The title of this
collection of poems may give us a rough clue to what Scot Thurston in his
back-cover comment calls 'challenging work'. According to my quick google
research, the 'Zechstein' (German for either 'mine stone' or 'tough stone')
is a unit of sedimentary rock layers stretching from the east coast of
England to northern Poland. These layers were deposited by the Zechstein sea
in the Permian age, from 299 to 245 million years ago. The sea slowly
disappeared due to 'marine regression' - a geological process whereby areas
of submerged seafloor become exposed above sea level - and caused the mass
extinction of many forms of marine life.
Patricia Farrell's poetry can be read as an attempt to recover and bring to
light all the forms of life that we have extinguished inside our own psyches,
those long-forgotten creatures in the ancient sea of our subconscious, all
that is strange and beautiful but which no longer fits into the selves we
create for our daily lives:
This is not
our planet any more:
scrambled inventory that seeks the perfect square.
the woman drops her parcels,
you can see
the edge [...]
nature and time have changed.
In passing we
covered it and forgot.
What will we
see when we wake up?
(from 'A. Life')
Farrell's poetry suggests that we ignore the forgotten at our peril. Yet to
reclaim it does not require any drastic action on our part. All that we need
to do - though it may not be as easy as it sounds given the inauthentic state
we have fallen into - is not to focus on what we think is important, but to
simply allow ourselves to wander a little. In this way, our being in the
world, including the language we use to navigate, will be revealed in all its
This may be a terrifying experience: one can be left without a voice when the
daily self becomes splintered, when we 'fall in bits / along your chamber'
and 'arise to star in our own deaths (from 'Whose Signature is Hard to
Decipher'), when we 'take one look at the brain / and throw it away in
despair', and when 'the pebbles placed on graves / make nothing in the mouth'
(from 'The Tower of Silence (a-e)' ). In this event, the coping mechanism of
what Farrell has called the 'poetic artifice of philosophical writing' can
only descend into absurdity. Better to accept this absurdity and allow
oneself to journey into language without making any claim to a stable truth.
We 'may judge wrong', yet:
As the toys
come to life,
whizzed and twittering,
we can lean
together on this wind-blown world,
in all things
pleasure in nothing.
This acceptance may bring with it a sense of celebration, along with a new
kind of seeing, as is shown in the poem 'Snail Climbing':
A line of
across the field,
left to stand on.
Or would you
retouch their eyes?
The same one
as he walks
across the floor,
with a concept
things are assembles
and of smallers,
all more or less alike.
What kind of
day is this?
Here is all
the weather of the world.
He will tilt
the globe a little
and maybe you
will slide -
but you will
The irony of Farrell's observations are often tinged with a striking
lyricism, even at their most deliberately absurd or disturbing. This lyricism
is most evident in the longer poems, such as 'Whose Signature is Hard to
I think me
between these shores
one draped in the skin of another [...]
all along the road
is it up or
town turns inside its egg
I stop there
to screw down
in a flood of
little glass house
one man stand
The way in which Farrell brings philosophy into her poetry, while at the same
time playing with perspective and undermining that same philosophy, is of
course reminiscent of Rosmarie Waldrop. Indeed, Farrell has said that she
owes much to Waldrop. But clearly also present is the delicate beauty of a
poet like Barbara Guest, and, it must be said, the delightful sense of the
downright silly of a poet such as Jeremy Over. Patricia Farrell's poems make
us smile. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Scot Thurston
refers to Farrell's work as 'challenging', but he also goes onto to ask 'who
cares "when tongue play makes sense like this"?' For Farrell seduces us
with every line into becoming more than ourselves, with our 'disorder made
cheerful and magnificent / white blossoms in the throat' (from 'The Same as
Passion'). The Zechstein Sea is a superb book, leaving us hungry to read more.
© Ian Seed 2013