Tag Archives: Janet Charman

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Janet Charman’s ‘daughters depart’


daughters depart


they are in the waves

beating for shore

as the little fish of their absence

swims in the fissures of my long grown bones


currents take hold


from sentiment

i fall to sediment

where the fumerole heat


in deep




a fontanelle

tells the stalker of memory

the necessity of tenderness



Janet Charman






Janet Charman’s monograph ‘SMOKING! The Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone’ is available as a free download at Genrebooks. Her essay ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’ on Allen Curnow’s suppression of the poetics of Mary Stanley, appears in the current issue on-line of Pae Akoranga Wāhine, the journal of the Women’s Studies Association of NZ.






Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Janet Charman writes about Mary Stanley




Janet Charman has written ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?’, a scintillating essay on Mary Stanley for Women Studies Journal. She raises questions about Mary’s exclusion, particularly from Allen Curnow’s anthologies, and equally importantly opens the scope and complexity of Mary’s poetry. I am reminded of how much Mary’s poetry offers and how good it is have her placed within our sightlines.

This is must-read critical thinking – just as Mary Stanley’s Starveling Year is must read poetry. Interestingly I could not access the book cover easily on line as it is now out-of-print ( it was re-issued by AUP in 1994, the first edition appeared in 1953).

You can read the full essay here. This year marks a hundred years since Mary’s birth.


Two tasters from Janet’s essay:

Extract 1:

‘In August 1946, aged 27, Stanley married again. Her second husband was a fellow poet, Kendrick Smithyman. In ‘Put off Constricting Day’, another poem from Starveling Year, she celebrates sexual desire, but also reveals the ambivalence with which the husband of this piece responds to his passionate wife. It is transgressive material for a woman artist of any period – work every bit as ‘adult’ as Allen Curnow, writing of his high expectations of New Zealand artists, could have wished (Curnow 1945, p. 26; 1951, p. 25). On these grounds alone, Stanley should have been a shoo-in for inclusion in Curnow’s 1960 Penguin anthology. A number of Stanley’s poems had appeared in various local and overseas journals, and in 1946, three of her poems won the Jessie Mackay Memorial Poetry Award. This meant her publishing record and critical notice were equal at that time to fellow newcomers C. K. (‘Karl’) Stead and James K. Baxter, both of whom Curnow’s anthologies go out of their way to include and praise. She was also part of a thriving writerly milieu in Auckland, where she and her husband knew Curnow personally. Not surprisingly, a four-page sequence of Smithyman’s poetry was included in the second edition of Curnow’s Caxton anthology (1951), a representation Curnow then tripled to 12 pages in his 1960 Penguin volume. But Mary Stanley is conspicuous by her absence from all three of Curnow’s collections. What is more, Curnow snubs the publication of Starveling Year in his Penguin introduction with his concluding note that, ‘Nowhere in the last decade have there been any poetic departures worth mentioning’ (1960, p. 64).3 That can only have been salt in Mary Stanley’s wounds.


Extract 2:

Family is likewise at the heart of Stanley’s ‘The Wife Speaks’, a poem I read out at my own mother’s funeral. In this piece, clocks whose faces have ‘asking eyes’ mutely question how ‘The Wife’ who winds their hands now spends the time they tell (1994, p. 23). But despite her unfulfilled ambitions, she accepts that she must close her books, because hers is a setting in which even ‘Night puts/ an ear on silence where/ a child may cry’ (p. 23). To meet her children’s needs, the poet must be hyper-vigilant; her underlying desire for a change in her domestic circumstances is stifled by the horrors that she anticipates any such change could produce. Her longing to express her audacious creativity is self-rebuked by the image of Icarus fallen, ‘feathered/ for a bloody death’ (p. 23). The brutal eloquence of the poem thus subverts its ostensible theme of wifely self-abnegation.

I read another of Stanley’s poems at the funeral of my mother’s closest friend. ‘Householder’ (in Starveling Year) embraces the covert hedonism of a Kiwi summer and expresses delight in nature’s exuberant will to misrule. The pines planted around the house usually afflict it with an inveterate chilliness, but once immersed in lazy seasonal heat, the poet glories in a chill made subversively sensual. Stanley’s ability to capture a timeless cultural mood is evoked in other poems too. ‘Sonnet for Riri’ (also in Starveling Year) is an expression of full empathy for a stranger – an emigrant, a refugee. So painfully relevant to the post-war period, this poem could not be more current today.

The dangers that patriarchy and its unacknowledged phallocentric discourses continue to represent for woman-identified artists are epitomised by the critical marginalisation of Mary Stanley’s life and work. However, the acuity of her poems also suggests that it is now time to consider her not as a solo, sacrificial, and silenced victim, but as somebody whose (pro)creative sensibilities can be a touchstone for any artist determined to treat feminine-generativity as both inspirational and unhidden. What is more, to encounter and share Mary Stanley’s poetics on these alternative Matrixial terms employs a model that collegially recognises the writer herself as a she-Hero.








