仁 surrender 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
by Janet Charman
Published by Otago University Press