Poem Friday: Vivienne Plumb’s ‘As much gold as an ass could carry’ deliciously fablesque

Viv Final

This week an unpublished poem from Vivienne Plumb.


As much gold as an ass could carry.

One endless summer when I was fourteen

I began to speak with a great arrogance

as wide as a river mouth, imagining I was

witty and charming and full of my own cream.


I refused to continue laying the fire

or to cook supper in the tiny croft-house.

Instead, I was dreaming of ten-foot palaces, a crop of corn,

my own chambermaid, and as much gold as an ass

could carry.


I was sent to learn how to cut willows

and weave, but I allowed the meats

in my basket

to become cold and infested with worms.


I breast-stroked far away

in my twenty-league boots, under the delusion

I was moving fast, when in truth

I had remained stock still.


© Vivienne Plumb.doc


Vivienne Plumb presently holds the 2014 Ursula Bethall writing residency at University of Canterbury. She is a poet, a fiction writer, and a playwright, and has recently completed a Doctor of Creative Arts. New published work includes Twenty New Zealand Playwrights (with Michelanne Forster) published by, and available through Playmarket (N.Z.), and a collection of short fiction, The Glove Box, (Spineless Wonders, Sydney).


Author’s note: The language of this poem was influenced by the language and content of stories such as those the Grimm Brothers collected. The poem attempts to give some instruction in a similar way to those kind of stories, where the advice was hidden in the text, such as Little Red Riding Hood (i.e: watch out for lone wolves). Apart from that, the piece is also about youth: the narrator wants to ‘breast-stroke far away’ but will later discover that for all her wild swimming she ‘remained stock still’; as how can we truly get away from what we actually carry inside us? The title, As much gold as an ass can carry, reflects our youthful dreams, so full of ‘cream’ and conjecture.

Note from Paula: When I first read this poem it struck me as deliciously fablesque—a poem that would fit perfectly in Italo Calvino’s mammoth and brilliant collection of Italian folk tales. Vivienne’s poem has the momentum and structure of a folk tale where the morals and messages lurk in the seams. You have, for example, to keep your eye on the world, on the small details in order to nourish the bigger picture (otherwise your meat will rot in its basket). And then, the old proverb: less haste, more speed. Yet what elevates this poem into something exquisitely more, is the layered movement— not just in the semantic and visual reverberations but also in the aural kicks and echoes. Take the phrase, ‘full of my own cream.’ It’s semantically and visually surprising (gives flesh to the girl on the cusp of womanhood) and aurally active (the ‘eam’ and ’em’ sounds leapfrog through the poem like aural glue or a vital backbone: summer, imagining, charming, dreaming, chambermaid, much, become, moving, remained). That phrase just bounces and bounds at the end of the line. The poem also stands as a rite of passage—the young girl exhibits the youthful need to flounder and laze, to break away from constraint into the magical, dangerous unknown. I loved, too, the way Vivienne is unafraid of tropes (‘a great arrogance as wide as a river mouth’). I loved the confounding somersaults that verge on oxymora; the breaststroker in her twenty-league boots, the girlhood activity that leads to stasis. Glorious!



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