Poetry Shelf review: Fiona Farrell’s Nouns, verbs, etc

By NZ Poetry Shelf | Posted: Wednesday January 20, 2021

Nouns, verbs, etc. Fiona Farrell, Otago University Press, 2020

Once upon a time there was

a story.

It lived in the mouth of an

old woman.

It was a bad-tempered story

that kicked the door in and

threw plates. It did not behave

itself.

But she gave it shelter.

She had made it herself.

She had fed it with her own

blood. She had spat her own

stomach into its straining

beak. She knew why it cried.

from ‘The old woman’s story’

Fiona Farrell, much loved poet, novelist and nonfiction author, began writing poems in childhood, at times in ‘wonky capitals’ with the delicious ‘thump’ of end rhyme. She discusses her evolution as poet in the terrific preface to her selected poems published last year. There were comic poems that made her class laugh, the earnest poems of high school with elevated expectations of what a poem ought to be, and the kick in the gut when, at 19, a young man laughed at the poem she showed him. She stopped writing.

It’s so difficult in 2020 to convey just how it felt to be in this world where men, past and present, stood about booming to one another like so many kākāpō on a steep hillside.

from ‘Preface’

So many other women in the 1960s through to the 1970s were writing on scraps of paper in scraps of time getting scraps of attention and rarely making it onto the hallowed ground of men, their journals, their university course material, their poetry gigs.

Today I’ve embroidered relativity

polished the Acropolis

knitted Ulysses

and baked two trayloads of cantatas

for the kindy.

Now, if the baby sleeps another hour

I’ll just about have time

to whip up some of that

Instant Immortality.

from ‘Preface’

Fiona’s ‘Preface’ echoes so many women’s voices I read in my Wild Honey travels. I think of how long it took me, along with other women, to move from hidden notebooks to going public and getting published. For Fiona it was the death of her father, and his complicated presence in her life, that started her poetry pen moving again: ‘The way the simple act of choosing words can give the illusion, however temporary, of control when emotion threatens to overwhelm’ (‘Preface’). She showed the poem to someone she shared a teacher’s college office with and took up the suggestion to get it published.

Fiona’s Nouns, verbs, etc. (selected poems) includes extracts from her four collections: Cutting Out (1987), The Inhabited Initial (1999), The Pop-Up Book of Invasions (2007) and The Broken Book (2011). Interspersed between the extracts are clusters of uncollected poems and, at the end, my favourite endnotes ever, a suite of fascinations that complement the joys of reading the poems, unexpectedly, beautifully. Fiona said she heeded the positive response to the endnotes in The PopUp Book of Invasions.

Nouns, verbs, etc. is a Poetry Treasure House. Across decades of writing, the poems are guided by inquisitiveness, linguistic nimbleness, a freshness of voice that survives over time, an exposed heart, the presence of I and we, political undercurrents. There are human and humane attachments because the recurring revelation is that this poet cares. Poetry stands as a means of care: for self, for loved ones, for the world, for the present and the past, for the stretch and possibilities of languages. In particular Fiona has cared about women; in their daily lives, in a history of writing, in genealogies, in other places and other times, in the need to resist subjugation and erasure.

She sits in the dark

on the rough side of

Sunday. The wood is

bare down here, torn

from a tree. She gets

her woolly hat. The

table is saw scrawl

screw and scratch.

She brings a cushion

and some crackers.

The table is a bare

bivvy. Brace and

bruised knuckle.

She flings a sheet

over. She will

live here

for ever.

from ‘The table’ – The Broken Book

The poem Fiona wrote upon the death of father signalled the way poetry can be a necessary part of our lives as both readers and writers. I know through the extraordinary number of letters and poetry I received during our various lockdowns how vital poems were, whether we were writing or reading.

Each of Fiona’s books, both poetry or prose, has been necessary reading for me, right from the goosebump discovery of The Skinny Louie Book in 1992 to a suite of books responding to the earthquakes in Christchurch. The Broken Book transmuted from a book of walking essays to an earthquake book where the essays were interrupted by poems like quake jolts. It was written because of the Christchurch quake, and it makes the everyday voices away-from-the-cameras visible, the living with damage and daily fear and little blessings palpable. Again poetry becomes necessary.

