Ths pm is lk a brkn cty, Louise O’Brien

The Broken Book
Fiona Farrell
Auckland University Press, $34.99,
ISBN 9781869405762

 

Renowned for her short fiction, novels, poetry and plays, Fiona Farrell’s distinguished writing career earned her the 2007 New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction. This latest work, The Broken Book, refers back to her time as the Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton (1995) and was completed while Farrell was the Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago (2011). It is a sequel of sorts to The Pop-up Book of Invasions (2007), annotated poems about her time in Ireland, and began as a travel book about walking. How it ended up is another thing entirely.

The Broken Book comprises three essays on walking, one on walking in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes, and 21 “quake poems”. The progression – chronological and psychological – which that might imply is disrupted by the author’s shift in perception after the quakes: “This book has been written on either side of a couple of major earthquakes and more than 5000 aftershocks. That fact has left cracks across the surface of the text, rupturing it the way the earth ruptures.”

The first three essays, part of Farrell’s original project, form a cohesive and unproblematic group. The first, written September 2009, describes a walk in the Cévennes in the south of France. The second describes Farrell’s walk to the Winter Palace, Menton, also written in September 2009. The third, delightful essay describes a walk to the Dunedin Botanic Gardens, May 2010, via The Steepest Street in the World and hand in hand with her granddaughter: “I’m autumn …. Gnarled. Grey lichen hair. Leaf fall. She’s spring. Two years old in pink gumboots.”

These essays are about much more than walking. They describe where Farrell walks, what she sees and thinks and eats, the books she reads, the personal associations which join one thing to another, the rambling of thought to the accompanying rhythm of footsteps. Written in the second and first person, the prose is intimate, warm and engaging. Revelling in word, thought and deed, moving easily through a web of ideas – from the weather, through local history, to her own history and childhood, past academic libraries and conferences, to her younger and former self, to motherhood and grandmotherhood, to her writing and its evolution, writing and its uses, via Keats, Mansfield, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dorothy Wordsworth and Dale Spender – these essays constitute an inviting and companionable portrait of the artist. Without narrative structure or focus, the prose meanders and circles, like the walks themselves, with all of the attendant pleasures and dissatisfactions such a structure brings. As Farrell describes the walks, the walking essays are “Absurd. Self-indulgent. Pointless. Perfect.”

The fourth essay is set apart from the others in subject and tone. Only nominally about walking, it is set in Christchurch, from September 2010 through and beyond February 2011, bringing a shift of perception and preoccupation telegraphed well in advance. It describes Farrell’s first-hand experience of the quake and her responses: her impulse to impose order in the face of chaos, tidying, clearing, arranging; to write, and in writing impose the pattern of narrative. While the earlier essays reach out to other literary texts, this one is contextualised by explanatory science and data, by references to other natural disasters and to the writers who have chronicled and responded to them. As witness and meditation, it is moving, thoughtful and far-reaching.

The quake poems are scattered throughout the four essays, and some of them are very good indeed, striking just the right note: grim but not despairing, personal but not self-indulgent, shaken but resolute, human and so tenderly humane. They circle around the loss of certainty and surety which the quake caused, shaking faiths of all sorts, undermining a sense of place and meaning: ”Our door won’t shut./Anything might enter./… Water. Doubt.” Matter-of-fact and understated in tone, concretely realist in style, the poems explore a range of intellectual and emotional responses to the disaster and its aftermath, a range of ways of reconstructing meaning in its wake. They do that by using “small signs” to evoke a larger tragedy and to locate the points of certainty which may mark the way back to solid ground:

There is no option but
to head straight into
the sun, prodding as
old women do with
their irritable sticks,
feeling for solid spots.

“The horse”, for instance, uses literary metaphor to explain the inconceivable; we are on the earth as a child is on the back of a large and powerful horse, its muscles flexing and quivering beneath the skin. Other poems use historical perspective to offer a meaningful pattern, drawing parallels with the fall of earlier empires and the disasters of other times and places. Others again are practical and domestic, dealing with the logistics of cracks, holes and shattered crockery, with manhandling a tarpaulin over an open roof, with doing what needs to be done. Humour offers another kind of perspective, contemptuously sending up the “soft men/in hard hats” who pose amidst the destruction, while more gently describing a woman who gets up from her quaking bed to put on her best and apply her lipstick, so as not to be found “crumpled/in faded pastel”.

These poems try to reconstruct the connections and purposes riven and disrupted by the movements of the earth. But, scattered as they are, they neither stand as a collection nor offer a progression, and are weakened by their dispersal, no matter how neat the metaphor of textual interruption and ruptured pages. For it is a wonderful set of metaphors, rich with imaginative possibilities, particularly in combination with the notion of walking. Walking grounds the walker; it forces a fine focus on small pieces of the world, the walker moving across and through and within a landscape, solid and certain and known, taking steps which are measured and regular, the movement of the body like a pendulum’s tick-tock. All this is literally destabilised by an earthquake, the earth becoming unrecognisable, our tools for moving through it becoming irrelevant: signposts disappear, maps lose their potency, direction and purpose are upset. The scattered poems are the textual marker in the book of the accompanying psychological and intellectual ruptures caused by the quakes, each bracketed by a jagged seismic graphic.

But the brokenness of the text is not like an aftershock. Rather, it is imposed on the text – even that written before the quake so altered the author’s project and worldview – rather than arising organically out of it, a disruption not natural but retrospectively overlaid. The preamble (“from preambulare: to walk before”) is written post-quake, as is the epilogue, and it’s that reframing of the material which determines the way all of the essays are read. It’s a reframing which feels inappropriate and heavy-handed, forcing very separate projects together.

And what is perhaps most moving and unsettling in the post-quake text is the pervasive suggestion that writing itself is not one of the effective ways of remaking meaning, that words have been rendered both impotent and irrelevant. The books tumbled from the shelves are become “Not/sentence, phrase or/meaning. Just bricks.” Words have become

                 twigs
laid out on a white page,
crisscross and up and
down. You pause and
puzzle. Then sidle off.

In “The poem that is like a city”, words are emptied of sense, losing their ability to express meaning as they are deconstructed along with the city:

This poem is like a city. It is full of words.
Doing words. And being words ….
Ths pm is lk
a brkn cty
all its wds r
smshd to
syllbls.

The author’s apparent loss of faith in the project with which she began, and indeed in the efficacy of her craft at all, is not so much a rupturing as a negation of the values and pleasures of the original text, with all its joy in words and their associations, its willingness to abandon a pattern in favour of a productive web of association and organic movement. The original project may have felt frivolous after February 2011, a middle-class indulgence of just the kind Farrell admits to fearing in the prologue, but the reframing of the material means that the walking book, and the thinking life which it affirms and embodies, is overwhelmed and overtaken by the earthquake. With its parts at cross-purposes, The Broken Book, despite its many merits, is finally unsatisfying, both emotionally and narratively.

 

Louise O’Brien is a Wellington reviewer.