Seeing through words, Kim Worthington

The Inhabited Initial
Fiona Farrell
Auckland University Press, $27.95,
ISBN 1 86940 215 4

as far as I can see
Michele Leggott
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 86940 217 0

The Inhabited Initial, Fiona Farrell’s second collection of poetry (she is, of course, far better known as an award-winning writer of fiction and drama), takes language as its main subject – or, more precisely, the interdependence of language and life. The poems are generally short, even slight. But if we allow the poems to talk to each other across the collection, some complexity develops and, ultimately, a rich, indeed enviable, sense of affirmation and rootedness.

In the first of the collection’s four sections, “To the Point”, Farrell playfully suggests the generative possibilities of punctuation (“Each dot an egg-sac / squirming, each squiggle / setting root where it falls.”); also its performative aspect: “[The little dot] insists / on quiet. Take a breath, it says. / Take it easy.” The last of the five poems, “To the Point”, suggests another quality of writing, one that is developed in later poems: the interpretative possibilities opened up by the marks we inscribe, here footprints on the beach.

The second (also short) section, “Words, war and water”, expands on the ambiguous possibilities of language: translation as (cultural) retrospective conquest, yet that which allows the reclamation of lost histories, the reanimation of those long dead:

the language peeled back
like a layer of grass.

Like grass cut in straight
lines so it lifts away whole.

And under the grass lay a
whole people, speaking.
(“The speech of cups”)

Several of the poems gesture to the limits of language, that which it fails to capture: the silence of death and the inhuman sounds of the battlefield, “the howling of automata, then the / squeaking speech of silence” – sounds of human life devoid of the language by which Descartes distinguished us from animals (“Descartes and the dog”). Against this is set the final poem in the sequence. “The Proverb” offers a qualified counter to the violence of history and the language that constructs it. Life continues: “I am. / I love. / I sing. / I think.” And indeed it is this affirmation – simple, earthy, pragmatic – that the poems in the remainder of the collection reinforce.

The third section, “New feathers”, takes as its starting point Socrates’ suggestion that beauty provides “the nourishing moisture” which encourages the latent (angelic) “feathers” of our souls to grow. And beauty, for Farrell, is to be found in all things. Many of the poems offer small epiphanies, brief moments of illumination, whether spurred by loss or love, which are anchored for the poet in nature and domesticity.

Rejecting religious platitudes, Farrell offers instead a pragmatic credo: “I believe in / forgiveness. // But not in sin. // … I believe in / life. You have to, / don’t you, being alive?” (“Creed”); although sustaining, “hope ever after” is only a myth (“Fairytale”). Again and again what is affirming, and affirmed, are the seemingly mundane securities of daily living:

I love you touselled sleeping
and our children turning and
turning under feathers and
downstairs the budgies
nattering. The plain pattern
of such mornings.
(“First Up”)

Farrell’s is a security grounded in nature which provides a constant source of imagery; many of the poems suggest the simple pleasure of being, as in this wonderful evocation of a moment of sheer joy:

And then, it’s kind of like
lying on a hillside, sun
full on and a gum tree
rattling away like streamers,
and there’s a whole kind of
shining party going on,
and you’re at it.
(“What it’s like”)

The earthy response to life and love is given full expression in the unusual love poem “Earth”: the speaker’s lover is unphased by the “shit and vomit” of her illness: “You muck me out, You / tuck me in. // … I / spit into a bowl and I love you. // … Moo, I say. / Moo moo. / Baa. / Oink”.

The simplicity of the credo is echoed in the form and structure of the poems which are short and direct,
often turning on a single idea or image. Usually this economy carries weight, but there are poems in which Farrell falters, notably when she attempts (light) satire as in “Two café songs”, or offers a rather banal comment on the prescriptive failures of our education system in “Hard knocks”.

In many respects these poems prepare for the longest poem in this section (and indeed the book), “In a nutshell”, a moving poem about the death of the speaker’s mother. Sentimentality is carefully checked in the balancing of memory with the reality of the present; the life recalled in celebration is also utterly reduced: “Now, she makes herself small, / so small she thinks we’ll hardly notice. / She holds her tiny breath and slips away / between our clutching fingers.” The conclusion to the poem again asserts pragmatic acceptance, albeit in sardonic rhyme: “All things done and said. / My mother in a nutshell. / She lived / and now / she’s dead”. Life (the possibility of growth) is contained in all that remains unsaid in the bare shell of this articulation. Nonetheless the section ends in affirmation. If death is the subject of the penultimate poem, it is countered in that which, naturally, comes after: “U are … the tug of the / umbilicus / life knotted at one end / undulating / like a fine red balloon” (“All the things U are”).

The final, titular section is something of a disappointment. The poems, we are told, “are intended as meditations on the miracles of the western alphabet and its origin in early Semitic pictograms.” As detailed on the front jacket flap, “‘[i]nhabited initial’ is the formal calligraphic term for the decorated capitals of medieval manuscripts where tiny figures from everyday life, mythology and fantasy invade the text.” Farrell’s intentions seem clear enough – if the poems in the first three sections suggest ways in which language captures (or fails to capture) the multiplicity of life (and death), those in the fourth “are about [the] invasion” of life into language. They are intended to show the extent to which life crowds in on and overflows the limits of the language we use to express (and know) it.

