to Mark Pirie and his HeadworX Press for helping to keep poets like Jack Ross in print. Ross is one of quite a number of poets in New Zealand to develop and publish since 1990 whose work is striking, innovative and deeply satisfying. Chantal the pretty, but an enigma ... Chantal, the image of eternity and universality. The persona of the known and the unknown ... Chantal moves amongst history, timeless ... Oh Chantal is a heavenly creature. Read more to find out why. An excellent collection.

  5. Tracey Slaughter. "Points on a Graph of Chantal." Poetry NZ 26 (2003): 100-07.

    This obsessive collection of linguistic specimens of love results in poems of rare technical perfection. Poems assembled sparsely, installations of precise syllables, yet maintain a poignant ability to convey vast energies and regions of desire. The form of the poems takes on the translating potency of love itself – in the aura of the loved-one the anecdotal becomes the sacred, any grain of light or landscape that contains her, any sound-bite from her mouth, even the structure of the city through which she may enter or exit, take on an emotive depth of reference, a ‘sound culture’ (49) which filters all echoes of the language through the point of origin in her body, her heart.

  6. Owen Bullock. New Zealand Poetry Society Newsletter (March 2003): 9-10.

    To me it really is as if this voice isn’t quite sure that it’s awake and has various pinching to discover so. He reminds me of the character in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide series who talks to a table for two weeks just to see what it’s like. No wonder that Ross enjoys and quotes Chuang-tzu’s paradoxical masterpieces. And he has his own play with puzzles: “the more we talk, / the less / it happened”.

  7. Harvey McQueen. JAAM 19 (2003): 260-61.

    A disapproving critic might say a hodgepodge. But on the whole I find it thought-provoking and challenging, a tantalizing maze, clashing ideas and images, mixing old and new forms, with wit, candour and self-mockery.

  8. Olivia Macassey. "Jack’s Book." brief 27 (2003): 101-2.

    He skilfully – and with almost an appearance of accident – lays bare the twitching nerves of the genre ... By virtually stapling his romantic, ironic heart to our collective post-structuralist sleeve, Jack re-situates both, in what I have to call (thinking of David Wills) the post-prosthetic. His work reveals how the structures of this thing both inform, and predetermine, the forms it will take.

    It should come as no surprise, then, that the book itself is enjoyable and accessible. That flexibility serves it well, the ability to skip effortlessly from the heartbreaking to the ridiculous with a swift kick reverberating against the fourth wall as it does so. But all of this sounds rather bloodless, doesn’t it? Somehow, though, it manages not to be; there’s passion, as well as skill, in this work. And ultimately this is what makes Chantal’s Book worth reading. Nothing really detracts from it, not the textual acrobatics and stylistic suavity, the rotting trees and newspaper headlines; no, not even the DEADHORSE itself. It really is a book about love, after all.

  9. James Norcliffe. "Referencing the self." New Zealand Books 13 (2) (June, 2003): 4-5.

    He is a literary magpie, gathering together his shiny objects with a remarkable eclecticism: in the final 10 pages alone we get Tolkien, Dr Seuss, Lady Murasaki, Leonard Cohen, Cordwainer Smith, Bunan, Henry Thoreau, and Raymond Carver. Ross is erudite: we have Latin, German, Spanish, Italian, French, and Kiwi vernacular – although to be fair he is kind enough to translate the most intractable of these. He is ever inventive, experimental and self-referential in the best postmodern manner, finding language everywhere – in conversation, on walls, on street signs, in books – and layering and re-contextualising it with an obvious relish. Smart and self-aware, confident and searching, Chantal’s Book is a protean and highly entertaining ride. It’s also, despite itself, a sweetly tender love poem.

  10. Terry Locke. Hyperpoetics (20/10/04).

    If we take Frost's famous definition of the poem as a momentary stay against confusion, we might think of these poems as momentary displays of disjunction. What is elided is the commonplace notion of language as referential ... The second part of this book ("Lessons of the Genji: Around the South Island at New Year") undercuts the notion of story in time by disordering the diary entries, as if it is the entry only that matters and not some world that just might be knowable. Indeed, the world of phenomena, to the extent that it enters the poems, dissolves almost immediately in a mist of language (Mt Cook becomes "Mt Cock").

