Reclaiming narrative, Janet Hughes

Jump Start
Virginia Were
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 86473 358 5

Rapunzel Rapunzel
Janet Charman
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 86940 208 1

Hearing the word “narrative” on the lips of a psychologist and an economist within hours of reading these two collections set me thinking about the current renascence of story-telling, and what it has meant for poetry, which for a long time preferred images over action, and looked inward to reactions rather than outward to what happened next. Poetry, I think, has reclaimed narration from the large-scale genres – but not by rehabilitating the epic, or even by privileging the durable ballad. Instead it has let story-telling colonise the accommodating lyric, confirming rather than challenging its primacy. Narrative elements have always been there, and now, though still often curtailed or fragmentary, they are being given more play, and being allowed more and more often to depose Image from its long-accustomed throne.

Both Virginia Were and Janet Charman tell us many stories, whole or in part, about the commonplace complexities of ordinary life and relationships. Both write about intimacy, sensuality, domestic politics, emotional rapture and rupture. And both also look beyond the lyric’s self-enclosure to other minds and lives.

Charman imagines her way into the skins of Courtney Love and characters from Sargeson and Mansfield, and between the sheets (literally) of Ursula Bethell’s companion Effie Pollen. And of course her title sequence is based on the Grimm fairy tale of Rapunzel, translated into a context of contemporary marital strife. She draws her characters – some her own, some appropriated or reinvented – with an incisive economy, typically by letting them speak: “nice 
in a peremptory way / let me get that for you  he’ll say”; “Courtney left town too / Christchurch she didn’t need some bloke to buy her a fridge”. The puns are often literary in-jokes, more telling if you happen to recall the original context, but not without point if you don’t: “frank / Frank Sargeson. Sarge / and that’s not her real name either.” The ear for idiom is exact, and she has a wonderful way of resuscitating clichés or colloquial commonplaces to mischievous ends: “hands are for hips girls” (on the gulf between ballerinas’ aspirations and suburban domesticity).

Like Charman, Were has an ear and eye for defining detail, but she uses it to impart particularity, to give characters an independent, substantial being; she scrutinises them, and their relations with her, from a composed distance even when she addresses “you” directly. In “Gravel” she engages our curiosity about the other party in a doomed office romance, in the very act of characterising graphically her own reactions to him:

I waited for you to call as if
my life depended on it.
As if!
And when you did, your voice
was gravel flung at my window.
Then flat, snapped shut
like a pack of cards.

“Torch” is about a dilettante and his passionate, temporary enthusiasms – his attention “like the fierce / skinny beam of a torch, swinging / wildly around a darkened room”. He is allowed to amuse us and at the same time give himself away, self-consciously quoting Woody Allen, borrowing a “fat coffee-table book” on formal gardening, only to insist “‘I’m not actually / interested in gardening’ he says./ ‘I don’t do gardening’.” The speaker is poker-faced (voiced?) when she records that “The book goes back to the library / with a small fine”; and the only really unkind jibe comes from a third party, a “friend”.

The unfortunate Torch is mocked for his derivative language and thinking, but he is endearing in his particularity. Charman tends to use her detail more generically and politically, characterising ways of behaving so as to invite, almost compel us to condemn or despise. Where Were’s people are pinned down with words, Charman’s are skewered. Were can depict personal politics with an almost painful acuteness; but Charman enacts them in verse. Often you feel her poems have the last word for the moment in a conflict that is still sparking, whereas Were’s are steadied in tranquil hindsight.

For all their similarities the two poets’ books are very unalike, principally in style. Charman’s style is, as always, utterly distinctive. All her trademarks are here: ellipsis, elision, compaction and fracture; a rejection of punctuation, avowedly political; short lines and gappy typography; grammatical and semantic disjunctions; words used unconventionally; mimicry, puns and other verbal games.

The singularity of her language is so insistent that the characters have to speak, and the action has to be discerned, through a dense tissue of idiosyncrasy. This is not always a fault: consider how much richer “Rapunzel showers” is for the fusion of the speaking voices with that of the interpreter:

their sons saw her
‘dad she’s stuck fat’

he turned from shaving
his girl face below the bristle

a curve  a bruise  a ragged bleed
‘she knit you up

with her bones
she wore you in

and you won’t
wear her out’

But the reader often has to work at discerning sense, and sometimes, squinting through the thicket, I found myself wanting a machete. The spare, elliptical narrative barely intimates some important connections, and it is possible to lose the gist of the tale. When this happens, the oddities of the expression can seem wilful and obstructive. I did find, though, that with re-reading this happened less and less, and the sense was scarcely ever irretrievable. Charman’s language seems to have been put through the shredder then reconstituted – with a consistency of its own, a syntax that can be learned swiftly by immersion.

The language and typography have a prickly, provocative  surface. Disjunctions are often semantically tactical, signalling puns, bifurcations, conversions of idiom to the writer’s purposes. This spiky, sparky grammar is wholly in tune with the dangerous glint in much of Charman’s writing. Breaking open language and experience, she releases illicit possibilities (lesbianism, domestic rebellion), turns her torch on the fears, joys and griefs lurking the cracks.

But you can also read past the gaps. The line and stanza breaks and double spaces articulate rather than interrupt the sense, often substituting quite consistently for conventional punctuation marks, which you cease to miss. Short, flexible lines (always sense units) behave rather like feet in a long line, and the supervening rhythms can be fluid and lyrical – even elegiac, in the haunting sequence “the gift cup”:

those who’d been on his watch
stood to
as the storm encroached

they fought to look after him
harboured him
in the ICU palace

a temporary mooring
all hands
imagining where his body belonged

charted detail
charted hazard

leaned
the way you would with a lover
and talked
as if his life depended on it.

Virginia Were’s work is more accessible, and harder to characterise, because she observes prose conventions. She is one of those poets – Elizabeth Bishop is the extreme example – who leave you wondering where the lyricism resides in their plain surfaces and direct syntax. This is subtle writing, distinctive in a much less assertive way than Charman’s. It draws its strength from an accommodating vision, a sort of patient curiosity. The vision is ample: she ranges over places and relationships and experiences with the air of valuing journey and experience over ends – the Route 66 ethos brought up to date. She surveys relationships from a dispassionate distance; yet feeling is registered nevertheless, and the more moving for being held still, framed in hindsight.

Were deploys such prosy instruments as tenses to create a certain complexity of address. “Alabama”, for instance, sketches one man’s past in broad, past-tense strokes; but frames the sketch with a present – “I’ll tell you how he”, “I’ll tell you about his” – implying also a future in which more is to be said than we are told. In “The Bride Stripped Bare” she explores the ambiguity of the plain statement, re-conjugating “the bride at the beach / is” to expose the treacherous uses to which “is” can be put: The bride on the beach is, variously “a painting by / Winslow Homer”, “biting her lip”, various items symbolic of the location and occasion – and finally, fusing all these modes of figuration, “a purple cloud / threatening rain”.

The final third of Jump Start consists of prose pieces, some of them brief short stories, some hovering on the boundary of journalism. They are poised, observant and tautly written, but left me feeling disappointed; this may have simply to do with the length constraints. A number of them required some knowledge of the contemporary art scene, but delivered little insight into it. They are another face of the vogue for story-telling, which tends to privilege narration for its own sake. These little tales have good bones, but they’re brittle; and I would like to see more flesh on them, of the kind that clothes the poems so aptly.

Both Jump Start and Rapunzel Rapunzel are collections that will stand, indeed almost demand, re-reading: Charman’s density and Were’s lucidity both tend at first to mask the rewards they reserve for longer acquaintance.

Janet Hughes is a Wellington reviewer.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review
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