仁, Surrender by Janet Charman.
Dunedin: OUP (2017). www.otago.ac.nz/press
RRP: $27.50. Pb, 118pp.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
There is a deep feeling of respect in Janet Charman’s eighth poetry collection, 仁, Surrender. Written during her residency in China in 2009, and as guest reader in Taipei in 2014, this, her latest collection of twenty-four poems, focusses on the complexities involved and illustrates – with comedy and courtesy – the necessary mental adjustments, the polite interactions and the quirky strangeness of cross-cultural situations. The attention needed to follow the etiquette of another, the awareness of differences from one’s own tradition, the energy, care and tension in being courteous, of keeping and saving face, can be stressful.
In “some notes on shopping and present giving”, a poem that builds in tension over its eleven pages, we share the nightmarish dilemma of choosing the right present and the protocol of giving. “some notes” evokes the terror of possible offence – an offence which is innocent yet beyond one’s control. Unlike our nightmares, we do not wake with a start before it ends. Across the eleven pages anxiety, humour and pragmatism take us on a bumpy journey. Charman’s observations and decisions – especially when restricted by time, money, space and cultural appropriateness – make for a super, conversational, narrative poem that neatly concludes with irony.
‘i was determined to give my gifts discreetly/ because you can’t help but notice the way people here/ make everything a photo opportunity/ but i wanted to give them as if they came direct from Aotearoa New Zealand/ with me acting only as the intermediary/ is that too weird?’ (p 55).
‘i won’t tell you how relieved i was/ when all the pictures had been hand-delivered/ but in the end i only gave out thirteen and kept one for myself/…….. when i look at it i’m reminded how anxious i get/ yet things can still turn out/ all right’ (p 57).
In “walking the dark hall”, we are justifiably reminded that, ‘… here/ i know/ i have/ had my head/ turned/ but thanks be to the God i don’t believe in we aren’t the people in our/ poems’ (p 79). An excellent reminder; being placed so believably, we do believe.
You do feel placed in Chinese culture – there’s an otherness, sometimes haiku-like. Charman’s poems show a lot, not so much telling; the writing is laconic, factual and curious. The poet places, displaces and counter-places us alongside her characters in situations such as Professor/Teacher/Student, or Visiting Guest Poet/Local Poets, all this notwithstanding age, gender and cultural differences.
The title poem is the symbol known as ‘ren’, 仁. It is explained: ‘ren’ is/ literally/ the sign for man/ and the number two/ today some agree to translate it as co-humanity/ and as far as that goes/ i do’ (p 64).
It appears that ‘man’ needs to surrender to such a concept as well as the significant list of attributed ‘distinctive qualities’. For, ‘look at him/ projections from and into his person/ what he gives and receives// in intellectual consciousness/ and from an erect penis’ (pp 64-65).
Immediately following this man-focussed poem, Charman addresses womanhood in: “on the first day” a crafty, crafted, distinctive counter-position. Her theme of co-humanity comes with welcome, spunky, feminist input. Patriarchal expectations, gender and sexuality spring from the jill-in-the-box to challenge and enliven.
Various explanations are given for the use of ‘i’ for the first person in “a writing exercise”. One is: ‘to my mind/ the 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’ (p 61). But this artist will have no problem.
My favourite sentence of the whole book is here, too: ‘my poems come/between the dot and the stroke’ (p 62).
The cover is attractive, energetic, and richly symbolically (with red for good fortune). The editing is sound and the design is clear and spacious.
Charman’s collection is packed with interesting, intelligent poetry. It is brimming with life, with feeling, with being human. It is uplifting.
[One of the bonuses of working on a review is following references and discovering other literature and poets who have influenced the writer. I am grateful to Janet Charman for introducing me to the Chinese poet, Chen Li. Charman’s own on-line review of Chen’s book, Intimate Letters, in Mascara (2014) is an excellent essay.]
 Charman’s title is instructive. It can be translated as: ‘co-human surrender’. In ancient times it was simply a generic term for ‘man’. In contemporary Mandarin ‘仁- can be translated as ‘co-human’. But it was a term informed by positive connotations; in French it would perhaps be gentilhomme or perhaps in English gentleman.
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.