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Helen Farish and Feminine Poetic Identity

Adrien GRAFE


Helen Farish est à la fois poète et universitaire, spécialisée dans le domaine de la poésie féminine notamment américaine et de l’interface entre celle-ci et la théorie littéraire. Quelles sont ses propres options poétiques et théoriques, telles qu’elles apparaissent dans les poèmes du recueil Intimates (2005) ? Et qu’a-t-elle pu hériter du féminisme poétique, de poètes tels que M. Rukeyser ou K. Clanchy ? Farish établit sa propre identité poétique, celle d’une jeune femme du XXIème siècle en train de faire la double découverte du langage et du monde, explorant en même temps certaines facettes de la sexualité féminine. A l’aide d’éléments tirés de sources aussi diverses épistémologiquement que la tradition romantique, la réflexion sur le sujet de Nancy K. Miller, ou la pensée de Derrida, l’article examine l’œuvre d’un auteur qui a su tirer parti des combats menés par le féminisme pour se doter d’une voix ironique—y compris envers elle-même—prônant une identité poétique et une identité du genre, lesquelles font la belle part à la souplesse, au caprice et au risque.

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1Helen Farish’s poems have the young poet’s excitement at being alive in the world and alive in the world of language and rhythm. She won the 2005 Forward Prize for best first collection with Intimates (Cape), the volume of poems which provide the focus for this article, in which the mating call, the playful flaunting of female sexuality and identity with which the collection begins is soon shot through with grief, loss, suffering and intimations of mortality. Poems of which the context or theme is domesticity mingle with the attractions of exoticism and foreignness. Helen Farish’s poetry is often grounded in the quotidian, if not the domestic: familiar streets and shops, sitting reading or pondering, the pleasures and pains of home and family, “the stretched-out/slowness of life” perhaps seen in its melancholic guise. The exoticism may be Spanish-American (‘Feathered Coyote’, ‘Prey God Fetich’), stem from the “monsoon” in the ‘Programme’ that her mother listens to, an attempted escape “to Barcelona, the Canaries” from breast cancer in ‘Biopsy’, a rarely-sighted species of whale (‘Mesoplodon Pacificus’), the Indian demigod of ‘The Accident’, “The emperor Qianlong” in ‘Mount Mirtagh and Back’. Her voice, or rather voices, are true to her volume title, as are the poems themselves: some of them, despite or because they are brief and apparently unassuming, or at least understated, insinuate themselves into the reader’s brain as little or no other recent poetry can. Why is this? Might it not have something to do with Farish’s heightened awareness of herself as a woman poet, one whose poetic and theoretical options are consciously different from those one would expect in these post-feminist times?

  • 1  Quoted approvingly by Nancy K. Miller, Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiograph (...)
  • 2  See Helen Farish, Intimates (London: Cape, 2005), for all references to, and quotes from, Farish’s (...)

2  Farish’s poetry is, in fact, both a construction, if not a proclamation, of feminine poetic identity, and an inquiry into it. Again, it is possibly this sense of her poetic identity as a woman, affirmed and questioned, which makes Farish so memorable. One might object that other women poets – Kate Clanchy, for one, springs to mind - base their poetic on, or write out of, their identity as women. To which one might retort that Farish’s poetry is subtler, more objective and distanced, and therefore ultimately more moving, than that of some of her sisters and contemporaries. One might further respond, with the contemporary poet Denise Riley, that “a concentration on and a refusal of the identity of women are essential to feminism”.1 I understand that what Riley means by feminism’s refusal of women’s identity is the idea that, from the feminist standpoint, women wish to be considered as autonomous beings whose identity – particularity, selfhood, first-person expression - does not depend on their otherness in relation to men. Writing in the post-feminist era, when such terms as ‘identity’ have been called into question by deconstructionism, Farish is nevertheless, I think, freed by the struggles waged by feminists to write not only feminine poetry of a highly distinctive kind, but also poetry in which she can write easily from an apparently male viewpoint, or in a relaxed, intimate voice which does not have to be gender-connoted, though in practice it often is. In ‘Odyssey’, Farish says: “The years I’ve walked up this path/and back again, back again/I’ve often thought. […]”2 From a gender viewpoint, everything hangs on the title: if it’s taken as an intertext, then part of the interest of the poem lies in the encounter between Farish’s identity as a woman and Odysseus’s as a man. This would make one argument of the whole poem (at twelve lines somewhat shorter than the classical Odyssey), with its “great journeys” – “my great journeys”, in fact – the notion that a woman poet, in a few lines, can, in her own way (“my”), in the lyric form, cover something of the same emotional ground as the classical male poet and his male hero in the epic.

