Janet Charman and her new collection, The Pistils (Image: Supplied / Tina Tiller)
Janet Charman and her new collection, The Pistils (Image: Supplied / Tina Tiller)

BooksMay 15, 2022

Backstory: Janet Charman on the losses we can prevent, and those we cannot

Janet Charman and her new collection, The Pistils (Image: Supplied / Tina Tiller)
Janet Charman and her new collection, The Pistils (Image: Supplied / Tina Tiller)

We asked acclaimed Auckland poet Janet Charman to write about her poem called things you’ll never know about breakfast, which appears in her new collection The Pistils, and at the end of this essay.

Nine months after the death of my spouse, this new collection of poems, The Pistils, is being published by Otago University Press. Nine months is a symbolically gestational period of time elapsed, which for me calls to mind the saying: the old moon in the arms of the new. A comforting phrase that treasures the circle of life – whether in decline or renewal. 

But in this Covid era, strangely untoward events are challenging everyone. And in my case, the personal losses all of us are feeling come accompanied by a kind of imposter syndrome. I’ve heard this concept applied to those whose career advancements are hobbled by their anxious and awkward sense of disbelief in their own legitimacy. But in grieving the death of my partner, I was unprepared when these same awkward emotions of non-entitlement affected me.

Out of nowhere come waves of astonishment that Max is not here. But these understandable feelings are often accompanied by a disturbing sense that to mourn his loss is somehow fraudulent. I think this is partly because in recent times so many people, everywhere, have lost so much: Afghanis; Ukrainians; the Christchurch massacre survivors; the Covid bereaved; and the Covid exhausted. But my odd feeling of non-entitlement also registers that despite a near universal climate of existential suffering, paradoxically, in my own daily life, I have felt wrapped in a warmly insulating shelter of normality. A sense of security, which is due to the kindness and generosity of my kin and friendship networks. They have seen to it that my knowledge of the irreversibility of Max’s loss pierces me only intermittently. 

All through his health professionals’ valiantly offered (and on Max’s part, valiantly endured) surgery and chemo, we were incrementally conditioned to expect his death. Yet the end, when it came, was for him still shocking – shocking to both of us. Our family was fortunate nonetheless, since Max’s death occurred at a time in the Covid lockdown cycles when extended family, friends and his beloved ex-students – cherished contacts from his long career as an art educator – were at least allowed to gather together, to mourn and celebrate his life. I feel so very sorry for, and I mihi to, anyone who on account of quarantine, couldn’t share their grief in company, as we were able to. 

The Pistils has only a handful of poems that directly reference these distressing circumstances of loss, but when I read over the unrelated poems collected here, pieces which were written under completely different conditions – and in a few cases, years earlier – I find many have, for me, acquired an elegiac dimension I would not previously have suspected. 

During Max’s last months, he was mainly home-focused. Still cooking dinner for us every night, as he had for as long as I knew him – apart from the times he was off roaming the world with his camera. And through that same period, every morning, after I finished the dishes, I was spending several hours at the peaceful “Save the Canal Road Trees” occupation in Avondale. We failed there. The cowardly poisoning by persons unknown of all but one pōhutukawa, among the rare canopy natives growing in this historic 100-year-old arboretum, was done covertly. The death of this grove of healthy trees will have allowed the developer, who had purchased the site, to up his profits from its build potential. The plea we had put before him, to negotiate with the community to retain these rare, mature, indigenous trees in public ownership – a land swap development plan enabled through the good graces of enlightened public servants at Kāinga Ora – was presented to him in good faith under the auspices of our local MP, Carmel Sepuloni. It was a plan he spurned. 

When suffering and death are inevitable, we have to learn to live with it. When suffering and death is clearly avoidable and cruelly premature, we should denounce those whose selfish actions enable gratuitous acts of desecration. And mourn our losses unashamedly. 


things you’ll never know about breakfast 


you surveilled the microwave window

tracking our porridge to forestall a lava flow

but now i cook my oats in a deeper bowl 

and can look away 

know the rising shadow won’t overflow


i watch Jamie Oliver 

the people’s chef 

go to Switzerland on TV

researching Bircher muesli

since then 

instead of your weeks’ worth of stewed 

refrigerated fruit 

i grate one raw Grief apple daily

into my plate


for forty years 

we ate at our table 

looked at each other 

and spoke 

television was a no go 

i only allowed the radio

but your dispersal has blown me 

to mourning TV 


perched on our respective couches 

John Campbell Breakfast grilling

relishes unintended spilling 


for me 

a tea towel 

necessary to mop up 


The Pistils, by Janet Charman (Otago University Press, $25) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington


The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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