Nouns, Verbs, Etc: Selected poems by Fiona Farrell (Otago University Press, 2020), 211pp, $35
Fiona Farrell is one of those enviable writers equally adept at fiction, non-fiction and poetry, not to mention plays. She is perhaps best known for The Skinny Louie Book and, more recently, for The Quake Year and The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: One hundred ways to read a city, but her three intermittent poetry collections have also been eagerly awaited and read.
Selections from these three volumes—Cutting Out (1987), The Inhabited Initial (1999) and The Pop-Up Book of Invasions (2007)—plus poems from the essay collection The Broken Book (2011) are represented here in chronological order. Interspersed between these is a generous helping of uncollected poems, not arranged chronologically but, as Farrell says in her Preface, ‘loosely as they seemed to echo one another or share a common theme’. The result disrupts any attempt at an overly chronological or ‘developmental’ reading of the work. The poems are bracketed by the evocative Preface and by a series of fascinating Notes (some of which have already appeared with the separate volumes). It is an impressive ensemble: engaging, inventive, sometimes playful, always compelling.
The Preface contains a witty reminder of how radically the local poetry scene has shifted over the last fifty years: ‘It’s so difficult in 2020 to convey just how it felt to be in this world [of the late 1960s, early 1970s] where men, past and present, stood about booming to one another like so many kākāpō on a steep hillside.’ One consequence of this male literary dominance was that female poets of Farrell’s generation (Bernadette Hall is another) started publishing relatively late: Cutting Out appeared when Farrell was forty. A further consequence was that, when they did belatedly appear, they already seemed fully themselves as poets. So, the opening poem here, ‘Moving’, an elegy for her father (‘the place is a mess and / nothing is where it used to be’), is as sure-footed as the final one, ‘Nothing’, a grateful celebration of ‘a perfect nothing, / still and sweet’. There are no early misfires, no embarrassing experiments that once appeared so wacky and funky. Everything here earns its keep.
A number of the most immediately rewarding poems are about close family, including the heart-turning ‘In a Nutshell’, about Farrell’s mother, whose nickname was ‘Nut’:
‘Roll over,’ she’d say. ‘Roll over. Face the wall
and you’ll have good dreams.’
Others tap into aspects of her father’s Irish heritage, mostly at several removes. Here the ‘emotional weather’ of the poems, to borrow a phrase of Seamus Heaney’s, tends to be cooler and in some cases toughly bracing. The headnote to ‘Genealogy’ quotes some disparaging remarks by Carlyle and Froude about Irish immigrants to Scotland, and then ironically riffs on them:
Vermin begat Squalor
who married the fourth son of
They may have had other names
but these have not been
recorded by the historians.
The Ireland-derived poems contain many surprises, including Farrell’s ‘translation’ of the Old Irish poem ‘The Lament of the Nun of Beare’, which has the earthy tang of Yeats’s ‘Crazy Jane’ ballads:
Bony my hands now
that once touched
Too bony to touch
sweet boys again.
Conversely, ‘The Canoe in the National Museum’ likens the experience of contemplating a ‘Black boat from [an Irish] brown bog’ to that of a Māori in a local museum contemplating an old waka:
You think of yours as I think of
mine, setting sail in their black
The people the people the people.
In ‘Hair’, her younger daughter’s waist-length dreadlocks, ‘wild as mingimingi’, recall the manes of Maeve and Cúchulainn, while her passion to save the planet recalls the battles of those legendary Irish figures.
I remember, twenty years or so ago, taking part in a poetry reading with Farrell. She read her sequence ‘Words, War and Water’ from The Inhabited Initial, which, as she laconically puts it here in a note, ‘link[s] language with the 1991 war in Iraq’. Listening to the poems back then was an intensely visceral experience: they were so hard-hitting, so uncompromising in their depiction of horrors:
This is the sound a child makes
who is born with no head. This
is the sound a woman makes who
labours to bear a child without
fingers, a child whose head
swells like a pumpkin.
Re-encountering lines like these teleported me straight back to that Christchurch auditorium, but still takes the top of my head off, jolting reminders that, Covid-19 pandemic or no, such horrors are going on right now even as I write this. Farrell is no ghoul, but her poetry has never shied away from the dark side of things. As she says, in a different context in the Preface, ‘the simple act of choosing words can give the illusion, however temporary, of control when emotion threatens to overwhelm’. That is a good working definition for one of the functions of poetry. And to provide not just a temporary sense of control but also a more permanent focus. Farrell’s lines here freeze-frame that thirty-year-old horror, that moment in history, just as Shelley’s ‘Masque of Anarchy’ freeze-frames the horror of the Peterloo Massacre or Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ the horror of World War I.
But, as Farrell shows elsewhere, poetry has other less-searing functions. There are those tight-lipped elegies for her parents, for instance. There are some marvellous verbal conjuring tricks, which, haiku-like, catch pieces of the natural world, as in the opening of ‘Valley’: ‘Kererū / white tux / tenor on willow’. Or these lines from ‘Weather’:
I like a place where
snow says Watch my
hands. Hoopla! and
the valley’s gone.
Or the delicious ‘Tap Dance’:
I’d like to be the button on your overcoat.
I’d like to be the hole in your shoe.
I’d like to be the pimple on your forehead.
So you could
fiddle with me
twiddle with me
There is often a good deal of play in Farrell’s poems, like the textual and aural pleasures of the lines above. There are more serious and challenging linguistic pleasures, too. ‘The Inhabited Initial’ and ‘Words, War and Water’ sequences make rich imaginative use of Egyptian hieroglyphics, Semitic script and ‘the cuneiform marks left by the Hittite triangular indentations in clay tablets’. To read Farrell is to slip in time and slide in space, and to learn a lot: about here and now, about elsewhere and then. The sheer range and ambition of the poems is striking and unusual, as is their energetic inventiveness, their often parable-like qualities, their extended conceits.
The penultimate poem, ‘Photo Opportunity’, offers one of her more quietly dismaying extended conceits, the process of ageing seen as a photoshoot on a tramp in the bush:
Take out your cameras now.
There will be an opportunity
as we cross the river of
forgetfulness. We will pull
over. On the south bank,
shadows cluster. On the
north bank, bone and
And now we are on our way.
We have crossed
And we are heading fast
A collection of selected poems offers both poet and reader a chance to look back, to reflect on what has been attempted, what has been achieved. As a poet, Farrell has kept exploring, kept pushing herself. The clutch of poems towards the end, ‘Myth and Legend’, and its attendant Note, give hints of what she may go on to do: ‘a futuristic comic-book narrative about environmental collapse, mass migration, invasion and the extinction of species. Including quite possibly our own.’ Watch this space.
HARRY RICKETTS teaches literature in English and creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka. His Selected Poems will be appearing later this year from Victoria University Press.