As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry by Vivienne Plumb, with illustrations by Glenn Otto (Split/Fountain Publishing, 2017), 232 pp., $38
This enticing volume, with its intriguing title, showcases Vivienne Plumb’s previously published work. Including short stories, poems, prose poems, a novella and a play script, it represents a retrospective exhibition of her work. Otto’s whimsical illustrations, his swirls and lines, described on the back cover as ‘exuberant gestures’ and ‘graphic wit’, appear as flamboyant graffiti on the pages. But what can they possibly add to the written word? A mood perhaps, like the canary-yellow dust cover. Plumb’s writing needs no exclamation marks. There is much to be said for white breathing space in a collection of mixed genres and shifting moods where humour and mischief feature alongside tragedy and loss. The reader must confront ambiguity. Meaning is sometimes illusive, fleeting, questionable.
Vivienne Plumb, playwright, poet and fiction writer, was born in Australia, where she worked as an actor before coming to New Zealand. She has published with several NZ presses, including Otago University Press, and her stories and poems have been included in anthologies of New Zealand writing.
Poetry is what Plumb does best. Free from the demands of narrative she can indulge her flair for whimsy and word play, applying extravagant similes and metaphors to sparkling effect. In this volume her poems are placed in loosely thematic groups between the longer narrative pieces. We have poems of childhood, evocations of tropical lushness, quirky misunderstandings:
I thought I saw a
Vegan Bar and Gaming Lounge,
my mistake, it was Vegas.
We also have rhapsodies on food, a wry commentary on dogs versus humans, family relations and a swipe at conspicuous consumption. We encounter illness, death and grief:
Once or twice a week
My dead son visits me at midnight
The loss of a loved son to cancer is a theme that recurs in Plumb’s poetry and prose, a tricky subject that she tackles adroitly, head on and without sentiment.
A bus trip through the North Island provides Plumb with scope for a heartfelt response to new environments and wit: ‘Rotovegas, you can be as quiet as a tomb’ (from ‘Sulphur city’).
A visit to Poland has inspired a suite of short poems and prose poems peopled with dogs and human beings. Plumb is displaced, self-conscious in an alien setting:
I know I look the same,
Plumb’s title comes from one of the 34 poems and short prose pieces in the collection. It begins:
One endless summer when I was fourteen
I began to speak with a great arrogance
as wide as a river mouth, imagining I was
witty and charming and full of my own cream.
I refused to continue laying the fire
or to cook supper in the tiny croft-house.
Instead, I was dreaming of ten-foot palaces, a crop of corn,
my own chambermaid, and as much gold as an ass
Plumb’s poetry, written with a sharp eye and a nimble hand, offers depth and delight.
‘The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in Her Sleep’ is a short story featuring Honey Tarbox, who quite suddenly becomes a latter-day oracle making predictions and dispensing advice on all manner of questions – in Japanese, of which she has no previous knowledge, and all in her sleep. The events are fanciful and the tone is playful. The title says it all – she is a wife and her exceptional new-found talents are bound to upset her marriage with the unexceptional Mr Tarbox. This story dates from the 1990s when tales of female redemption and the shedding of husbands were in vogue. It is probably Plumb’s best-known piece, though not typical of the more recent work.
‘The Glove Box’ (2014), by comparison, has gravitas. In this tale of an Australian childhood interrupted, old photographs evoke memories of a family’s grim past. As a twelve-year-old, an aunt shot an intruder through the heart. Another died of food poisoning. A third, abandoned as a young mother of four children, aged prematurely. Tragedy also stalks the present where the narrator is losing her sister Caro to leukemia. But it is the memory of their mother’s schizophrenia that lies at the heart of the story. It was a mysterious condition that raised many questions that the sisters cannot answer. Was she a poet ‘bordering on “genius”’, as Caro believes? Why had she regularly abandoned her beloved Jag (with its eponymous glovebox and a wad of her poems) to go hitchhiking? While the events are dramatic, the telling is matter-of-fact and alive with detail of a bygone era. However, although I was moved, I couldn’t help but feel oppressed by the overwhelming and unrelieved bleakness of the story.
I remember my sister and me in the psychiatric ward kissing my mother goodbye, her stone-cold cheek, as if she had travelled out of our arms and was already in some other country, a country of her own making.
