Poetry Shelf Winter Season: Cliff Fell off-piste


Cento: The Rose of Tralee


I began to investigate the world,

Tearing at something of the mystery of birds, calls,

And the blue and green of the riverbed.


Once, I read a story of killed horses.

It is copyrighted.

But when the huntsman knelt beside her,

A pistol in his hand,

The Rose of Tralee quivered like a quartertone,

Though soundless. A fountain of roses flowed from her head.


You don’t have to understand the tui’s song

To admire it. I was so much older then,

Though only a child –

It was bitter to say farewell to the earth so renewed,

Bitter to sing in chapel that week:


The body of each of us is your body, Lord.



Author note: I first wrote – or stumbled upon, really – ‘Cento: The Rose of Tralee’ in 2002, a significant year in my development as a poet. The making of the poem happened fast and involved a kind of trance-like going sideways out of my usual practice, a shift in direction or approach that certainly nudged me out of the comfort zones of my writing.

As its title indicates, the poem is a cento (of sorts), though when I was writing it, I did not yet know of the Latin form that lends its creative process an air of legitimacy. I think I was just experimenting with the possibilities of Eliot’s dictum about poets stealing and trying to make something better or ‘at least something different’ out of their thefts. So it was that one Sunday evening in that long, marvellous winter I was looking through a 1991 anthology of post WW2 eastern and central European poetry, The Poetry of Survival, edited by Daniel Weissbort. The poems are for the most part darkly moving, sometimes terrifying, born of the holocaust and the forging of the Iron Curtain. I think I was trying to find some translations of Slavko Mihalic by Charles Simic, as I was reading Simic at the time. I already knew the anthology well. It had been a bible of mine during the 1990’s, at a time when I was focused on extending my reading of 20th century poetry.

I can’t now remember exactly which line or poem set me off, but I suddenly began to wonder if I could make a poem by opening pages at random and selecting lines that caught my eye. By the time I’d come up with the key image, ‘Once I read a story of killed horses’ – a conflation of lines by Dan Pagis and Peter Huchel – I had invoked a childhood memory of a horse being shot. This was on a farm where I was working a summer job, aged 14. So, the narrative of The Rose of Tralee’s sad demise, her hoof trapped in a crevice, began to insert its voice into a solemn parade of lines that have their origins in poems by Nina Cassian, Paul Celan, Leopold Staff, Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, Agnes Nemes Nagy. Others, maybe, that I cannot now trace. In a moment of light relief, ‘It is copyrighted’ was an amusing, ironic aside from the sixteenth canto of Hans Magnus Enzenberger’s ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’. As I tried to resolve the poem, as a nightingale transformed into a tui, I must have started casting my net wider. It seems clear to me now that ‘I was so much older then,’ must be a steal from Bob Dylan’s ‘My Back Pages’. How it got in there, I can’t quite remember, but it did.

Cliff Fell is working on a fourth book of poems.


From Paula: For Poetry Shelf’s Winter Season, I invited 12 poets to pick one of their own poems that marks a shift in direction, that is outside the usual tracks of their poetry, that moves out of character, that nudges comfort zones of writing. It might be subject matter, style, form, approach, tone, effect, motivation, borrowings, revelation, invention, experimentation, exclusions, inclusions, melody …. anything!



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