Janet Charman

Janet Charman has published six collections of poems. Her most recent, cold snack (AUP), won the 2008 Montana Poetry Prize. She has an MA in English from the University of Auckland and has held writers’ fellowships at both AU and Hong Kong Baptist University. She lives in Auckland.


where people are

where people are alive in jeweled walls
i am a new arrival to this cabinet on the ninth floor
a grey crab immobilised in twine
yet a few evenings later i’m rattling round like an almond in a drawer
then every morning when i scuttle out the weather has grown colder
the newspaper says they’ve opened nine chill shelters for the homeless
i look down to ground level and decide from passers-by if i’ll need long sleeves
some days it’s freezing

cloud shadows pass
palm leaves gust
see how our shudders manifest on the ceiling

at a window across the valley an inhabitant leans out
a twenty second story to pull in her quilt

i am that chopstick that fell from the table
i am that chewed bone left on the cloth
though as i’m beginning to form an opinion
you’ll see me in the lotus shaped bowl they’re filling
with green tea for sterilising

a restaurant utensil
plunged to wash off
any microscopic bit of stuck on sediment
the dishwasher didn’t get at

our graceful host makes her gestures apt
to fit this vessel
which is up to just below overflowing

that’s me
not quite spilling

i arm myself before we eat
against too much relief at your acceptance
since i am the battle that wants to be fought
but when you say you like what i write
and in your translation
my lesbian allusion
is colloquially rendered ‘female comrade’
i become the big messy nest of an unknown bird
found all along the highway between Qufu and Mount Tai on The Mainland

but no-one can tell me what name that bird has or where it has flown
though it knows

is it centred from a hide in your web pages?
is it scavenging my Octopus card in the MTR?

if you think now you can leave me alone to get on with my independent learning
think again
i am actually a left margin justified crazy person
who agitating at her map in the crowded concourse
will talk to herself
and wheeling down the mountain
i am the green sweep of the mendicant’s robe
drink in his tragic theatre
his rictus of despair
not giving any money to a beggar
i am that woman

eventually able
to get relief
but high on Mount Tai one who no longer expects
that where we eat
there’ll automatically be a place to piss

and now i’m also understanding
how expectation makes me ridiculous

when we get to The Mainland you switch
and i digest
that since we met you’ve been speaking to me in a foreign language

with men about sex
in a language
to us

can you say if you really wanted me to take up your invitation
for the massage you mentioned?
and when our feet no longer ache would it be
finished? at that time of night
after her last clients
while we head off to dinner
must that masseuse accept some chilly weight? until she gets her ride home late
where i come from that’s what would happen
but in your Microcosmos
the lines of towels of all sizes that hang outside the massage house
are readied for a speech contest
good strong boy-towels wagging the breeze
‘where are all the girl-towels?’
trust me to ask


imagine them
consonant dancers
a rainbow serpent    stretching a circle    in the soft    smooth-flowing water

next morning
i am becoming
another woman
chosen for smiling in the cold at reception
but however tall i appear in my boots and red coat my shift is longer

i am the parts of many dishes
left on the table when the guests have finished
i am your beloved wife’s voice in the distance
i am the grey Mainland preparing urgently for transfiguration by Capitalism
i have not looked at my hands but they may need scrubbing
and regular four hourly disinfection

i am the wrinkled shirt where the sweat smells like deodorant
i am our unexpected stopovers
i am the line of wash you lift to come into my room
i am the accommodation where the dragon eyes of the smoke detector
are opening and closing
they have seen everything
and many times over

where you hold tight to the handrail i am the precipice you are close to
i am your sensational mouth
i am that day when in our arms for the first time we held our daughters
i’m the friend – mortally ill – who has flown from this country
to be with his family
and die in mine

i am the youth by the fire extinguisher in the moving train
who holds onto his girlfriend as if no-one can see them

i am the sex goddess who uses Botox
i am the Men’s Fun business
i am the boy in the little club shooting up
in the dark
i am the one who has that touch holds down a heart
and wants that talk which opens the door to another time zone

when the answer is no
i am the one who doesn’t hear so well
who wants to sit with you
when our relatives are gone
books leaning together
in the sun on a verandah

i am the one who waits to ask about your cough
i am the one whose teabag lasts for three cups
who wants to be civil to your wife and her parents
and would like to like her better than either of us

i am the one who sometimes makes the audience laugh
who annoys the journalism students with a poem that is too long and not
topical enough

i am the one whose work you translated
who you pushed to the edge and from whom you retreated
who fears men for every good reason
and still wants to be wrong about them

your poem conversation with a lover -embracing her
i am the one who broke in thinking
this consummation
should be reopened

when you put the rowdy guest out of your house and won’t let her back
i am the one under a full moon
i am the one
walking on The Mainland in a decorated face mask with her boyfriend
and he
since they are a couple
expects to pay
for everything
and she is going to marry him on an auspicious date to be announced soon
but there is still time