Poetry Review: Heather McPherson’s This Joyous, Chaotic Place

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This Joyous, Chaotic Place, Heather McPherson, Spiral, 2018

(cover image by Joanna Margaret Paul with a portrait of Heather on the back by Allie Eagle)



Heather McPherson (1942 – 2017) published 4 poetry collections in her lifetime, with her first, A Figurehead: A Face, paving the way for future poets. It was the first poetry book by an out lesbian in Aotearoa/ New Zealand.  In 1974 she founded both the Christchurch Women Artists group and Spiral, a women’s literary and arts journal.

Before her death, Heather asked poet Janet Charman to edit her garden poems while Lynne Ciochetto and Marian Evans formed a Spiral collective to publish the volume.

When I think of garden poems, I think of Ursula Bethell and the decade she devoted to writing and gardening when she lived with her beloved companion, Effie Pollen. I have thought about these intensities a lot, and write about them in my forthcoming book.

To enter the glades of Heather’s final collection, lovingly tended by Janet, is to enter a garden rich in aroma, with diverse plantings and seasonal changes. As with Ursula, to view Heather’s writing through a garden lens is extremely productive.


This graveyard’s a bit like the one

where we buried my mum and dad. Oldish,

a small town Anglian acreage


from ‘At Rangiora’s Ashley Street Cemetery’


We begin at Ursula’s grave, and while the poem draws us in close, it also generates little waves that connect admired poet – mentor almost – to Heather’s parents: one grave seeking pilgrimage as much as the next. And herein lies the delight of the poetry, the way the visual piquancy (‘the bird droppings// and twigs’) interweaves with the many selves: daughter, poet, companion, political attendee.

Attendance is vital because this is a poet who paid attention to things, small and large, the one nestled in the other, crafted within the reflective surface of poems. At times it is the joy of the thing itself that matters:


but this shape-shifter tree blossoms

tight thick-skinned buds like thrusting rose-hips


from ‘fragment’


On other occasions the poem is a vehicle for story or anecdote, and a way of tending vital bonds, personal experience, inner movement. Age is a preoccupation as is the necessity of companionship.


No. No. See, it’s like old age, he says, eyeing my face.

Goes slack and perishes. Soon as I touched it, it gave way.

Dangerous. Gone holey. I’ll get you a tow.


from ‘Waiting for the breakdown truck’


I spend time in Heather’s poetic glades, because the senses are on alert, the description compounding, and it imbues my own contemplative state. I like that. I like the way my mind wanders through my open window to the kereru plundering the cabbage tree, and then I am back within an intensity of poppies:


Poppies poppies poppies … red-headed

black-bellied upright masses on light green

sea-milk stalks – surely such riotously

frilly leaves can’t be edible – can’t be

blanched – baked – boiled – toast …


from ‘Poppies’


In a poem for Fran, Heather responds to her friend’s paintings, and it seems to me, the astute observation might also be applied to the poems.


But I don’t have lots of things in

my work – like Anna does, you said;

ah, I said, but your painting traps

amazing movement in it – it moves,

it moves – whether or not your

subject does  – it moves internally

& moving, spills (…)


from ‘Things shift’


As much as stillness gifts Heather’s poetry a translucent layering, the internal movement – the links and arcs, the revelations, the richnesses and the reserve – offer an uplift along with countless movements. By paying attention to the garden in which she lived, and the people close to her, her poetry establishes contrasting intensities – from the joyful to the chaotic. It is a pleasure to read.



Until April 14th

‘This Joyous, Chaotic Place: He Waiata Tangi-ā-Tahu’ is a multi-media project to celebrate poet and lesbian activist Heather McPherson (1942-2017) and her peers in the Aotearoa New Zealand’s women’s art and literature movement of the 1970s and 1980s. It is a #suffrage125 project, funded by Creative New Zealand and includes an exhibition, a collection of Heather’s ‘garden poems’ and a shopfront cinema showing 70s and 80s short films and raw footage.

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The NZ edition of Poetry




I know I find it hard to listen.

I read too much. I often need a drink.

It isn’t the world that makes us think,

it’s words that we can’t come up with.

Sure, I can work up fresh examples

and send them off to the committee.

But the poetry is in the bird. And in the pretty.


Bill Manhire, from ‘Polly’


International poetry traffic is so often dependent upon fortuitous connections. The degree of familiarity with poetry from elsewhere is utterly paltry compared with the degree of familiarity I have with local writing. Yes I have studied American and British poetry but I am more aware of the luminous stars in these poetry constellations than the grassroot outings.