There is a poem for each letter of the western alphabet, with the titles suggesting ancient linguistic origins; each is a miniature, offering a thumbnail sketch of a character, object, an emotion or action. As in earlier poems, the potentialities of language are suggested: its ability to evoke or obscure meaning, to make knowing possible, to enact dominion (“If you would / rule a people, first force / them to eat your words”) or to maim and damage (“The word bites, leaving a ragged / edge and a tiny bubble of blood”). Paradoxically, what centres and contains is life’s flurry – in all its banal manifestations.

But these poems, with some exceptions, are rather too slight to carry the load. Fecundity and abundance are stated rather than realised as poetic effect, as in “H: heth: an enclosure”:

Teeth drawn up, a white palisade
and through the palings wag woof
and oink moo click suck burp, cluck
and yap yap yap yap yap.

Disappointing, too, is the presentation. As James Brown noted in his Evening Post review, the “old-fashioned” typescript sits uncomfortably on glossy paper and the cartoonlike sketches (specially commissioned from Dunedin jeweller Ann Cluny) do little to complement the text.

2

Michele Leggott’s latest collection, as far as I can see, stands in complete contrast to Farrell’s. The poems are a complex meditation on loss – in the first instance of the poet’s eyesight (to the condition called retinitis pigmentosa); but this stands as a metaphor for other losses: to death, to love, through misunderstanding, and failed dreams. Contra Farrell, here pragmatic acceptance is an elusive goal, not a given. “Eyesight,” Leggott writes on the jacket cover “is not vision”; and in “limen amabile”:

                                        I see what’s strange to you
transformation’s gift taking place before my eyes
she holds a white stick she gives
into my hand and I go tapping into the world

The cleverness of this collection risks being dismissed as too intellectual (she is an academic, after all): the reader’s focus blurs and sharpens through an abundance of allusion and wordplay requiring frequent stops for consultation of a dictionary or compendium of myths. But the stunning fluency and fluidity of the poems carry the burden of the poet’s intellect, as does the force of her emotions. What is sought lies beyond, and yet within, words: “I go to libraries / because they are the ocean” (“perse”). “Dove”, one of five experimental sequences offering variants on the sonnet form, exemplifies Leggott’s verbal games. The title of each poem – “persephatta”, “persicifolia”, “persica”, “persienne” and “perse” – echoes and alludes to the final words of the final poem: “per se”. This statement of being in itself, intrinsicality, suggests what the speaker sets against her uncertainties: a plea for acceptance of “I not my eyes” (“perse”).

At the core of the poems, then, despite a ludic slipperiness of language that might be hailed as postmodernist, is the desire for (if not realisation of) subjective essentialism; an assertion of or entreaty for acceptance of the self: “sweet poet we cannot fall / asleep or in love until you see me through / the unsapphirine unsilvered mirror of where I am” (“hyle”).

Acceptance of loss is partial and qualified, fought for and lost again and again in the poems. Tentativeness is the only constant. Even the wonderful sequence of (erotic) love poems, “snake & jewel”, begins with a question that resonates throughout: “when will we live like that again?” The pleasures of love – “the lily with its open mouth and ribbon spathes / bumpy erogeny bespeaking / the immaculate shape of things to come” (“learning”) – are lived alongside the other ties of life, suggestive of a doubleness (or multiplicity) that recur throughout in theme and form:

I come home from work and there’s dinner to fix
I get into bed and it’s swing down low goodnight
good morning waking up with you and the story
of my luminous being is lying on the floor
with the rest of the clothes I took off, hidden phases
of the mama I am and you want
to be on top of …
(“hyle”)

Many of the poems read palimpsestically: one poem containing but not effacing another within it. This effect is achieved through the use of italicised words and lines within the standard text of a poem. These italicised words, when lifted from the poem in which they are embedded, form another poem (and leave yet another); the result is a series of supplements that can be read against the grain of the whole. The meanings thus contained are multiple, effecting a refusal of surface interpretation as the only way of seeing: “detail … is the / mirage of seeing” (“wild orchids”); “What is the sight of my eyes to the great oratory of the labyrinth?” (a woman, a rose …, 1). But again and again anguish breaks through as when the speaker in “ice” pleads: “Bring me where panic has gone out of the world.”

The final sequences of mostly prose poems deal with loss through death (of the speaker’s mother) and, in supplement, the continuance of birth (of the speaker’s child). Again the wordplay is magnificent, the sliding tenses and voices of “stone”, for example, capturing the shifting identities of mother and/as child. The final poem, “as ever”, ends in tribute, with a funeral reading in which two (or more) losses are countered: “There is enough light, deep breath of the lake, her mirror, to read by … When I lift my eyes from the last words you are there. Together we make morning.”

Leggott’s affirmations are hard come by, her groundings in love and the details of daily life temporary, and the rewards of vision not always compensatory for loss. Here is the most striking difference between Farrell’s and Leggott’s collections (setting aside comparative assessments of intellectual complexity): Farrell’s certainties are what Leggott is seeking, on the surface, and yet with them her poetry, and her knowledge, would lose its depth.

Kim Worthington teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.

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