  • 3  The Guardian, 21st December, 2005 (can be found at
  • 4  From the Introduction by Jane Cooper to: Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (Ashfield, Massachuse (...)
  • 5  “…textual self-making”: cf Marc Porée, ‘La force de la poésie au féminin’, in Etudes anglaises, Ju (...)

3  Farish is post-feminist without being combatively ideological. Indeed, as I’ll argue in relation to some of her poems, she willingly accepts a certain old-fashioned, perhaps pre-feminist – though not, as her poetry makes clear, outdated – idea of woman as home-maker and creature of domesticity – though she seeks out, and finds, the freedom not always perceived in such a rôle. Though Farish’s poetry is not violently disruptive, Farish is nevertheless willing, at the very least, to break moulds, to take risks, as is borne out by a “Poetry Workshop” of hers in the Guardian, in which she encouraged those readers who wanted to try out her suggestions for writing a poem to “simply go with the voice, preferably into territory that makes you uncomfortable”.3 By making such uneasiness a central dimension of the kind of poem Farish encourages others to write and, by extension, wants to write herself, she gives her readers a clue as to where she situates her poetry: the fact that its emotional territory is “uncomfortable” means, I would argue, that it is also uncharted, waiting to be explored if only the poet – and reader – are willing to take the journey. The poet is likely to be attracted to writers and poets who, more than theorists, encourage her by their writing to step out of their comfort zones, and it is surely not by chance that those she mentions in the same Guardian piece, Muriel Rukeyser and Sharon Olds, are women writers. To these we can add Louise Glück, from whom the epigraph to Intimates is taken: “Desire, loneliness, the wind in the flowering almond – surely these are the great, the inexhaustible subjects”, a statement closer to Farish in its beauty and concision than as a direct comment on her own work, though the combination of emotion and nature here is not too far from her. Though Farish’s poetry springs clearly from feeling, she could not be accused of emotional laziness. One might also mention Dorothy Wordsworth, in whose voice one of the poems is written. Jane Cooper writes of Rukeyser: “One of her favorite assignments [as a teacher of poetry writing] was to ask everyone to complete the sentence ‘I could not tell…’ For in what we cannot say to anyone, in our most secret conflicts, lie curled, she believed, our inescapable poems.”4 To work out or bring to light such conflicts Farish sometimes uses the dramatic monologue (another example, discussed below, is ‘Auto Reply’), a form which is a “decisive element in the woman poet’s textual self-making”, and sometimes a confident voice, or voices, that may be more or less representative of the poet herself.5 All this makes the specifically feminine dimension of some of her poetry hard to pin down. Nevertheless, the voice is recognisable from one poem to the next, and this gives her whole volume attractive coherence and engages the reader in the intimacy promised by the title.

4  Rukeyser’s idea of “most secret conflicts” may be worth picking up on. In keeping with one aspect of the Latin root of the word, intimus, meaning inmost, intimacy, for Helen Farish, literally begins at home. Farish portrays, nay celebrates, home as a space of freedom and creativity, a place “she has done her best in”, as she writes of her mother in ‘Programme’:

                                                                 the light
coming past the flowering jasmine and the hanging basket
she’s so pleased with stops her,

makes her see how much of her life
has been lived in this house,
that she’s become who she is here

5where home is a space of inner and outer illumination. Farish prays, in the midst of the painful reflections about her late father brought to her mind by her throwing away his worn dressing-gown: “may we be grateful/for every unfulfilled desire of our hearts.” (‘My Father’s Dressing Gown’; author’s italics) Farish has here created a perfect balance between the unfulfilledness of the desires, and the gratefulness she desires to feel for them. Such desires last “a lifetime”, she says at the end of the poem, “longing hounded/from room to room till finally/it inhabits all of them.” This desolate note is qualified, however, by the thought that it springs from a “threadbare mood”, and by the following poem, ‘“Grant us time to read and ponder”’, which takes place in “the laundry room” and “the pantry”. Home, here, however, despite – or because – of its “workaday” nature, is a place where “the light/is a flood river, a workaday annunciation,/a prayer being heard.” These things – the light, the annunciation, the prayer being heard, even the flood (not flooding) river, a fine image of excess – like the mysterious “something” rising “to the top” in ‘Auto Reply’, are perfect analogies for Farish’s poems, in which one senses the poet herself, as she says of her mother, is or would be “content to be making mistakes”. The verb ‘to intimate’ derives from the Latin verb intimare, to announce, the verb itself deriving from the adjective intimus, so that home here, a specifically and unabashedly feminine space in Farish’s poem – one notes not only the focus on the mother but the allusion to the Virgin Mary – becomes a space of poetic revelation. In the very fine ‘Here I Am’ Farish presents her relationship with the world as a love affair, in which home becomes a representation, or rather microcosm, of the whole world – how many versions of poetic domesticity, feminine or otherwise, are as expansive, as all-encompassing?


dressed, reading,
back together
with the world.

