Poetry Shelf review: Jess Fiebig’s My Honest Poem

Jess Fiebig My Honest Poem Auckland University Press 2020

When I was a scrap of blonde hair, pink cheeks

and jam-smeared hands, my grandma would say

‘that girl always needs a pen in her hand’

and at twenty-eight, I think she called it,

right from the start.

from ‘My Honest Poem’

I first picked up Jess Fiegbig’s book when we were in lockdown and I held the book at arm’s length as I was navigating my own dark thoughts. It wasn’t the time to cross poetry bridges into difficult subject matter. Yes this is a book of darkness, of anxiety, family violence, sex, drug addiction but it is also a book of hope, grit, grace. Jess’s poems navigate a woman coming into being along a rocky road, but the book is also a revelation of poems coming to life.

The title suggests the writing is an opening up, the poems frank, holding out for truth. And truth is a hot coal to handle. Prismatic. Shining this light here and that light there. For Jess it is also the heat (and ice) of writing from the searing embers of personal experience. Yet when she writes though tough subjects, her love of writing pulsates, and the words are agile on the line:

I slide two fingers

down my throat

to ease out the knots

I have folded myself into

starting gently at the bottom

and working my way up

just like

when I sat on his knee

at six years old

and he carefully combed

my tangled blonde curls

from ‘Knots’

The middle section of the book, ‘I get lost in lovers’, is both an emptying out and a replenishing. There is the physical vomiting that brings up both bile and the internal weights. ‘Kitchen Sink’ ends with the image of the grandmother and her handbag (‘the kitchen sink’) that carries ‘so much that is heavy, unnecessary’. The poet’s kitchen sink is internal, we infer: ‘I lug my own kitchen sink with me’. This swing between shedding and reclaiming finds the sharp-edged things as well as love, friendship, desire.

You need to add the crafting of poems, the hints at how poems arrive, the way certain words shimmer or blaze on the line. Yes these poems are linguistic treat. Lithe, fluent, musical, economical, image rich. Poetic choices are amplifying the subject matter. Take a stanza from ‘Hypnic Jerk’ for example. You get a murmur of ‘mms’, the tantalising hit of ‘dream souvenirs’. The image of the apple in the throat conjures voice, growth, presence, absence, the memory scaffolding maintained by a go-to image. The very fickle and hard-to-articulate business of memory:

     I have kept

           dream souvenirs

     for a time when remembering you

     wouldn’t grow an apple

                                in my throat

 

     from ‘Hypnic Jerk’

I find this stanza in ‘Party After Riccarton Races’ equally gripping:

     Sunday, without sleep,

     I seek out the beach, hope

     that sand on skin might release

     the brine in my head.

The poem describes a party in a multi-storied swimming-pooled home, where white powder is offered in lines on platters rather than canapes – but it is the ‘brine’ in her head that catches me, the salty agent of preservation that is holding things the speaker wants to discharge and dissolve.

People feature. Lovers, yes. Friends. In the beginning an achingly honest depiction of a mother with various addiction and distances, the abusive boyfriend of her mother. It is particularly moving to read in the acknowledgements Jess’s mention of her mother: ‘whose support of me telling these story shows real grace’. The grandmother is a recurring figure and she is a magnet of warmth and wisdom.

When we say grace,

she declares that I have cold hands, and

a warm heart; don’t go giving it all away.

My grandmother has perfect fingernails

her lined palms are soft, fleshy,

as they rest tenderly

on my arm; her touch

feels like home.

from ‘Palmistry’

The land also becomes a grounding. A way of locating a scene, a relationship, an outing, a mood shifter, an epiphany. Again the poet’s craft, the exquisite movement of word on the line, both aurally and visually, assists the story being told, the personal story being laid down:

     the yolk yellow leaves,

     brash and unashamedly golden

     in this lilac light,

     are shocking in their defiance

     of the gentle pastel landscape

 

     they stir something inside me

     that has lain still

                                    for so long.

 

     from ‘Dead Man’s Point’

My Honest Poem is a move towards new beginnings. The poetry is fresh, succulent and lyrical. Perhaps the most moving collection I have read this year; it might be difficult for some readers, but this is a poetry arrival to celebrate. It took courage to write this book, and it took a finely-tuned ear and eye to achieve such a poetry gleam.

Auckland University Press page.

Jess Fiebig is a Christchurch-based poet whose work has featured in Best New Zealand Poems 2018, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018 and 2019, Landfall, Turbine | Kapohau and takahē. She was runner-up in the 2019 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize.

Jess is reading in my Wild Honey session at Word in Christchurch.

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