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Janet Charman

Three poems

singer machine

treadles clothe The Commonwealth
sewing up progress
on earth floors in National Film Unit documentaries

Mum on the Feltex
ankle woggling our dresses

her crawling baby sticks his thumb in
pulls it out a crushed plum
the other does not taste the same

or assuage his screams
no more sucking
to be done

in the Intermediate sewing room
black Singers
with imperial spiral stencils

Miss calls them modernized
and when you press the question mark shape of their louche
leg opening

thigh control levers
out spurt the stitches

we watch the three American women
moving up in hand sewn sequins
on television

my father says ‘those girls are something’
make something of yourself

declare independence
lick the cotton
to a point

undertake loop
hook and eyelet
but i’m hopeless at recalling correct order for threading

my material
the hole below the needle

thread lumps and must be enticed
the fabric is stuffed
i have to ask for help

lining up
with no expectation of a finished garment
for the bulk of every lesson

at Miss Simplicity’s desk
she too in demand
to keep us all on track

gets me to finger pleat and tack
the blue and white hail-spot cotton print
on which flimsy cloth my mother spent

unwilling to commit more funds
to a doomed project
another recusant

the best and prettiest
instead of an A line shift with all the prescribed elements

constructs a boned bikini brassiere
she says her mother says she should
the authorities find her ‘art’ inappropriate

won’t let her in
the end of term show
where i’m modeling the limp skirt i’ve wrestled with for months

that Miss Simplicity took pity on me
and finished
to show them

i transform at home
a green moth eaten silk satin balloon gown
bought at my old school Gala Day

with the air whistle wing chunk chunk of the fabric of the earth
falling away from a kereru taking off

which eating berries
in the Pururi tree
they took us out of class to see

three times my friend Quick Unpick will rescue me
when i set the sleeve in

sew back
to front
reconstruct the skirt with my mother’s fancy

all embroidery Husquvarna
near new guru
it needs an overhaul

variable tension a seam wrecker
my confection growing short with error
abandoned in the bin

this material
this design
a repeat pattern

from where do the memories come?
a bowstring of light
below the door of a child’s room

milk mist
cupped above the archery plateau
in the bowl of the extinct volcano

i the singer
this the song
release the arrow


choose your side
our club
more girl than boy
meets once a week
and all want to perform for
the supervising teacher
rumoured to wear mascara
he stinks of cigarettes
arrives late to leave early
with dark circles from all the sex
we imagine
his lethargy suggests
beyond the curriculum
he has some ruling passion
so he wakes us up
a treat
in class
he’s given in to noisy boys
a group of them
drag their struggling friend
below the steps where i am standing
check i’ll see
then up-end their mate
mime his emasculation
crowing at me
his submission
that he’ll have no truck with women
so our lesson
captive to their roar
our teacher
sketches exercises on the board
turns to drawl
get on with it
hefts his rule
only to replace it
when under cover of the braying heaped about our heads
some girls remind him meaningly
that at the start of term
he expected us to rise when we answered questions
‘make them listen if you can their ears are painted on’ he says
we work around the riot
but at debate club
a few who
for our teacher’s languid chat
appreciate a structured argument
so when he puts some effort into setting up a cross town contest
at the boys’ school
we acquiesce
as it’s on a weekend so far off
and unless we can perform
what reason do we have?
our odd bunch
to gather in his room
every Thursday during lunch
we choose positions
first affirmative the hardest
no contest
all that work
kicking off and summing up
but we have she who leads us
behind her windscreen glasses
and since yawns attach to ‘girl’s’ opinions
she aches to make rational thought count
yet even when engulfed in a baggy gym
her curved self ‘feminine’
and once
tears rush down her face
as she apologizes
for being overcome by the ending of a novel
well this is all our trouble
a boy offers the rebuttal
my mother claims these small ones will
grow into bean poles
i don’t
believe it
though if i like him
if it’s true
that could mean there’s hope he’ll soon be tall
enough to make me less the giant
he likes to be third speaker
and conjure talk midair
in practice he consults our hurried notes
but on attack abandons them
relishing his own invention
which leaves me in the middle
dry mouthed
we travel
through the evening gloom
to the other school’s
dormitory common-room
where the boarders are
uniformly ragging and rambunctious
swinging from the rafters
and in the dimly rostrumed space
we speechify
and lose
my words turning
leaks of personal substance
the teacher arbiters unanimous
even our man siding with them
and then beyond the terror of a prepared talk finished
my dress is too
my stocking tops
a kind boy offers buttered biscuit
asks me out
to walk the park
on his next exeat
to arrange rare scenes
in the trees easy company
hand holding
towards his warm lips
our last outing
that his girlfriend is
expecting he’ll go home to work the farm
and be married
come December
when they turn sixteen
something which her folks insist
is not up for debate
the horizon
in the lemon haze of hills
a new day blowing
its red siren
should you walk the south ridge chills
a moment of abandon
when the stars flick out
all changes to unfold
as is their due
and from then on
at Thursday lunch
rather than performance
and planned argument
i suggest we realign the chairs
and desks
in constellations
end to end
around the room and
across them
as an obstacle course
against the clock
unanswerable questions
chasing us like demons
and when the dear supervising teacher
discovers us
in rabble hot pursuit
he asks
‘what in hell are you up to?’
we reply
and gazing for a minute
‘put it all right when you finish’
he leaves us to it

the forgetting option

about words
what i like is the way they have of showing
more than
you know
you know
the highest calm
and i can make the jump between two points
grasp meaning
in mid-flight
entertainment like
defining sex
as weird flukes
connected to a head place knot
i felt myself
a faulty boy
until the hummingbird deployed
the windows
but that’s no earthquake
just a truck
bringing breakwater concrete
to double maths
where you can’t ask
the desks are locked in lines of silence
and i’m the unmarriageable loon
in the sample photo
on the back wall of the classroom
my friends
now prefects
take their breaks
in the paradise of the prefects’ lounge
where the frame
on the verge
with just enough clearance
for them to pass
an apple
to the out
as the play’s
i know my scream
but do
and do not know my lines
for the season
launch of the school’s production
they changed the name to Ten Little Indians
no offence intended none
hours from curtain
Miss says
go home then
and learn them
but i say no
i want to keep the forgetting option
like the little provincial modern art museum’s inauguration
where someone
dispensed with watercolours
to make an installation space
ventilated with foil streamers
walking in it
i feel
like a nit inhabiting a fright wig
walking in it
an installer i won’t meet till nine years later
he becomes
the father of our kids
we are unmarried
in the pouring rain
where i like to run and get
wash from the shed
peg it
in the storm
old love knows the places
cold collects
buys a second hand blanket
finds it much too hot to spread
old love has a cup of tea
on the night stand
catches sight of the unrecognizable in the glass
where darkness is
moves in
to the palace of terrible certainty
leaves language
teeth and tongue
to its own

Janet Charman’s sixth collection, cold snack, was published by Auckland University Press in 2007. It won the 2008 Poetry Category of the Montana Wines New Zealand Book Awards. Previous collections are 2 Deaths in 1 Night (New Women’s Press, 1987), red letter (Auckland UP, 1992), end of the dry (Auckland UP, 1995), Rapunzel, Rapunzel (Auckland UP, 1999) and snowing down south ( Auckland UP, 2002). Janet Charman was Literary Fellow at the University of Auckland in 1997. See

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