Man reviews ex’s book

I met Joanna Cho in March 2020. It was the first poetry/creative nonfiction workshop at the IIML. She sat at the sunny end of the room wearing a matching set of brown shorts and shirt, seemed shy, and maybe moody – her resting-face is a sulky pout. Our first task had been to write ourselves from another’s perspective; half in prose, half in poetry – a kind of literary introduction. Joanna was one of only two poets in the class. I had no real opinion on poetry, then, but Joanna’s text affected me. Her narrator was a unnamed interviewer, presumably a journalist, who was asking for information about Jo from her elderly neighbour, Rose. I didn’t like the piece at first, it irritated me in its messiness, its incomprehensibility. It seemed underworked. And I suppose I found something conceited about the frame, as an interview, as if Joanna was famous, or special. But I reread the thing in the following days and found something worth knowing in the inscrutability that had so vexed me in the beginning. Halfway through the interview the neighbour falls into a trance and recites a poem in which she describes Joanna without describing her, by reference to the detritus of her human existence: of tea bags and nectarine stones thrown from Joanna’s kitchen window, landing softly in the garden below; the noise of a vacuum cleaner; of zipping down of jeans; and the shuffling of small, slippered feet. Her style is intentionally simplistic, accessible, but she has mastered the art of accretive resonance, where images combine and swell with an inner momentum that sits with you long after you’ve finished reading.

Joanna’s debut collection, People Person, comprises 31 pieces: 24 poems and seven in prose. The book is remarkable in many ways, but perhaps most poignantly in its rendering of her relationship with her mother, who raised Joanna and her siblings by herself on the dole, and whose watercolours are intercalated throughout. Her mother’s story operates as a sort of foil through which Joanna appears to sublimate her own deep anxieties by transference. I’m not psychoanalysing the author, this is an intentional affect. What makes Joanna’s work so clever and compelling is that the hardships are only seen obliquely, glimmering between the lines. Joanna has an uncanny ability to speak of this world with a carefree lightness that belies the difficult truth sitting below, as in the first story in the book, “The Magic Sock”, as the family sits on the floor in a rental property taking turns wearing the eponymous sock: “We sat in a circle on the carpet in the living room. In this house we only experienced summer and everything was gold and dusty and warm.” If there is a persistent quality in the book it is this sense of transience, housing insecurity, of childhood instability (both material and psychological), but shining with this magical gold light that repeats itself throughout the text.

In “Dig Deep” Joanna speaks on the phone with her boyfriend who is driving back from Palmerston North. Joanna presses him for advice about a poem she’s trying to write, but his responses are flat, idiomatic (“You know Jo, it’s a game of inches…Have you been studying the / plays Coach sent us?“), giving the sensation of an interpersonal barrier, like a glass partition, but the quality that elevates the poem is the underlying contrast, between Joanna sitting warm in bed, and her boyfriend careening along state highway:

Picture him, drinking

a large bottle of protein shake

 in an old Corolla, on the open road

 at night.

The depth in Joanna’s craft is, for me, this sublime texture, of air rushing against windows, of distance, of something far away, but getting closer.

Joanna and I started going to Les Mills together. It was a strange way to fall in love

Joanna and I didn’t really speak much in the beginning, but during workshops we read passages about our lives to the class, like a kind of confession. Then we went into lockdown. I flew back to Auckland, and class was conducted over Zoom. We didn’t reconvene until halfway through the year, so my early impressions of her were a strange meld of pixelated video and poetic confession. I recall watching her in the Zoom mosaic sitting in her bedroom, her boyfriend occasionally sneaking past in the murk behind her to collect his basketball, a T-shirt, or lie on the bed.

Once normal classes resumed, Joanna and I started going to Les Mills together. It was an odd process of entanglement, and strange way to fall in love. And love is the reason it isn’t possible for me to speak about the book with any distance. Too, my reading is inevitably shaped by my experience of the MA workshop. There is much that can be said about the problem of the IIML, but there is an ineffable quality that results from sitting in a room with 10 strangers each week spilling their deepest secrets through the page. It’s near impossible, given this context, to separate the narrator from the author, as fun as it might be to pretend. There are supposed to be rules for workshopping, though in our class they were more often honoured in the breach than the observance. In our final workshop of the year we got drunk and one of my classmates responded to my writing by calling me a sociopath and was quickly hushed by our convenor, “You mean the narrator is a sociopath.”

