Hungry to read more


The Zechstein Sea
, Patricia Farrell (86pp, Shearsman)


The title of this collection of poems may give us a rough clue to what Scot Thurston in his back-cover comment calls 'challenging work'. According to my quick google research, the 'Zechstein' (German for either 'mine stone' or 'tough stone') is a unit of sedimentary rock layers stretching from the east coast of England to northern Poland. These layers were deposited by the Zechstein sea in the Permian age, from 299 to 245 million years ago. The sea slowly disappeared due to 'marine regression' - a geological process whereby areas of submerged seafloor become exposed above sea level - and caused the mass extinction of many forms of marine life.

Patricia Farrell's poetry can be read as an attempt to recover and bring to light all the forms of life that we have extinguished inside our own psyches, those long-forgotten creatures in the ancient sea of our subconscious, all that is strange and beautiful but which no longer fits into the selves we create for our daily lives:

     This is not our planet any more:
     this scrambled inventory that seeks the perfect square.
     Just where the woman drops her parcels,
     you can see the edge [...]

     I guess nature and time have changed.
     In passing we unearthed it
     but then covered it and forgot.
     What will we see when we wake up?
              (from 'A. Life')

Farrell's poetry suggests that we ignore the forgotten at our peril. Yet to reclaim it does not require any drastic action on our part. All that we need to do - though it may not be as easy as it sounds given the inauthentic state we have fallen into - is not to focus on what we think is important, but to simply allow ourselves to wander a little. In this way, our being in the world, including the language we use to navigate, will be revealed in all its miraculous strangeness.

This may be a terrifying experience: one can be left without a voice when the daily self becomes splintered, when we 'fall in bits / along your chamber' and 'arise to star in our own deaths (from 'Whose Signature is Hard to Decipher'), when we 'take one look at the brain / and throw it away in despair', and when 'the pebbles placed on graves / make nothing in the mouth' (from 'The Tower of Silence (a-e)' ). In this event, the coping mechanism of what Farrell has called the 'poetic artifice of philosophical writing' can only descend into absurdity. Better to accept this absurdity and allow oneself to journey into language without making any claim to a stable truth. We 'may judge wrong', yet:

     As the toys come to life,
     jewelled, whizzed and twittering,
     we can lean together on this wind-blown world,
     have pleasure in all things
     or have pleasure in nothing.
                    (from 'A.Life')

This acceptance may bring with it a sense of celebration, along with a new kind of seeing, as is shown in the poem 'Snail Climbing':

     A line of men,
     haphazardly across the field,
     might be refigured
     as nothing left to stand on.
     Or would you retouch their eyes?

     The same one is watching.
     He inscribes 'snail climbing'
     as he walks across the floor,
     going along with a concept
     that all things are assembles
     of smallers and of smallers,
     all more or less alike.

     What kind of day is this?
     Here is all the weather of the world.
     Is that Jesus?
     He will tilt the globe a little
     and maybe you will slide -
     but you will not fall.
     Do you understand?

The irony of Farrell's observations are often tinged with a striking lyricism, even at their most deliberately absurd or disturbing. This lyricism is most evident in the longer poems, such as 'Whose Signature is Hard to Decipher':

     I think me between these shores
     one draped in the skin of another [...]

     the writing all along the road
     is it up or down
     the whole town turns inside its egg
     in steady arcs [...]

     coming to something beautiful
     I stop there
     to screw down my eyes

     in a flood of light
     from my little glass house
     I see
     one man stand inside another

The way in which Farrell brings philosophy into her poetry, while at the same time playing with perspective and undermining that same philosophy, is of course reminiscent of Rosmarie Waldrop. Indeed, Farrell has said that she owes much to Waldrop. But clearly also present is the delicate beauty of a poet like Barbara Guest, and, it must be said, the delightful sense of the downright silly of a poet such as Jeremy Over. Patricia Farrell's poems make us smile. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Scot Thurston refers to Farrell's work as 'challenging', but he also goes onto to ask 'who cares "when tongue play makes sense like this"?' For Farrell seduces us with every line into becoming more than ourselves, with our 'disorder made / cheerful and magnificent / white blossoms in the throat' (from 'The Same as Passion'). The Zechstein Sea
is a superb book, leaving us hungry to read more.

            Ian Seed 2013