i am the one who showers considerately at night for her family
and arrives at work in the morning a little bit sweaty
who knocks a knob on her room phone and starts a siren
who you found in a struggle with the hairdryer
because it won’t turn off
and you hang it up to make it stop
telling me developing countries don’t have off switches

then just at the moment someone compliments me yet again on my left handed dexterity
i am the one whose piece of crispy duck splashes onto the tablecloth

i am the life-size replica of Margaret Thatcher
hunched forward attending the words of Deng Xiaoping
in the Hundred Years of China exhibition at the National Museum i am enjoying
his nonchalant posture

i am the people jam for the Peak Tram
my Comrade Friend was born up here many years before The Handover
above the view i listen for her
first cry

i am the Haagen-Dazs mascarpone ice-cream i ate
that one of the staff asked me how to pronounce
but what would i know? since i am the one frozen to the bone at Lantau
who you insisted should try
hot black
sesame soup

it is

and then you command me to lay off the soy sauce
which overpowers all the other flavours

intermittently out of the mist
The Buddha appears
very trim at two hundred and fifty metric tonnes

once i saw some women at our airport greet their newly arrived priest
with joyful obeisance
to the side on a bench the European devotee
half perched with the car keys

receiving a blow
if you’ve forgotten what happened the bruises know

in the cold gondolas i am the one who suspects you feel vertigo
and so i can please get some sleep i want my crush on you to be over

when you said you could see more people should read my work
that was the aphrodisiac

but why praise my style by publicly quipping
that in comparison
your own is nothing?

then you give me your selected poems

my friend i’ve read them
you are nothing
as the air is
i’m breathing

did you think i’d expire when i find you’re a lyre?
no fear
you inspire
i dare say we’re both lyres

i am the one whose other life waits
out there
like an indigenous owner
holding on
for the return of their home
like The Mainland holding on for the return of Taiwan

i am the one who at the back of my notebook makes dozens of jottings
leaving room at the front for important thoughts
and never has any

the one sniffing these other writers’ successes
most indecorous
and till the market women run after me pleading i am the one afraid to bargain
who purchases sundry fridge magnets and three acrylic blend pashminas
for which i can honestly say no endangered species gave up their fleeces

i am the one who in that very local way
agonises over the democratic politics
of giving presents
what to give
to whom and when
with what wrappings and un-wrappings
what to make of the photo opportunities
that spring from these spontaneous demonstrations

and i am the one who wants to live in a place like this
where students walk from satellite campuses in sub zero temperatures
to hear a poet like you warm us through
but because these enclave streets are clearer
on account of the armed guards at the entrances
i don’t want to stay on The Mainland either

then when your airport shuttle is due
i am the one who waits for you
on the last couch
with a gift for your wife
and now you’re on your way home
i see how you can look after a good night’s sleep
you give me your hand with its heat
you are not a photograph in my brain
my voice is wobbling
i hurry off to get it hidden in Pacific Coffee
which is closed
it must be Sunday
i try the dining hall on Baptist University Road
where i choke on my food
and leave it uneaten
but that’s not your pigeon
i’ve run out of Protease inhibitions

i gulp my way down the hill
to the Kowloon Tong station
at least i know where this curved white avenue is leading
walking it like stroking the little bit grubby limbs of a long legged European

at a roller door phone i’m passing a young speaker is saying
‘i am the elocution teacher’
and they buzz her in
that’s what i have become
somebody waiting for anyone who’ll buzz her in
because English here is but one swift current bound in the Cantonese ocean

despite that
while we were stuck in ‘The Olive Basket’ transit café at the airport
en route from The Mainland
i tried for a piece of your sweet tanghulu

and even if we don’t collaborate
like you first suggest
i insist
despite your objections
that i would know how to go about it

you say these particular characters
are each suspended in a multi-level narrative
which can’t be interpreted into English
my answer is i’d intuit
bite them up bit by bit
if you’d explain i can do it

now you down my questions
saying your text doesn’t stack up in any manner for a language outsider
to comprehend it
-not even if you sent me the words
after your Other Half has seen them into English?
-not even with the way the whole of the two of you
make one of them?
the ideas would be attenuated
but i don’t want to accept that
and now i’m older it takes more people to push me over

hers is another voice i’d like to encounter

ok then
i’ll admit it
work in translation can be leaden
in her rendition your poems are incandescent
fired from one language into another
read on a dark night
seen ever after
in their own light
but here your pouring thoughts call for surrender
my head on the table
-then keep your ‘nocturnal emissions’
call them starlight
if anyone can
transcend the sub-textual comic inflections
i can’t resist you
i want your attention

but please
i don’t want to be smashed with a hand on my neck
like in the Judd Apatow in-flight comedy i saw on my way back
where he’s saying ‘this is Hollywood
swallow it’