[Tracey Slaughter: her body rises (2005)]

Complete Review
[reprinted by permission]
Tracey Slaughter. "Points on a Graph of Chantal." Poetry NZ 26 (2003): 100-07.

In ‘Game for One Player,’ a poem enticingly sealed at the back of Ross’s novel Nights with Giordano Bruno[1], a voice speculates ‘Maybe Jack should write more directly / about his life. To explore companionship / more directly in his writing.’ The ‘Game,’ closed with the instruction ‘[not to be opened till you’ve read the book],’ takes the form of a fragmented dialogue between Ross and co-author Gabriel White, the two writers dissecting Ross’s novel, opening its complex anatomy of system and chaos. It is an examination of the infrastructure of thought which animates Ross’s text, a novel intercut from a sequence of strange anti-narratives, the disjunct stories further interrupted by vision-like tables collected from obsolete but beautiful ancient theorems. Ross’s discontinuous stories confound all the rules of conventional fiction, suspending action in ‘impenetrable screens’ of signs, bursting violently from the referential; diagrams of dead sciences encrust the page with the algebraic mystery of cells: the effect of both is to unbalance the linear reader, to collapse metaphysics into pornography, graph into anarchy, systems of knowledge into subjective codes of the unconscious.

The postmodern power of the text lies in this uncanny fusion of rigorous codes and geometric principles with the aura of ‘falling into a morass of phantasms’ which the figures and narrative fragments generate. Like the controlling grids of thought which erupt though the storylines, language itself is exposed as an apparatus which cannot organise regions of experience or encode reality. The subject is the principal construct of language which Ross’s text disconnects; his ‘characters’ are ‘visitors,’ utterly cut-off from the grammar of narrative logic and the myth of cogent identity.

The narrating ‘I,’ present in many of these sequences, is itself an artefact which wheels between appearances as disembodied textual machinery and source of untranslatable cognitive noise and somatic bad dreams. Relationships appear, even bodies, but the ‘characters’ who drive their segments of text are narrative components which conduct their (often disturbing) intercourse with a form of functional sexual syntax that empties it of erotic meaning, or, as one character comments, ‘emotional temperature.’ It is this ‘emotional temperature’ which Ross’s poetry, in Chantal’s Book, articulates with coherent and unsettling beauty. For Chantal’s Book is a volume of love poems which record the passage of a personal relationship, taking up the tasks of ‘writ[ing] more directly’ and ‘exploring companionship’ even as the poetry continues to use the powerful semiotic techniques which (de)construct the earlier novel.

More than any other of Ross’s texts, Chantal’s Book maintains a ‘narrative’ in its study of a love-relationship between the recording ‘self’ of the poems and the object-of-desire – Chantal. Yet the sequence of falling, doubting and flourishing in love is not simply executed, nor straightforwardly inscribed, as the writing lover constantly examines the perceptual qualities of love, and the linguistic processes of recog­nising and rendering the self ‘in’ it. Like the sci-fi character from Nights with Giordano Bruno who accumulates and sorts ‘every minute detail of the room’ in order to calibrate levels of emotion, the narrating ‘I’ of Chantal’s Book scans and classifies all the details of the environment he loves in, all the minutiae of his existence shared with or parted from his love, each sense and setting acutely attuned to the data of her presence or absence.

This obsessive collection of linguistic specimens of love results in poems of rare technical perfection. Poems assembled sparsely, instal­lations of precise syllables, yet maintain a poignant ability to convey vast energies and regions of desire. The form of the poems takes on the translating potency of love itself – in the aura of the loved-one the anecdotal becomes the sacred, any grain of light or landscape that contains her, any sound-bite from her mouth, even the structure of the city through which she may enter or exit, take on an emotive depth of reference, a ‘sound culture’ (49) which filters all echoes of the language through the point of origin in her body, her heart.