The PopUp Book of Invasions was prompted by Fiona’s writing residency in Donoughmore, Ireland, the manuscripts her book borrows its title from, and the layering of contemporary invasions along with those in her whakapapa and Aotearoa. She wrote: ‘It was a strange feeling, being there. I wrote to express that’ (from ‘Endnotes’). Again the book becomes necessary reading.

I love the insertion of the unpublished poems in thematic clusters. There are a handful of love poems – so you get to enter a poetry love glade and imbibe the heat and shimmer and connectivity of love. I have no idea when the poems were written, but they feel so vital and fresh. Original. I want to quote from all of them but here is a taster:

They tied the knot.

It was a knot of their

own devising. They

went over and under,

over and under many

times, and it held. So

they could fly, tied

to earth by the knots

around their ties.

So they could always

find their way home.

from ‘Knot-tying for beginners’

Another cluster centres upon travel, upon home and not home, upon hills and mountains, lakes and harbours that anchor you into the guts and grit of the land, and then sets you drifting through place to people and back to the way place shapes and nourishes us. I especially love ‘Our trip to Tākaka’. I want to hear this poem read aloud, to hear the mood ripple through the understated repetitions and motion, the effect travel has upon us, the surprises that become part of our luggage, as we move along, and as we arrive back home.

Some poems carry whiffs of fable – I am picturing the poet blowing on the white page as though it were glass, with a fable presence making its subtle mark. There is always the everyday commonplace experience, relationships or objects in Fiona’s poetry, but there is also the way the poem transcends the realism and makes the ordinary glow.

The fathers swayed beneath us

walking like mountains on

their big legs. We looked

about, seeing the way ahead.

The fathers said hang on!

They held us by the ankles

lest we fall. And sometimes,

they flung us out into empty

air, and we were lost. We

squealed, flailed, knowing

already the pain of solid

ground. But the fathers

caught us on the downward

flight. Gathered us to the

knotting of old jerseys

smelling of fish and vege

gardens and Best Bets and

the whole wide place we’d

glimpsed from their tops.

from ‘The fathers’

Fiona Farrell’s poetry sparks language into dynamic combinations because, as the title of the book suggests, words have mattered to her – from the origins of words, to ancient languages, to codes and punctuation. In The Inhabited Initial endnotes – a collection that celebrates the organic states of words and languages – I discover the origin of the question mark and the punctuation mark. The original exclamation mark was a word that monastic monks inserted to denote moments of joy. I love this! Little glades of joy in the flow of a text. Nowadays the exclamation mark can be a form of shout and exhibitionism. Equally fascinating: Roman scribes used full stops to mark rest bays for breath in the flow of a text. I am thinking poets have a more open relationship with punctuation and how it adds to the reading of poetry.

Nouns, Verbs etc is a reading delight. It offers distinctive travel itineraries that set you drifting in unfamiliar skies, lingering in some poems as though you stall in the familiar rooms of your house, daydreaming between the lines, wondering at the power of nouns and verbs to provoke such intense feelings and connections. Let me raise my poetry glass and toast this glorious book (and loving Otago University Press production). Thank you Fiona, this necessary book is a gift.

FIONA FARRELL has published poetry, fiction, drama and non-fiction. Uniquely among New Zealand writers, she has received awards in all genres. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards and has been widely anthologised. Her first novel, The Skinny Louie Book, won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction. Three later novels have been shortlisted for that award, and five have been longlisted for the prestigious International Dublin IMPAC Award. In 2013 she received the Michael King Award to write twinned books prompted by the Christchurch earthquakes and the city’s reconstruction. The non-fiction work, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, was shortlisted for the 2017 Ockham NZ Book Awards. In 2018 she edited Best New Zealand Poems for the International Institute of Modern Letters. Farrell has received numerous awards, including the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction and the ONZM for Services to Literature. She made Dunedin home in 2018.


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