for at my lit key board
morning comes in finger sequences
tip tapping

and now i’m getting it
in the neck
from the women i was appraising in these gangster movie pole dance scenes
on TV
they’ve come down to the front of the screen
and begun appraising
but aren’t those fully dressed men the ones they should be questioning
and all the Directors? who set them up as sex furniture

in truth
as i approached you
those women were with me in the transit café at the airport
because in my head among the coffee cups on the remembered table
i felt naked
risking one harsh second to last laugh the universe was having
at the fact our worlds were set
to fly apart
and despite that
i was out there
trying so hard for the sixtieth time in a month to catch your drift
and i want to put that in italics
but i haven’t

and there goes your language up and down and across in strokes of glyph music
even to where
reading it through stinging particles of notes in English
i find my hair standing on end
even to where because you’ve kept me at a distance
i feel as if i’m in The Catholic Church
trying to accept all those common-sense words of rejection
The Holy Father issues
but they might as well be nits since i defy all of them to listen to your arias
and take the tanghulu into my mouth

cut through
piece by piece
to my sense of refreshment
as you relent
and show me where you’ve cracked the sugar
in the dead walls of The Confucian Mausoleum

this poem you’re making
takes me straight to the tart fruit i want

if i grasp
your intention is
that The Direct Descendants’ Family Name be transfigured
as a place for women reclaiming their private part
they who
through the small hole of the feminine
shall make a place to

raise up

but now i’m out here
in the open
making my stand
on the infinitely renewable hill of the clitoral
where winds drown
or carry my voice
will you hear my shout? that in these phoenix arts
one wit
isn’t enough

you decide

hard by your depiction
i say men have holes
’make them as receptive as anything women commission
is the private part entered only in the feminine?
render the private part surrendered in the masculine
where bees figure in the honey
let them
i am for a morning sunlit beyond planting
good green filth
that sugar snap i get from red work
where the almonds of the earth break into leaf
a fifth season
better than a revolution
make your embrace that poem

yet i fear
with things as they are
i will have to make do
with clopping down the vagina walled avenue to the Confucius Family tomb
the donkey drawing our party through
as the whip cracks across her old shoulders
– the carter’s three year old nephew borne there
falling asleep on his feet
and then we leave him at the gates of the garden of death
transfer to a mini van to get to the main graves
buried among pine forest
no bird or serpent or girl permitted to live
here where The Red Guard came

and later at the hotel you give me the sharp of your tongue
because you know it never even occurred to me to bring an electronic dictionary
Western cultural hegemony
you exercise your right to be angry
yes i’m ashamed
still i presume
to take the tanghulu into my mouth

‘cunt’ and ‘Kant’ you remark
who may use words like that?
-Poets! it is our categorical imperative

i say: ‘wǔdǎyī’ and ‘Hua Yu’
someone! with a point of view

and with tongues Lu Xun’d
what more unforeseeable vocabulary could be spat between us?

in my notebook
you write: ‘bitter’ ‘pizza’
and think of cutting short your trip
abandoning ship
but i intend to wade in
test with my thumb to find where the ink has risen
and fill my pen like a blind person

then you arrive from another direction
require me to consider
what of the Chinese culture
will be left
when Capitalism has finished planting the landscape with Coca

and yet
i can still argue
that there are numbers of women
coming out of the family whole
to the hill of the clitoris
and somebody else at Mount Tai told us: ‘observances are being made here
to the Grandmother’s Grandmother’

the head view happening
as i look at that mountain
which you conceded was culturally significant
but not
on a five
particularly interesting

that’s true
not interesting in comparison with the strokes of the naked man we saw
swimming in the reservoir
where it started snowing on our way down
or the black swan
which is how i’ve been thinking of one of the women
who was with me when she lit her incense packet
the scent ascending as we prepare to climb higher
‘i never know how to make observances’ she mutters
my answer: just be who you are
perhaps the smoke will wind round our bodies and make us happier?
then as i clamber up the steps i spare an arrow
for the woman guard doing pat down searches all day at The Mainland border
who pinched my genitalia
-that she will find better things to do with her fingers

and that we’ll enter
into revolution together
but rather that your audacious configurations
will deliver to me so many good reasons
why the baby in the covered wagon
who rode with us to the funeral gates
can go back to his mother
and grow up somewhere we are not required to answer: ‘i am ab*so*lute*ly
as the cane beats the sugar into us

she explained that archetypal torture
showed us
the ridged place
they hit kneeling men
the ridged place
they beat kneeling women
whatever they were feeling
under threat of execution
required to keep smiling

but what i have
is your voice
dismantling the walls of conformity
a woman breathing
and in her arms of language
the weight of your poetics
bringing to consciousness
the blush of the body joyous
and everywhere
we know
there is more of this