Cliff Fell, The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet, Last Leaf Press, Motueka, 2014
Cliff Fell has published two previous poetry collections, The Adulterer’s Bible (Victoria University Press, 2003) and Beauty of the Badlands (Victoria University Press, 2008). His debut book gained the Adam Prize in Creative Writing and the 2004 Jessie Mackay Prize for Best First Book of Poetry. He currently lives on a farm near Motueka and teaches at Nelson Marlborough Institute of technology.
His new book, The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet is a team effort, as Cliff has worked in conjunction with artist, Fiona Johnstone and photographer, Ivan Rogers. The book is both slender and aesthetically beautiful. The images are alluring hooks that can either be read as self-contained visual poems or as part of an alternative narrative thread that forges subtle connections with the arc of Cliff’s text. Exquisite.
The poem takes the alphabet as its framing device. Each letter pirouettes upon the possibility of words, the power of words, the shimmering vulnerability of words. The voice of the husbandwoman gives us glimpses, only ever glimpses as we discover in ‘G,’ yet she accumulates, piece by piece, in the relations she unveils. Signals of self in ambiguous traces. You get to the end and hold a trembling portrait that flips and twists to become a portrait of the husbandman. Or is it. The ‘he’ and the ‘you’ slip and slide so you are not sure where husband ends and adultery begins (this poem has its origins in The Adulterer’s Bible).
This gorgeous sequence holds you within its frame. The mysterious code on the final page sends you back to see the portrait in a new light. An intense and aching light and I am not spoiling the hit of the revelation by speaking of it here. The lines are deft and bereft (ah the ache) and befit the narrating woman. Little pockets of confession, reflection and quiet. It is a joy to read.
These words: throat-lash, brow band, bit—
how a horse gets broken in.
Each night I am unbridled.
Never try to understand a marriage.
It’s beyond the knowing of all but the finest
gentleman: how the bridle’s said to fit the bride.
NZ Book Council page