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John Eppel

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

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.

[‘Envy’]

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

primordial clime….

[‘Amphibian’]

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.

[‘Homo Erectus’]

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.

[‘Vigil’]

I wish I was a toddler

so I could scream and scream

scream and scream and rage

and scream and rage and scream.

[‘At Thirty-six’]

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!

[Anonymous]

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.

[my emphasis]

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.

Most merciful,

most gracious

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.

[‘Pushkin’]

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.

Libra Rising

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!

 

 

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 14th, 2014 @17:01 #
     
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    John, I'm speechless. What a gift. Every poet deserves this kind of reading: almost ruthlessly attentive. Thanks are inadequate, but you have mine anyway.

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  • <a href="http://johneppel.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">John Eppel</a>
    John Eppel
    February 15th, 2014 @01:42 #
     
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    Ben, please would you correct my misspelling of 'Moffett' in the title of this post? Sincere apologies, Helen.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    February 17th, 2014 @09:02 #
     
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    Sorted, John. Thanks very much for the review - what a treat for poet and reader alike.

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  • <a href="http://johneppel.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">John Eppel</a>
    John Eppel
    February 17th, 2014 @17:00 #
     
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    Thank you, Ben.

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  • <a href="http://ingridwolfaardt.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ingrid</a>
    Ingrid
    February 18th, 2014 @08:28 #
     
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    Thank you John for this review and well done Helen, I am enchanted and off to buy my copy.

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  • <a href="http://johneppel.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">John Eppel</a>
    John Eppel
    February 18th, 2014 @17:40 #
     
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    Of course I was aware of Billie Holiday's song, but I just couldn't make a connection.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 19th, 2014 @14:33 #
     
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    John, the Billie Holiday connection is pure coincidence. The title came from a life-long mishearing of a song correctly called "Strange Brew". I have a question: Colleen is about to reprint. Should we correct that "unpeel" dropped stitch? There are many other imperfections, but your kind comment made me think of this beautiful poem by Gabeba Baderoon:

    Nothing Else

    A potter delivers the gift of a bowl she has made.
    The bowl is perfect, she apologises,
    and nothing else.

    A Japanese master has taught her
    to make pots that are perfect because
    they have a small, deliberate imperfection.

    The bowl is perfect, nothing else.
    Our new bowl fits sweetly in the hand.
    The story fills it like a second gift.

    An old potter with whom we share the tale, laughs
    and reveals the third gift. The bowl's lack of imperfection
    is its secret imperfection.

    (from The Dream in the Next Body)

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  • <a href="http://johneppel.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">John Eppel</a>
    John Eppel
    February 19th, 2014 @15:51 #
     
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    I thought so, Helen. 'Nothing Else' is a beautiful poem. I would use 'peel' instead. I'm glad it's going into another print.

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