On the other hand, we are no longer dependent upon ocean voyages and the constraints of distance, but to what degree does our poetry travel (compared say with fiction)? Or our poetry conversations extend beyond our lapping tidelines.

I am acutely aware of my impoverished relations with contemporary Australian poetry. Perhaps Joan Fleming and Amy Brown could guest edit a local journal with an Australian focus? But then again our journals are often annual and offer vital but scant opportunities for local poets.

This is not the first time an overseas journal has showcased New Zealand poetry, but it is perhaps the example I am most excited by. The editors – Stephanie Burt (USA), Paul Millar (NZ) and Chris Price (NZ) – have worked hard to present a distinctive and diverse overview of our current poetry. The selected poets cross all manner of borders: age, geographical location, style, university affiliation, gender, ethnicity. This matters if we want to move beyond the legacy of white male predomination, urban bias and privileged poetry models. I cannot name a NZ journal that has achieved such movement.

Yes the five books Daisy Fried reviewed – from the fifteen 2017 publications she was sent – were all Victoria University Press. Her selection certainly does not reflect the contours of that year, and we can all stand on the sidelines and shout (or sing) about the books we loved, but I have no issue with reviews reflecting individual taste. However I do take issue that a short intro and five VUP books can respond to her opening question: ‘How to characterise a national poetry?’ Why would you even try! It is a personal take on five excellent books.

The rest of the journal is an altogether different joy. The effect of reading is symphonic in the different hues and chords. Every single poem lifts off the page and catches both ear and eye. Such freshness, such lightness, darkness, musicality, room to breathe, surprising arcs and links and undercurrents. I keep swaying between Anna Jackson’s glorious bee poem and the flickering titles that coalesce in Nina Powles’s offering or the infectious wit of James Brown, Ashleigh Young and Tim Upperton.  I am pulled into the bite of Anahera Gildea, Chris Tse and then Tayi Tibble and stop in the tracks of reading. Travelling with Janet Charman and the revelatory suite makes me weep. Switching to Anne Kennedy and the momentum coils and overlaps and poetry transforms a starting point into elasticity on the line. Bill Manhire flips me over into the second stanza, and the lacework of reading – intricate yet full of holes – offers mystery, surprise, wit, curious things.


The time of breathing into clasped hands

hovering over a lighter to make a flame


not knowing

that an angry man threw his eyes into the night


the belly of his shattered father

weeping rain for separation of earth and sky


Jessie Puru from ‘Matariki’



The editors did not feel beholden to poetry that targets versions of New Zealand/ Aotearoa; our poetry might do this and then again it might not. The poems have the freedom to do and be anything whether they spring from spoken-word rhythms or  talkiness or thinginess or anecdotal revelations or sumptuous Baroque-detail or story or slanted humour or cutting political edges.

The poets: Anna Jackson, Kate Camp, Michele Leggott, Therese Lloyd, Jessie Puru, Essa Ranapiri, Tayi Tibble, Robert Sullivan, Kerrin P. Sharpe, Hera Lindsay Bird, Dylan Horrocks, James Brown, Murray Edmond, Jenny Bornholdt, Anne Kennedy, Bill Manhire, Nina Powles, Janet Charman, Anahera Gildea, Bernadette Hall, Vincent O’Sullivan, Courtney Sina Meredith, C.K. Stead, Chris Tse, Tim Upperton, Gregory O’Brien and John Pule, Faith Wilson, Ashleigh Young, Albert Wendt, Steven Toussaint, Erik Kennedy

This issue is a cause for celebration – I absolutely love it – and my celebration will take  the form of a subscription. New Zealand poetry has been well served – congratulations!


Poetry here


everything I never asked my grandmother

I can understand but I can’t speak

no one has played that piano since

New Zealand is so far away from here

let me translate for you the poem on the wall


Nina Powles from ‘Some titles for my childhood memoir’

Poetry Shelf Autumn Season: Poets pick a word – Janet Charman picks open


door tender


a trek through bush

arriving at the party breathless


climb onto the verandah

two chairs

one each side of the open door

sit there

with the music

pumping from the lit living room

down the empty hall


then who should step up?

out of the dark

a sparkler

a hum

as if with this starry fingering

the sinews of the self

are vibrating


at once



©Janet Charman  2017 (March 19th)


‘door tender’ is one of the etymological origins of clitoris.

That said this poem is set at a borderspace of self-fragilization, so the door is open.


Janet Charman’s essay ‘A piece of why’ appears in the current issue of The Poetry New Zealand Yearbook (Jack Ross Ed., 2017, PNZ, Massey University Press). In it some of the patriarchal implications of Allen Curnow’s three post-war Caxton and Penguin poetry anthologies are discussed.  Drawing in this, on the Matrixial theories of Bracha Ettinger, in terms of the affects and effects of transmissive trauma.