‘Efharisto’ is equally sobering, but enlivened by Plumb’s colourful descriptions of the Cretan countryside with its searing heat and delicious food.
During the day we walked past a cluster of small shrines. Inside each one there was oil with a floating wick and the offerings that people had placed – coins, flowers, food, clothing, alcohol. And in one there was a pair of dentures.
Before the sun rises, everything in Greece appears to be extremely black and white. That white earth and all those dark shadows make you feel as if you are moving inside an old pre-Technicolour movie.
A mother and her twenty-year-old son are taking a holiday on Crete when he suddenly feels chilled and starts shaking uncontrollably. Seeking medical attention, they hitchhike to the nearest town. Luckily for them an English-speaker, Stefan, stops and goes out of his way to deliver them to the hospital.
Strangers offer kindness but their intentions are ambiguous. Is she disappointed by his subsequent advances, or drawn to him, but the time and place are wrong? The reader must decide.
Mother and son have a dark secret contained in a letter that she brings to the hospital. ‘To Whom it may Concern’ …
After hydration and antibiotics the son recovers (for now) and they return to their cottage where his friend Nathan is waiting. Their anxiety is lifted and they enjoy a feast – local eggs with ‘golden yolks’. The son tells his hospital stories and they laugh.
We laughed so hard it felt as though the cups and plates and the polished knives and forks and the big bread knife, and even the kettle, were all laughing along with us, so that the laughter became bigger and bigger, until it ballooned out of that tiny cottage and up into the stratosphere, maybe rising and hitting the rim of that beautiful sapphirine sky.
‘The Knife’ is a third-person narration that reads like a fable or myth. Once again adults die or abandon children and guardians prove unreliable. Antonella entertains her incompetent older sister Marie Therese with stories of the river (called the Knife) where she says she met a young man who stole kisses before turning back into a trout. As she says, ‘Nothing is as it seems.’ Antonella possesses wisdom and stoicism, while Marie Therese exhibits madness and malice. The story has a brooding atmosphere and tension, but remains ultimately mysterious and without clear meaning like a story about a dream.
‘The Diary as a Positive in Female Adult Behaviour’, called a novella, dates from 1999 and is set in Wellington. Ruminski has been abandoned by her lover Max, and this story details her physical and psychological deterioration, her old and new loves, her dreams and hallucinations. But because it is not written in diary form, the title is baffling. It begins: ‘The very minute after I had slit open the long thin pale blue envelope, I knew I was addicted again.’ Her Indonesian pen pal has sent a photograph and she is taken with his beautiful hair. She declares herself ‘addicted to love’. Does she mean sex? She rapidly becomes addicted to alcohol and possibly to food as well. She dreams strange dreams, six of which are related in some detail. She obsessively makes lists, treats a neighbour’s apartment as her own.
My life was eating itself up. You know how you hear about those animals that can eat some part of themselves, like a part of themselves that they need to shed, like some old snake eating the tip of its tail. My life felt like that, as if it was curling itself into a circle until the rear end reached my mouth.
Indeed. It is not a pretty picture. Her friend Jyoti becomes a lover, but this brings her no comfort. On the contrary, she regards the act as a betrayal, although Jyoti remains a loyal friend.I could not find sympathy for Raminski, no matter how miserable she became or how low she sank. This is a baffling story that careers from one random event to another and delivers little to the reader.
Plumb’s play ‘The Cape’ was performed at Circa Theatre in 2009, and throughout the country. It’s 1994 and four young men – EB, Arthur, Jordyn and Mo – take a road trip to Cape Reinga. They argue and abuse each other as they smoke dope, eat and drink their way north.
While reading a script is a poor second to seeing it performed, it isn’t hard to recognise the language and cadences of New Zealand speech and to imagine the effect of the humour on an audience. The four characters, whose voices seem authentic, make distinct impressions on the reader and you become alert to their individual quirks and aspirations. Young and self-obsessed, their dialogue is laced with obscenities. One character, EB, is obnoxious throughout, but there is a glimpse of redemption at the end. ‘The Cape’ is a slice of life with heart and verve, but may not be for everyone.
As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry is inevitably a mixed bag. Vivienne Plumb has an original dynamic style. She can vividly evoke her settings and her characters, but sometimes the narratives, weighed down with detail, however sparkling, struggle to find direction.
CHRISTINE JOHNSTON is a Dunedin novelist and writer of short stories.