A review of ‘Strange Fruit’ by Helen Moffett
Strange Fruit by Helen Moffet
Modjaji Books, 2009
Reviewed by John Eppel
Some of North America’s finest poets – Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell… were practitioners of the confessional style, a style, which has been vulgarised by reality television, like the Oprah Winfrey Show. The ‘confessionals’ wrote openly about personal conflicts like alcoholism, divorce, suicide, and insanity. This was partly a reaction to the sometimes disingenuous use of masks or personae by ‘modernists’ like T.S. Eliot, and the later W. B. Yeats.
Most of the poems in this collection are in the confessional style; the dominating theme is childlessness. Helen Moffet points the reader to that in her Acknowledgements when she thanks Carol Thomas: ‘my gynaecologist, but sadly, not my obstetrician’. This theme develops an interesting dynamic. Being single and childless in a patriarchal society gives a woman a lot more socio-political freedom than her married mother counterparts. As a result more and more educated women are choosing to remain single, if not, always, childless. And you can feel this freedom in many of the poems; it flutters the pages like a fresh breeze:
especially you, poor forked thing, a man –
wombless, childless: you have nothing I want.
The double Shakespearean allusion is witty and good-natured. Here is another example of many (not always sexual):
The penis is an amphibious creature;
mostly it lives on dry land,
but given the chance, it slips
joyously back into a moister
environment, where it grows
gills of glee, glides in this
Notice how effectively she contrasts the alliterative plosives (the thrusting male effect) with all the wet sibilants. The last word is a palimpsest, partly obscuring ‘slime’. Helen Moffet uses the penis as a synecdoche for patriarchy, and the amusing outcome is female empowerment. Here it is again:
Erections are the most extraordinary things;
especially to those of us who lack the mechanism.
One minute you pull me into an easy, affectionate hug –
the next, a third party has announced its presence.
Positioned against this freedom, this breeziness, is the heart rending wail of a woman who desperately wants a child, which her body denies her. You’d expect the resulting poetry to be full of self-pity, but it isn’t; instead it is full of anger and self-mockery, which, ironically, deepens the pathos:
Please, a moment of stillness:
I’m watching myself die.
Holding my own hand
as my gene-pool drains away.
I wish I was a toddler
so I could scream and scream
scream and scream and rage
and scream and rage and scream.
Helen Moffet uses words like stitches in embroidery. The effect is not only decorative but clear, clear in the paradoxical sense that the clearer a text, the more mysterious:
Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!
Here is an example from one of several nods to Shakespeare:
I wish my ribs were garlanded with
stars and flowers, their fronds
stroking in time to sea’s soft pulse;
with small fish flicking like paint
through the bowl of my pelvic girdle
gently rocking as a tropical tide
hushes back and forth, back and forth.
[‘Reply to Ariel’]
The fruits most associated, symbolically, with abundance, are apples, figs, and pomegranates. The title of Helen Moffet’s book, does not specify a fruit, but the designer, Natascha Mostert, has decorated the cover, beautifully, with pomegranates. With its abundance of seeds, this fruit is primarily associated with fertility – a stinging irony. Christianity to the rescue! Just as it transposed the ‘Song of Songs’, a celebration of sexual love, to an allegory of Christ’s love for the church, it transposed the fertility symbolism of the pomegranate to a spiritual plane. More interesting is the way the fruit image plays with the dynamic, mentioned earlier, which energises this anthology. Fruit is a female archetype with positive and negative connotations. As a symbol of abundance it is largely positive, but as a symbol of temptation it is largely negative. The Bible is unequivocal: the female fruit of Genesis is wicked; the male fruit – Christ on the cross (a stylised tree) – is good. The ambiguity of Helen Moffet’s fruit, a metaphor not only of the poems but of the poet – a male metaphor! – is introduced by the epithet ‘strange’. Remember Ariel’s song:
Nothing of [her] that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Changing or, better still, metamorphosing, is a frequent technique in these poems. ‘Mined’ is a conceit worthy of the Metaphysicals. It begins with typical humour: ‘Loving me must be like visiting the Balkans’. The analogy grows into an extended metaphor, which transforms the poet, body and soul, into a moment of history. Notice the embroidery effect of the words:
I’m told it’s lovely there; seen the pictures
of pastoral valleys, dappled woods,
secluded inlets of blue dispersing islands;
all dotted with bridges, quaint villages
and monasteries of antique masonry
speaking eloquently of culture and craft.
