forty-five: Helen Farish, Intimates

I remember hearing Helen Farish read at possibly the first poetry reading I went to, in Oxford about three or four years ago – in fact, it must have been around the same time that Intimates was first published – and I recognised several of the poems, particularly the opening poem, ‘Look at These’ and the desperately beautiful ‘Newly Born Twins’.

I loved this collection. Each poem seemed perfectly formed, and to hit home so forcefully, illuminating some truth about modern existence. I loved the freshness and the simple directness that characterised each piece. I’m struggling with an Advent poem at the moment, and in contrast Farish’s work seems so incredibly unfussy and absolutely sharply honed. Brilliant stuff.

Some of the most moving poems were about the death of her father, and all sorts of final moments; I particularly loved ‘July’, with all the days of a man’s life figured as birds flocking around, or streamers unfurling (I think this was my very favourite poem in the collection). And there’s a preoccupation with female physicality, and in particular the troublesome nature of breasts – from ‘Look at these’ to fear of the possibility of cancer. In other places there’s a sense of celebration that reminded me of e.e. cummings, in particular ‘Brathay’ – ‘And all over, write, in full: / The Dazzle of this World.’ This thread of a sense of the sacrament of the ordinary and everyday continued in pieces like ‘Treasures’ and ‘Outside the Baker’s’, where ‘light you hadn’t reckoned on [is] like a blessing / you didn’t know you needed.’

So many favourites in this collection; so many, in fact, that the concept ‘favourite’ becomes a bit pointless. But here they are: ‘Auto Reply’, ‘What Held us There’, ‘Brathay’, ‘Drifts’, ‘July’, ‘Treasures’, ‘The White Gate’, ‘The Old King’s Gardens’, ‘Recording’, Grant us time to read and ponder’, ‘Outside the Baker’s’, ‘Coffin Path Poem’ and ‘Newly Born Twins’: -

In separate incubators one of the twins was dying.
Against doctor’s orders, a nurse put them together.

The strong twin, the one with nothing
pulling her back, she slung
her newly born arm over
the one who was wanting to leave,
and stabilised her heartbeat, made everything
regular in the body of the one who’d already
had enough.

The strong one, she will think
she is God, that she can pull back
life from where it was going.
It will be harder for her
than for the one who already knows
about separation, loneliness, where
they can make you want to go.

Intimates, Helen Farish (Jonathan Cape, 2005)

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