Book Review: 仁 surrender, by Janet Charman

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_surrendersurrender is a poetry collection that Janet Charman began to write during a 2009 residency at the International Writers’ Workshop at Hong Kong Baptist University. It was during a guest readership at the 2014 Taipei International Poetry Forum that Charman completed the first draft. And the influence of these locations is potent all throughout 仁 surrender.

Charman begins with familiar concrete images related to travel. A ‘felt carpeted box / with a pin number’ holds a passport and an envelope of cash. Charman takes her time going through the routine of washing her clothes, hanging them on an elastic and a ledge above the window-bay. She pauses for a moment, letting herself take in the view as she stands within this new temporary space.

Throughout 仁 surrender, there is a ‘you’ that Charman speaks of with affection. Small snippets from different poems tell us more about this ‘you’. In the poem where people are, Charman explains how she is ‘but one whose work you’ve translated’. And even without mentioning a name or a physical characteristic, Charman builds up this ‘you’ into a strong figure. It is someone who gives Charman the ‘sharp of your (their) tongue’ when they realise that Charman has not brought an electronic dictionary with her. ‘Western cultural hegemony’, Charman states in explanation of her actions, and her own shame is evident when she writes that this ‘you’ has every ‘right to be angry’. As a result, Charman is left considering, ‘what will be left of the Chinese culture / when Capitalism has finished planting its landscapes with Coca-Cola’.

Charman’s experience with this ‘you’ also touches on issues of being a woman. While talking about this figure, Charman states that she is someone ‘who fears men for every good reason / and still wants to be wrong about them’. Meanwhile, in another poem, Charman finds an exhibition about a woman called Lydia Sum. Charman sees costumes on display, each piece ‘alive with jouissance’. But when Charman mentions the exhibition to one of the others at the hotel, she learns that Lydia Sum was sometimes ‘referred to as ‘Fatty’ / affectionately’. And hearing this, Charman writes, “i want to burst into tears”.

In the poem writing exercise, Charman goes on to explain why she writes the way she does, with minimal capitalisation. For her, lower-case first person represents:

‘the interrupted narratives of women’s lives
menstruation domestic celebration’

Whereas upper-case first person:

‘reads as the default generic setting

of uninterrupted male subjectivity

as neutral and universal in patriarchy

in relation to which

a woman artist

must perpetually distinguish herself’

Comparing the conventional, or the male, against the unconventional, or the female, in this way is an enlightening process. It also brings a valuable insight into Charman’s own work and opens up how her poetry can be read. In this way, 仁 surrender is more than just a collection of poems about new places and locations. It highlights the issues that follow us wherever we go in the world, some that go far beyond the concrete and into the invisible frameworks that hum in the background and define what is acceptable.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

surrender
by Janet Charman
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531106

Book Review: As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry, by Vivienne Plumb, with illustrations by Glenn Otto

cv_as_much_gold_as_an_ass_could_carryAvailable in bookshops nationwide. 

Vivienne Plumb’s collection As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry  collects a vibrant selection of poetry, plays and short prose from this always-innovative author. These are pieces composed over a writing career begun in Aotearoa New Zealand theatre and leading up to Plumb’s recent attainment of a PHD in creative writing from The University of Wollongong, Australia. General readers and those lured by the mysteries of the PHD will be equally intrigued to read the extracts here from her thesis manuscript The Glove Box and other stories. (Spineless Wonders, 2014) This collection earned her the prestigious doctoral award. Her Australian publisher’s ironically acerbic trade name is also entirely in keeping with Plumb’s own rapier wit and comic timing.

In whatever genre or persona she operates Plumb’s writing is intellectually incisive and visually complex. But it frequently also carries a depth finding tincture of melancholy. Jillian Sullivan’s excellent discussion of this dimension of Plumb’s poetics is analysed in the wonderful essay ‘Landscape and Lament: Anti-consolation in the Poetry of Vivienne Plumb’, which features on-line in the current issue of Ka Mate Ka Mate.

As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry is an indispensable repository of Plumb’s oeuvre. The unflinching honesty of her narratives illuminate the human condition with nuances that make even life’s greyest moments shine with a diamond energy. Her barbed appraisals of suburbia, the universe, and everything, make an indispensable contribution to New Zealand writing.

Finally however, I must demur in one key respect from the design values in this collection. It’s marvelous illustrations by Glenn Otto are a kinetic calligraphy, which brilliantly complements Plumb’s own take no prisoners approach to every topic. However, in my opinion her editors should have restricted this artist’s contribution to the white spaces of the text. Plumb’s material deserves the uninterrupted limelight. She should not have to compete with Otto. Where his strokes spill exuberantly into the textual black space they return the reader’s imagination to the page surface, competitively disrupting narratives in which Plumb’s own extreme vistas and experimental narrative close-ups would otherwise offer the reader enjoyment unbounded.

Reviewed by Janet Charman

As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry
by Vivienne Plumb
with illustrations by Glenn Otto
Published by split/fountain
ISBN 9780473373184