The easy way out for this reviewer would be to declare that Rebecca Farmer's Not Really (Smith-Doorstep, 2014) is concerned with mortality. At first glance, death seems a dominating theme in her pamphlet.
Of course, that would be to ignore a couple of obvious truths. Someone cannot die without a preceding life. Other people continue to live after a death. A reminder of these two facts enables us to get to grips with Farmer's verse.
Before homing in on the nitty-gritty of the poetry, one additional caveat is required: the poems in Not Really are so charged and moving that the reviewer ends up in even greater danger than usual of blending the poet with the verse. Such emotion is evoked and invoked that the distance between the two is compressed. However, this separation should never be ignored and is key to any assessment of Farmer's poetic qualities.
Let's start with the first of those afore-mentioned truths, that someone cannot die without a preceding life. In this respect, Not Really is terrific at the treasuring of moments and the depiction of gestures of love amid suffering, as in the following extract from the collection's title poem:
"...They ask him if he's in pain; not really, he says.
You curl beside him and he strokes your feet.
Farmer is also especially good at capturing the essence of experiences, making the reader live through them too, in a new and pesonal way. In "The Diagnosis", for example, she creates a disembodied music and syntactic structure that reflect the semantics:
"...Your name is called.
The doctor hasn't read his script,
he doesn't say this is what it is,
but you look pale.
He looks at me.
Does he look pale to you?
Pale? Pale as what -
pale as this December 10 O'Clock?
Yes, he looks pale, I say."
And now for the second truth, that other people continue to live after a death. One of Farmer's favoured devices is the role of ghosts. They crop up in several poems. They are characters. They take on human traits. As such, their haunting qualities are exacerbated. In "The Fridges of Ghosts", we (i.e. those who have been left behind) are watching...
"...as the ghosts freeze old memories in cubes
and to keep themselves amused
photograph each other on their phones..."
I hope these snippets from Not Really, together with their related analysis, are sufficient to demonstrate that Rebecca Farmer's verse shouldn't be pigeon-holed as confesssional. I can't claim it's an easy read, but that's not because of the presence of death itself. Instead, it's due to her talent for involving the reader. Farmer aims to unsettle us so as to make us consider our own lives afresh, and she succeeds throughout her pamphlet. Read it if you dare!
As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I was asked in May 2020 to write and record three brief talks. One of these was on ‘Writing and Technology’ which I posted...