Sarah Jane Barnett
The Broken Book, by Fiona Farrell (Auckland University Press, 2011), 208 pp., $34.99.
Trace Fossils, by Mary Cresswell (Steele Roberts, 2011), 64 pp., $19.99.
Originally conceived as a travel book about walking, The Broken Book took an unexpected turn when the Christchurch earthquake, in Farrell’s words, ‘sent a jagged tear’ through the text. Well known for her fiction, poetry and plays, The Broken Book is Fiona Farrell’s captivating foray into autobiography. The book contains four essays about walking, which are interrupted by twenty one poems. You never know when a poem will arrive: they are tremors in her text.
The essays follow Farrell to the Winter Palace in Menton, the Botanic Gardens in Dunedin, through the Cévennes in France, and finally onto the shaky ground of Christchurch. As with many walks, the destination is a convenient way to let the mind wander. For example, Farrell retraces Robert Louis Stevenson’s path through the Cévennes. Stevenson heavily loaded his ‘diminutive she-ass’ Modestine with supplies, and beat her raw when she stopped. He then composed the bestseller, Travels with a Donkey. While following his route, Farrell thinks sorrowfully about Modestine, which makes her think of autumn in New Zealand. This in turn leads to thoughts of young steers being taken from their mothers. And so Farrell meanders.
Farrell’s tangents vary from the transfer of power, to divorce, resurrection, tuberculosis, love, literature, and crisis. This sounds heavy, but the book is balanced by her sharp wit and evocative prose. She has the poet’s deft hand for simile. There are also the wonderfully odd details, such as Stevenson dying of a brain hemorrhage while making mayonnaise with his wife (somehow making up for Modestine). Walking is in her blood, Farrell reveals. Her father worked as a meter reader after the war so he could work outside. Her great grandfather ‘pushed a barrow over the Kilmog to fetch sugar and flour from Dunedin’. She too admits to being restless in confined spaces.
Then there are the poems: lyrical cracks in the book. For the most part they are a surreal and fragile denial of the destruction in Christchurch. They try to make sense of something nonsensical. One standout poem, ‘The Horse’, asks the reader to imagine themselves as a child, lying in the sun, on a horse’s bare back, when:
And then there comes a
cloud, a cloud of flies no
bigger than a needle’s
point, all prick and agitation.
They land upon the horse’s
coat. His skin quivers. Not
all over. Just in that place
where the flies nick. Skin
quivers under bare legs.
‘Quiver and stamp’, says Farrell of the earth.
Much of the book sees Farrell recalling memories from childhood and home, and ultimately it’s the personal stories that make the book so insightful and relatable. She admits that writing personally is new and uncomfortable, but does so with warmth and candor. It’s hard not to like an ernest young Farrell in her ‘yellow mini-dress and knee boots’ as she discovers Germaine Greer and Virginia Woolf.
This is a book of digressions, questions, and some answers. Why do people walk? Farrell seems to ask. In many ways she equates walking with a type of fearlessness, especially after the end of her twenty-five-year marriage. ‘Any walk can take on the function of a pilgrimage. Any walk can have a revelation at its heart’, she says. This book has both heart and revelation, and is anything but broken.
In her second collection of poems, Mary Cresswell explores the shapes words leave behind. Originally from Los Angeles, Cresswell moved to New Zealand in 1970 and has been widely published in New Zealand, the United States, and Australia. The manuscript for Trace Fossils was chosen by Fleur Adcock as first runner-up for the Kathleen Grattan Award in 2010. While Trace Fossils is quite a different collection from Cresswell’s first book of light satirical verse, it still employs wit, humour, and word play.
The title, Trace Fossils, refers to visible fossil evidence such as a the impression of a footprint left in rock. Sectioned into four parts, the collection makes use of the field of geology to talk about the way loss and memory fossilize in language. Cresswell’s style is concise and taut. It’s an unusual voice in current New Zealand poetry. There is an ancient and external tone to her poems; a sense of slow, earthly forces. In the poem ‘Aquifer’, geological metaphors talk to the way language shapes memory:
in chosen channels
(I’m thinking here
of your last letter)
here true, there skirting
Trace Fossils has intellectual appeal, which is not surprising since Cresswell used to work as a science editor. The tone may have made the collection feel distant was it not for Cresswell’s explorations into whimsy, word play, and form. With welcome lightness, Cresswell describes a fur sealer in ‘Dropping Anchor’:
The third day he saw them all
lolling on the beach.
Lustrous eyes, million-dollar skin.
Sweet as. Helen of.
Elle MacFurseal. Elizabeth Trawler. Yes!
Cresswell’s use of surreal imagery ignites and unsettles the collection. In her poems, dolphins leap through sand dunes, mice square dance, and bed posts smile. The imagery engages the imagination, but can be hard to reconcile with the tender directness of a poem like ‘Apposition’: ‘… the sea stretched out, / scraped thin and careful as a painful breath’. Images of the Pacific — especially of the sea — may be Cresswell’s way of investigating her move from California to New Zealand, and many of the poems talk about journeys and movement.
Seeing more of Cresswell would have benefited the collection. The book’s blurb states the poems give ‘the reader a glimpse into her life’. I would have enjoyed more, because, at times, the word play and humour obscured the connection between the poet and her poems. A comment in the foreword suggests that Cresswell knows her work can be obtuse. She says, ‘Please take whatever you like from this book. It may or may not be what I take, but we will have the satisfaction of knowing that we’re both right’. While our glimpse of Cresswell is brief, the collection intrigues and will reveal new layers with each reading.
SARAH JANE BARNETT is a poet and reviewer who lives in Wellington. She is currently completing a creative writing PhD in ecopoetics.