The poems are often solely concerned with observations of the outer life, their images wholly contextual, clusters of data from the urban streets or the tourist path as banal as fridge magnets or hotel signs. Yet these details become the indices of an attachment extending in intensity to transfigure even the passing traffic or a cheap B-movie into a question of most urgent subjective philosophy. The brilliance of a cycle such as ‘The Consolations of Chantal’ (38) – where quotations from Boethius’s meditations on eternal life face brief, thinly rendered poems listing random observations or shreds of personal history – is that the juxtaposition of ‘eternal’ philosophy with light sensory data dramatises precisely the balance between infinite and defined moments which Boethius articulates. Ross’s use of language in these muted contextual poems plays out ‘the simplicity of presentness’ Boethius speaks of, demonstrating how words, base elements that bind to our ‘experience . . . of this tenuous and fleeting moment,’ enclose within their frail temporal structures echoes of ‘an infinite quantity of future and past.’ The lightest particle of language then, ‘since it carries an image of that abiding presence, gives this benefit to everyone who possesses it, that they seem to exist.’ The mysteries of love and of the language thus illuminate each other: for the lover, the most ephemeral incident occurring around Chantal is registered as endless in consoling value, in resonances of loss and hope; for the poet, the most delicate fibre or low phrase of the language enacts infinite matrices of meaning within itself, and within the reader.

As in his earlier volume of poetry City of Strange Brunettes (1998)[2], Ross’s work places the speaker as an acute and sardonic watcher of the city and its inhabitants, and much of his verse wanders the architecture of urban consciousness, sifting the signifiers of the Auckland ‘lifestyle’ for any trademarks of meaning that can re-locate the ‘this-ness’ of personal context amidst the ‘synaesthesia’ of the city (18-19). His compositions of ‘cranial music’ draw from the typography of urban detail, from litter, concrete and commercialized space, until as poet Philip Salom writes
each sign
is given if not always understood,
each brand-name like a perfect crime,
or a post-modern essay …

Ross’s seemingly thin sketches of city living, of consciousness caught in ‘the glass arcade’ (21), in ‘planned landscapes’ (18) and ‘plastic shopping bags’ (30), are deceptive structures whose slim joints of words hide a centrifugal force / power. Like the quietly detonating vision at the core of ‘Chantal’s Housewarming’ (28), many of Ross’s poems turn on the silent tension of a single detail:
Nothing changes
in sidereal time
except the concrete
Exploding into

On first skim perhaps the passage seems static or over-slight – but to read too fast is to miss the point of explosion, to overlook the con­centration of atoms in the image. Semiotic poetry at its most acute, Ross’s poems tend to emit complex nerveways from each unit of sound, and such work repays contemplation: from concrete icons vessels of memory can bloom, indexical networks shiver in the mind or senses.

‘It’s bigger on the inside than the outside’ Ross clearly feels of language, a quote from Doctor Who, which appears in a later poem from Section II, where the couple move through the well-travelled veins of the South Island experience. It is an epigram which could equally well front any of Ross’s poems, but which ‘Time and Space on the OkariRiver’ (75) elucidates with arresting levels of sound and feeling, implications from serenity to menace folded into the fluid precision of the lines:

Relative to the singing wires
Dimensions foreshore sedge and tussock
In a gnarled white tree-trunk
Space to share
in shallow waters

Here the pared back words are like an X-ray of the scene, a bony structure which yet reveals, with study, a hidden and moving interior. Language as a medium of longing is seldom so sparely, yet so completely evoked. It is a practice of culling ‘dimensions’ from the simplest detail that the poet pursues as he drives with his new lover around the end of the island at the end of the millennium, a setting in an ominous time and space which is not lost on him. As he journals off-hand incidents from their travels his consciousness is anxiously attuned to the cheap ironies of turnoff signs saying ‘Mt Cock’ (86) and the more fatal shimmer of a ‘car strewn / with leaves’ (79) or of ‘backward skies green seasons / and their aftermaths’ (74). As the achronology of the diary sequence dawns upon the reader, the undisclosed doubts that have seemed to jar the poet’s lax wit and sardonic observations, to cast their reflection across the image of each shore and roadsign (‘Track washed out ahead turn back unfinished’), are made distinct. An entry from early in the trip features as the penultimate piece:
[Monday, 27th December – 10.45 a.m.]
In Ohakune. Woke up this morning & looked at Chantal (wrapped in her sleeping-bag – too sulky last night to speak to me) & realised that I didn’t care. It is, to all intents and purposes, over. .. a useful discovery for the beginning of a stressful five-week Odyssey around the South Island.

