Nouns, verbs, etc. (selected poems)
by Fiona Farrell
(Otago University Press, $35)
Reviewed by Stephanie Johnson
Fiona Farrell needs no introduction to readers of New Zealand fiction. Her novels, as well as her non-fiction, have been widely appreciated. Intelligent, furious, affectionate and historically sound, these works should be regarded as nothing less than taonga.
Farrell is perhaps less well known as a poet, despite having published four volumes. Nouns, verbs, etc. (selected poems) samples each of the four and adds into the mix some uncollected and/or previously unpublished verses.
There is clarity and warmth in many of the poems, despite the occasional difficult and disturbing subjects. Abstract poems are few and consciously abstract; the majority throw the reader into vividly realised scenes. In her preface, Farrell remarks how writing poetry may comfort and inform the poet herself. The "simple act of choosing words can give the illusion, however temporary, of control when emotion threatens to overwhelm".
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The book is structured chronologically but it could have been built by subject or style. Throughout there are poems from all decades that are reminiscent of fairy tales. Farrell is very good at constructing vivid, witty tales in verse. The Castle, one of the uncollected poems, is the story of three competing suitors. It could be set in Europe but for the presence of the kānuka. In The old woman's story, the story is a living thing, animated, clever and amusing. There is theft and loss but the story grows again and ends happily, as all good fairy tales should.
History, whether in the use of old forms of storytelling or as subject and inspiration, is often present. The Cutting Out section includes some poems from Farrell's popular and much performed girls' play Passengers. The Pop-up Book of Invasions wrestles with the colonisation not only of New Zealand but also of Ireland.
The Inhabited Initial, much of it written during the Gulf War, expresses not only deep fascination with the evolution of language but fury with that geopolitical mess. It's the most powerful poem cycle in the collection, and a poem like Words, war and water is alive with rage and empathy.
If I was to choose a favourite from this substantial offering, I think it's the autobiographical poem In a nutshell, an elegy for Farrell's mother. She writes of how we remember things our mothers told us, particularly at bedtime: "Roll over. Face the wall/and you'll have good dreams."
A collected verse such as this gives the reader a chance to see how the poet has developed over the decades. Farrell's fascination with words and her adept handling of them, is apparent from her earliest work. There's horror and humour here, expert metaphor, rhythm. Right now "feels like a time for poetry", Farrell says in her preface. Here she demonstrates the many ways poetry can help us to come to terms with the worst of the world, and also to celebrate the best.
This review was commissioned by the Academy of New Zealand Literature and a longer version will soon be available on www.anzliterature.com.