Poetry Shelf occasional reviews: Joanna Cho’s People Person

People Person, Joanna Cho, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022

Joanna Cho’s debut poetry collection, People Person, is poetry pleasure. I experience a sequence of poetic delights, poems that offer multiple rewards, poems to read again and again. The presence of Joanna’s mother’s ephemeral paintings is an exquisite addition: fleeting, hinting, translucent palette, subject rich. I adore them.

The poems deliver everything I love about poetry. Descriptive energy that draws people, place, situations closer:

The veins on her hands have shot up overnight, like the backs of cornered
cats. They are rough as the edges of torn paper.

 

from ‘You’ll Thank Me for It Later’

The visual tracks are coupled with attention to audio tracks. The way poems are a gift for the ear. Ideas establish meshed thought, especially ideas connected to home and identity, to name calling and being named.

Our parents bought our names from fortune-tellers,
each of the three syllables laying out our ancestry and personal truths
in the immortal wind

                                 our names are gifts and expectations

but our English names were picked hastily
while flicking through TV channels.

 

from ‘The Gift’

There is the allure of metonymy, where this thought or object placed alongside that thought or object produces electric currents.

Joanna’s poetry relishes narrative, whether fractured, curtailed, elongated. The power of story, invented or recalled, attracts me as reader. Think fable or anecdote or ranging subject matter. I savour this collection on so many levels, on its ability to startle and sidetrack, on its use of loops, repetition, echoes.

I tried to be chill, for you and for me.
I tried to be chill,
but at the gig I scoped out the exit, just in case,
and you sculled your beer and turned
cos there was nothing left to say.

The next day we walked around town
and noticed the loop pedal at the busker’s feet.

We got hungry.
We got food.

I knew these would be our last fish and chips.

 

from ‘Pull Over, I’ll Drive’

More than anything I am pulled into the pleats and folds of Joanna’s writing because it is personal. It is humorous and witty and revealing. It is confessional and withholding, gifting and gifted. Each time you read from cover to cover, you will discover new reading tracks, fresh possibilities for what we want and need from poetry. Each poem a provisional portrait, a self excursion, a self reckoning.

These are the narratives we tell over and over again; they keep us
connected through all the distance we have created and maintained.
Our relationships shrink and expand and shrink again like a jellyfish
opening and closing its bell. Blood tethers, clots.

Our true reactions and preferences are inconsistent, but we smooth these
out by reframing our experiences in a consistent narrative.

We are good at keeping secrets from each other, our bodies an advent
calendar—occasionally one of the little flaps opens and a piece of
chocolate falls out.

Each version of the family stories forms an overlapping polyphony.
These are our heirlooms and we are the school choir.

 

from ‘The White Swans Are Dancing / With Their Eyes Closed, in the Flurry’

 

People Person is a triumph – I have quoted more excepts than I would normally do because it is the poetry that matters here, poetry that delivers myriad reading tracks that are so utterly satisfying. Glorious.

Te Herenga Waka University Press page

Joanna Cho was born in South Korea and currently lives in Wellington. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2020 and received the Biggs Family Prize in Poetry.

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