But a flak jacket and tin hat are advised;
over some innocent hill you’ll find
without warning, a site where violation
has soaked into the earth.
In ‘Geology Lesson’, a breast examination goes on to suggest that the earth is female: ‘my flesh congealing into stone’. And in ‘Postscript’: ‘I grow green again’.
There are occasional epiphanies. In ‘Always’ there is the Proustian moment:
But every now and then,
on nights of summer rain,
I’ll open one of my trunks:
and grow immediately dizzy
with the fragrances swarming up;
carrying not just memories
but all that love fresh again.
‘In Cape Town’ celebrates a marriage, and in the last stanza:
This happens as the Imam
intones a passage
from the Qu’ran.
voice and view splice
and for a slice
of a second, I’m jolted
into unexpected joy.
Helen Moffet seldom uses rhyme, and never for the sake of conventional form; she uses it as she uses other aural effects like alliteration and assonance, for emphasis; like ‘splice’/’slice’ (above). She uses it even more successfully in ‘After Sex’:
For at least a day or so
I cross my legs with care,
So as not to set the chime
thrumming through me again;
distracting when teaching
a class on rhythm and rhyme.
In her essay, ‘My name Is Darkness’, The poetry of Self-Definition, Sandra M. Gilbert uses the phrase ‘self-definition’ as a synonym of ‘confessional’. She speculates that it is this genre which ‘with its persistent assertions of identity and its emphasis on a central mythology of the self, may be (at least in our own time) a distinctively female poetic mode’. This essay was written in 1977 and feminism, in some parts of the world, has come a long way since then; but I find it still carries relevance. Our archetypes stink of patriarchy: fruit, mountains, the moon: ‘All my life, I’ve been tugged along by the moon, / one barren trailing another’ [‘At Thirty-six’]. When she uses images that define herself, her personal self, Helen Moffet’s poetry becomes more affirmative, even its most desolate moments. Her cat, for example:
a snuffling heap
at the foot of my bed;
a tortoise-shell sandbag
between me and the abyss.
Or her ‘daughter’, ‘who would be thirteen now’ [‘My Daughter’]; or her ovaries: ‘two lumped and lunar fists’ [‘The Ultrasound’]; or younger men who have not ‘caught / the fatal habit: the tendency to patronise’ [‘In praise of younger men’].
She looks to a fellow female poet to help her understand her own technique:
After the initial burst, words cascading down,
the hard work beginning:
stoking the refining fire,
scouring every line.
I had no idea that one day
I would also wrestle, endlessly
pick at a knot of words, strain to make
language go where I wanted.
[‘To Christina Rossetti’]
This is a compelling anthology. I read it in one sitting, and afterwards felt wrung out. It is a poetry of glittering surfaces, which makes it no less profound than the more sub-conscious poetry of, say, Sylvia Plath. As I said before, it conveys the mysteriousness of clarity. The poem I want to present in full is the one I like best. It is one of the poet’s loving tributes to her parents.
The last time I visited the farm,
you shook me awake at some witching hour,
excited as a child before Christmas;
chivvied me into a dressing-gown
and Wellington boots, waving a torch:
‘I want to show you something,’ you said.
Muffled, muddled with dreams, yet trusting,
I tromped out after you, crunching across
the frosted garden decked in silence and silver;
down through the gate, towards the dam,
the longer grass now swishing.
The moon had set,
leaving the constellations holding court
in a sky molten with pouring stars.
‘Look,’ you said, pointing towards the ridge
beneath the dense swirl of the Milky Way,
‘You can see Libra rising.’
And there it was: perfect.
Like those swooping
V-shapes that signify seagulls
in old-fashioned illustrations.
Back in the house, the kitchen
warmth a delicious reminder
of how cold we’d been outside;
you heated milk with vanilla,
enough for my father as well,
when he trundled in, fogged with sleep,
to ask what we womenfolk were up to;
married to you long enough to
grunt in understanding, find it normal
that you’d get up and go out on
a winter’s night, just to look at the stars –
and want to share them with your daughter.
Most of Helen Moffet’s poems remind me of embroideries, the words, colourful stitches. However, there is one dropped stitch: the word ‘unpeel’ in the eponymous poem. I guess only Allah is perfect!