In “They”, my second favourite poem from the book, the narrator (Joanna) watches scaffolders erect tube and clip through her office window. Like most of her poems there is a sort of madness to it, part of why I find it all so infuriating. The glass becomes the wall of an aquarium, and the scaffolders shift in the haze of afternoon sun, blurring into the glinting steel:

and they

are wearing bones hats and heavy boots but are weightless

…Fish overheat, rise – a hard smear of silver. We

 exist in the space of a fork pressed down into a baked day.

It isn’t entirely clear whether it’s Joanna that’s underwater, or the scaffolders, but I suppose that’s poetry – it doesn’t have to make sense. In part, I’m taken in by the poem because I like to think I was there when the idea was incepted. In January 2021, after the second time we broke up, Joanna had no job and nowhere to live, and I was convalescing from a hemorrhoidectomy, so I invited her to stay with me for a month at a family bach on the south shore of Lake Taupō. We slept in different bedrooms of course. She was all gloom and doom, often drunk, and I was high on tramadol and gabapentin – permanently constipated – but it’s one of my fondest memories. In the mornings she would hunt for jobs online while I sat about on my donut cushion, and in the afternoons we fished for trout, dug holes on the beach, picked blackberries from the iwi land on the other side of SH1.

A month at the lake, 2021

One morning I tied a rope between a surfboard and a pneumatic tyre and I paddled her out to the where the sandy bottom suddenly drops away into the deep gloom. We took turns diving down to the edge where the lakegrass grows and we could float there for the few moments in aquatic splendour, peering down over the edge into the great turquoise beyond before hypoxia forced us back to the surface.

So fishing appears to be a theme. On the fifth day we caught a trout and I showed her how to kill it with a swift rap on the head with a spanner. We crouched over it watching the light go out in its eyes. She let out a little sigh. She’s a very emotionally intelligent person, though I barely know what she’s on about most of the time. In “I’ve seen Space Jam but I still don’t get basketball”, a poem ostensibly about her ex-boyfriend, the poem (and the relationship) slide away from her, and it ends with unadulterated viscera:

A lobster will rip the muscles of its throat, claws and anus to fit

 inside a new shell,

but it probably doesn’t hurt and

when the siren cries like seagulls at the bay

 and blue and white singlets disperse, leaving a low tide,

we see a graveyard of long taut bodies, big claws, muscular tails …

Love notwithstanding, I am capable of serious criticism. I can’t stand her use of ellipses. The book is littered with them. This was my first critique: I told her they’re redundant. She ignored me. It seems to me to be a cheap way to draw out a thought, and no more effective at doing so than simply leaving the line open with no stop. Perhaps the same way I never liked their arbitrary use in texting. My first girlfriend put them at the end of every message; made everything sound saucy, or mysterious, not in a good way. In my favourite poem, “80%”, Joanna analogises different forms of relationships (open, polyamory, monogamy etc) by comparison to mussels clinging to rocks. There’s little sense to this on the surface, but it works. The poem ends beautifully, tailing off into zombies and blank phone screens – waiting for someone to text back, no throbbing ellipses to carry any hope.

She’s breathtakingly honest, and so People Person would appear to be a kind of confession, but this shouldn’t detract from Joanna’s mastery of her craft. As all confessionalists know, you never really give anything away, or at least, you never give away the real stuff. Deflection and misdirection are the nuts and bolts of emotional truth; like photography, where the meaning is more often defined by what is cropped from the frame than what is left in. Joanna is deeply concerned with form, and her form is singular in its originality. Perhaps the best example in the book is “Role Players”, which carries on this odd theme of basketball and love. The poem sets up with the rhythm of a sestina, or a villanelle, but something breaks in the third stanza, seems to stumble, and the structure falls apart in your fingers, like wet sand.

After two tortuous weeks at the lake it was Valentine’s day. We had burgers for lunch. I made patties and Jo cooked them on the barbeque. I called out to her from the sofa, “Do they seem like they’re going to stay together?”

“Who?” she asked.

“The patties,” I said.

