Janet Charman: Rapunzel Rapunzel (1999)

Pander 9 (November 1999)

Janet Charman. Rapunzel Rapunzel. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1999.

Janet Charman: Rapunzel Rapunzel (1999)

thrust wet biscuit
in your gob
without those
filthy hands

It was written on a yellow sheet of paper. I could see it protruding from under a pile of other typed sheets. Rather nicely put, I thought. Who the hell is that by? In a sense, I didn’t want to know … too soon. Instead, I craned over to see more verses:
i was backing
out for beer
when the bones
burst in your chest

Man, that’s cold – but very expertly put. The “b” sounds not too obtrusively juxtaposed, yet the “backing out” and “burst” and “chest” (incremental repetition of consonance) give a curious sense of clipped closure.

Where on earth did this poem come from? How had it got on my writing desk? I didn’t like all the stanzas as much as those two, but none lacked that sense of effortless control. It was entitled: “we all have to” – but no mere list of imperatives followed:
need leave off
the concrete

That’s something we do all need, for sure. Finally, with slight reluctance, I turned it over, and understood. It was Janet Charman’s latest, Rapunzel Rapunzel, sent out for review, which had somehow got turned over and insinuated itself in a pile of other imperative [= long-delayed] tasks.
get up and
i’ll go you
drink for drink
into oblivion

The book is complex. It consists of five longish sequences of poems, some more attractive to me than others. The press release includes a quotation from Robinson and Wattie’s Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature: “Democratic features of her style reveal her agenda: limited capitalisation, lower-case pronominal ‘I’, and minimal punctuation.” I don’t quite get the point about the “agenda,” but those features certainly recur in this collection. Is she especially “democratic”? Can’t say.

I like the fact that the poem on the back of the book is not repeated within – economy of means. That would be my dominant impression, in fact: economy. Janet Charman says no more than necessary – less than necessary, if one requires instruction or a moral of a poem. Her “agenda” clearly includes celebration of women and domestic concerns. Household economy, perhaps: a Mrs Beeton for modern life. The subverted fairytale of the title sequence ends with a beautifully managed “happily ever after”:
my child is sick
shall i give up my job

my job is sick shall i
Give up My child

my child is my job
shall i give up

jobsickchild my give is my up

What, then, has she achieved in this book? She’s succeeded in talking movingly about real things, with a deceptive simplicity of means, and an almost Elizabeth Bishop-like precision of craft. I wouldn’t say I was overly well-disposed to her project (insofar as I understand it) to start with, but now I’m a convert. Those lines on the back cover won’t go away and leave me be.
DIY now
open one
arm props
up the spuds

Yes, exactly.


Pander 9 (1999): 43.

[502 wds]

Pander 9 (1999)

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