Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Memory is a sheep dog rounding up the smells of the past, "wool in the rain, my aunt's / cigarette smoked on the hoof". But it is that memory, that recalled moment, which makes a person who they are. Helen Farish knows intimately who she is and her beautiful poems capture the intense sadness of memories recalled as the years pass.
No poem does this more powerfully than one poem of a mere twenty words:
Lass gives me a name
a geographic location
an ordnance survey
I hear my Dad,
There are memories of childhood, of a "welly-boot-high pile" of pancakes in "the flagged kitchen" and of "lemons / squeezed, empty plates, hot-lard smoke".
There are memories of a life lived, of A borrowing from the library's Short Loan desk, a moment when you wore "a striped blazer in an ironic way". It was a Short Loan but one which memory does not return.
Memories in Palermo, in Paris, in Athens. And memories of books, of Jane Eyre, of Wuthering Heights, of Doctor Zhivago, of Tennyson, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy.
And there are memories in the barn. The Market Gardener's Tale, the shot-gun suicide, his things burnt among the Little Marvel peas and the White Lisbon shallots which will grow in a wilderness, and the marble which they hear rolling in the empty drawer as they return from the bonfire.
But memories draw one in, hold one, like the "Winter Toad" in "the sawdust of years, the cob-webbed logs". Her father had dug a pit which he or the toad would climb into and she might walk around or lie down in memory and be "camouflaged by love".
There are other moments where we have to be a custodian of their afterlife, which we have to return to periodically, like the shared vision of "the white horse on the fell, the light / gilding its tail as the wind flickered", a horse which was once seen when they paused between Snary Beck and Mockerkin How. But in memory it is the pause itself, the light "flickering in our hair" which is "the more beautiful".
On that narrow road, "this less-than-four metres-wide road", where the signpost shows that it ¼ mile to High Lorton and ¼ mile to Low Lorton in the opposite direction, she stops and rests, asking the memory of her father: "and did we pause here, my father, /long after non-existent traffic / had gone past?" She stops and rests there "on the wrought iron seat, / high and low equidistant".
Life and the memory of life is brief. A life in geography in its brief bound holds all our lives: "Locate Rosley, my first school. / At the road, look right / then left for cars/ (and the ghosts of cars). / Cross to the cemetery.
On Judgement Day she would be "under the apple tree / not far from the daffodils". "Dad cutting the grass / would be the first thing I'd see" and in the Spring the old swing would be "swinging // as though I'd just jumped off, aged ten, my whole life / behind me."
This is Helen Farish's third book of poems. The poems are wonderfully, closely crafted. She is possessed by memory, but it is a memory that is both painful and illuminating. They are poems which are deeply felt, and though they read as though they draw intensely on her own life, their power to move comes from their reticence, from what is not said, but is deeply understood and quietly acknowledged.