She didn’t respond. It was gloomy weather. I tipped out a jigsaw puzzle and we sat in heavy silence picking through the pieces. The radio host was playing love songs (“We’ve got a stellar lineup of love songs, but right now, for all you singletons out there, a classic by Little Anthony and the Imperials, ‘Tears on My Pillow’” …). I don’t remember whose idea it was to have a hug, but we did, and we lay there together on the carpet beside the unsolved puzzle with the wind blowing against the windows and the fireplace clinking softly.

The new romance didn’t last. Joanna moved to Wellington and I went back to New Plymouth

In the evening the weather cleared and we went fishing again. We caught two trout and rowed back to shore while they bled out in the bottom of the tin boat. Jo called it our Valentine’s Day massacre. We slept in the same bed that night, probably more out of loneliness than anything. We woke up in a hug but she pushed me off and went upstairs alone. I lay there with the grey light coming through the curtains listening to her thumping around above me in the kitchen. Later, over coffee, she read me her horoscope (“Commitments aren’t made out of laziness, but bad habits are. Pleasure and inaction are easily repeated”). I went for a run to the store, Joanna cycled beside me. We had pies and pork crackle and watched the trucks rumble past on SH1. I told her about the time a family was killed when their van hit a truck crossing the bridge. But the new romance didn’t last. Joanna found a job and moved to Wellington and I went back to New Plymouth to help look after my dad.

In “Foraging”, Joanna recounts a visit back to Korea when her mother needed chemotherapy. They took lodging at a cabin on a mountain. Joanna speaks of this painful tension between needing to care for a sick parent, and her need to live her life: of guilt. She tells of going for runs through the forest at the edge of the DMZ looking for a soldier to fuck. She and her mother make pine needle tea, meditate, do yoga. Jo and I have both experienced the vicarious pain that goes with proximity to a slow death: my father has multiple sclerosis. I’ve said to her that I think this is the core meaning in the book, where anxieties about a sick loved one become a foil for one’s own anxieties about aging, about living properly. Before he got sick, Dad defined himself by his physicality and I’m afflicted by the same impulse. When I lived at home caring for Dad I would do burpees until I vomited while he sat watching me from the wicker chairs on the porch–for fear of not making the most of my body before it inevitably begins its inexorable decline. This is nonsensical of course, I’m aware I’m falling into the same trap that Dad did, but absurdity and existential dread are cut from the same cloth. That’s the thing about personal tragedy, it is often ridiculous. And this is the key to writing emotionally. Anyone can tell a sad story, but good writers know that emotional affect is transactional. Writing is fundamentally about entertainment. You can’t be serious without first being funny, or clever, or both. Too much bad writing doesn’t bother to first purchase the reader’s trust with humour or beauty. Joanna understands this. She doesn’t tell you about her pain, you intuit it; her text acts like the glaucous surface of a lake, alluding its hidden depths. And her writing is very messy, she thrives in disorder, in entropy – in real life too. But in her writing the messiness is a part of her subterfuge. Like dreams the poems shimmer with vague apparitions, moments recalled, vignettes, heavily cropped images of objects, and moments of emotional truth. David Shields wrote that momentum, in literary mosaic, derives not from narrative but from the subtle, progressive buildup of thematic resonances. In “The Taste of Home”, Joanna walks the aisles of a supermarket, remembering meals her mother cooked for her as a child. She lists foods on the left side of the page, and on the right she teeters on the edge of treacle-like sentimentality:

짜장면 / black bean paste noodles

Sometimes I wish I could return to bed and see her open the door with one hand, balancing a tray on one hip

떡국 / rice cake soup

and when the time comes, all I will want is 엄마’s 된장찌개, but she won’t be there to comfort me

된장찌개 / soybean paste stew

because time is organised chronologically, not thematically.

People Person is, at its core, a love letter to Joanna’s mother. The title is not descriptive, but aspirational. She’s trying to be something, and the book itself is a part of that effort. At the launch, Joanna’s ex-flatmate, the writer Olly Clifton, introduced the book and told of how the day that Joanna found out her manuscript was to be published the first thing she said, between sobs, was that she was most happy that her mum’s pictures were going to be published. The book isn’t perfect, it’s frayed at the edges, but that’s why it’s so lovely, because it appears to run off into the real world. People Person is a stunning book, full of humour and sadness, profoundly generous, and highly original. You might say it’s like a recipe book for emotions. It comes highly recommended. Five stars.

People Person by Joanna Cho (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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