‘I wrote Chantal / I love you / but do I? / Alexander fights Persians / in the sky.’ When she asks me, it is (or seems to be) so. Are these doubts real, or chimerical? I need to be cleansed – away from tension-knots in the stomach, fear of loss, of damage – fear of the other. (106)

These sections of journal or prose appear throughout the text, as does a fascinating scaffolding of references to other texts, most notably the Diary of Lady Murasaki from whose Tale of Genji Ross’s Lessons of the Genji (section II of Chantal’s Book) takes its name. Often the blocks of prose or journal function as auto-analysis, studying the psychic phenomena of ‘love’ and diagnosing the lover’s fixed illusions of passion, his strategic despairs as ‘a list of clichés . . . each suggesting a dark alternative’ (27). Such interventions of sensible prose also disarm the reader when the reader begins to pick up the circuitry of self-­interest, the writerly psychological profile at work in the ‘love’ of the poems, a page appears which prosaically bares this facet of the lover, querying whether he may have imagined an erotic counterfeit in order to fall in love and to textually examine the process. Reviewing the poems, the writer notices:

They’re all about me – my feelings, hopes, despairs – not in the least about you.

It’s not that you’re entirely absent – just that you’re not really allowed to speak, express a concrete point of view.

Did I start pursuing you because I knew it was safe? Because you constituted no threat to my way of life? It must have been clear to me from the beginning (the way these things always are clear) that you would never feel about me the way I felt I felt about you. (29)

Chantal’s representation troubles him: he knows his writing of her might touch only the lineaments of his own nervous longing, that his gaze might commodify, cheapen or exoticise her dark-skinned body, that his lexicon of desire can never catch the outline of her immanence, let alone connote her inner life: ‘Your soul evades those nets, / black, crusted fogs. / You go out singing in the pouring rain’ (57). His language constantly re-enacts this issue of the loved-one’s distorted interpretation: the poem sequence ‘Phoenix’ is written in a foreign and romantic language then disfigured in translation. In the ‘Phoenix’ sequence, as elsewhere in Chantal’s Book, Ross balances an awareness of himself as a masculine subject working in a ‘kind of gutless language / dirtying everything it touches: Perky tits, arse, tush’ (57), with a drive to somehow signify the impact of Chantal’s presence, her otherness, and her electric self possession:
You are what you were, I am …
nothing that I was
what I never was …
I can’t see what I’ll see;

You. You’re guided back by your own light. (55)

The book, that wants to say the female subject’s name, knows its own ‘fatal lack’ (27), and constantly sounds a linguistic despair at inscribing her elapsing image, at locating only points on a graph of Chantal:
‘What do you write about?’
Of course.
But I can’t can’t can’t can’t can’t can’t …

These are ontological love poems, always questioning the linguistic reality the lovers inhabit.[4] The poems’ strength lies in their capacity to test the subjective limits and delusions of being-in-love, yet to never become so cerebral that the skin doesn’t register authentic pressure, that the ‘loving heart / (can I say that?)’ (17) never gets past the querying of its own semiotic parameters. From the volume’s outset, Ross’s poems examine the shared relational qualities of love and of language, the ‘reciprocation’ and loss of meaning implicit in the subjective frame­work of each; his first poem shows the lover caught in the endless deferral of language and desire, his ‘I’ defined in an ever expanding sequence of references, which shift from the specificities of Chantal’s skin (‘Is Chantal bronze? / That makes me – what?’) to the vast elemental horizons (‘If water, / land. If sea, / I am the sky’) (10). Chantal’s ‘you’ becomes the pronoun which both enables and evaporates his personal discourse, an absence filtered through the flawed possibilities of language that both sustains and empties the lover’s sense of his own locution in time and space. If the meta-text of Lady Murasaki’s Genji is anything to read by, a haunting inscription in a copy of Murasaki’s text included in Ross’s earlier volume of poetry City of Strange Brunettes may have initialled the moving elusive shape of the woman and the book to come:
Last night the raindrops tapped upon my window
till, looking out, I saw you were not there.


1. Jack Ross, Nights with Giordano Bruno (Wellington: Bumper Books, 2000).
2. Jack Ross, City of Strange Brunettes (Auckland: The Pohutukawa Press, 1998).
3. Philip Salom, ‘Hunger,’ Feeding the Ghost (Victoria: Penguin, 1993) p.57.
4. See Ross’s account of ontology in ‘Necessary Oppositions?: Avant-garde versus traditional poetry in New Zealand’ in PNZ 21.

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