6Typically of Farish, though, she is not quite satisfied with this: though the poem begins sedately enough, finding the poet “grateful” to be back in “[her] own chair”, it ends “over-anxiously” as she also discovers herself to be “a guest/you sense is inches/from being on her way.” Home cannot define – limit – the feminine poetic identity, any more than it can the masculine. What distinguishes the poem is the tension between at-homeness and the urge for going, if only in the imagination or through the activity of “reading” named in the first line – a tension which informs the volume as a whole – brought into focus and controlled by the four, short-lined quatrains that make up the poem.

  • 6  John O’Donohue, Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (London, New York: Bantam Press, 2003), 161.

7  Because she is willing to enter dangerous – at least for her – emotional spaces, Farish is, again, post-feminist, or extra-feminist, since, having no axe to grind, she is unafraid to be vulnerable or wistful at times. This quality nourishes the intimacy of her poetic voice and material. But, while intimate, her work is nevertheless free from what the late Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue called “the politics of the obvious”.6

  • 7  Clive Wilmer, Poets Talking (Manchester: Carcanet, 1994), 32, quoted in Sean O’Brien, The Deregula (...)
  • 8  Clare Brown and Don Paterson (eds.), Don’t Ask Me What I Mean: Poets in their own Words (London: P (...)

8 “The poets I modelled myself on were men and I earned my living and I got a mortgage and I did all the things men do,” said a poet of the previous generation, Fleur Adcock: her realisation of the possibilities inherent in a feminine, or rather, in her case, feminist approach to approach to poetry, came “late”7. And Kate Clanchy wrote in 1996: “I have earned my own money, found my room of my own, controlled my fertility, chosen my friends – I have lived like a man.” After the revelation – to Clanchy – of Carol Ann Duffy’s The Other Country (1990), she started “writing about desire as men always have”.8 Nevertheless it would be untrue to say that Farish builds on a realisation such as Adcock’s; rather, she simply takes it as read. In the same way, Farish, unlike Clanchy, would have no need to emulate men (or indeed Duffy) in her writing about desire: for her, writing about desire is an inner compulsion, though in her staging of feminine desire in ‘Look at These’, she is as exclamatory and reproachful as Clanchy says men are in their expression of desire.

  • 9  In fact, if one “looks at” the contents page before reading the poem, one might even think that th (...)
  • 10  Luce Iriguay, The Sex which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Pr (...)

9  While being aware of ideology, she does not write poetry that deconstructs masculinity and femininity as fixed concepts. Rather, she writes out of herself as woman, and this is, I think, one of the meanings of ‘Look at These’, the poem in significant first position in the Intimates volume.9 The poem-title seems to be a reference to the poems in the collection, while the poem itself functions as a metaphor for Farish’s use of language, which is both adventurous and accessible. Farish’s act, in poetry, of flashing her breasts is not merely social – the performative proclamation of her sexual identity, or of her desire to mate – or sexual – the speaker’s revealing her breasts to the male onlooker is, to put it mildly, an overt act of seduction - but a reflexive comment upon her own writing. The speaker therefore consciously positions herself as female in relation to male, and her poetry (therefore?) in relation to poetry by men. The other side of what Farish presents as good-natured female effrontery is the injunction at the end of the poem for the male addressee not to try and inhibit her. The fact that the speaker flaunts her newly-acquired breasts is symbolic of the duality of female sexuality, the idea, that according to Luce Iriguay, it is “always at least double”10.

  • 11  Larrissy, op. cit., 110, argues that Yeats’s “doctrine of the Mask […] is indebted to his sense of (...)
  • 12  Nancy K. Miller, ‘Arachnologies: The Woman, the Text, and the Critic’ (270-295), in Nancy K. Mille (...)
  • 13  Ibid., 287.

10  Farish’s presenting her breasts, her feminine identity, to the potential mate and, by extension, the reader, is an act of self-presentation that one might consider as typically feminine.11 The breast motif is the main one in the volume, giving it a particular feminine character. It is the major focus of four different poems: ‘Look at These’, ‘Drifts’, ‘Surgery’, and ‘Biopsy’. ‘Look at These’ is the opening poem and, if ‘Biopsy’ is not the last one, the collection does end with a poem looking ahead to the poet’s death. It is arguable that this motif, precisely because it does punctuate the volume so insistently, makes Farish something of a pre-feminist poet, or rather a post-feminist one who is able to cock a snook at feminism. Though sexually the female breast is both a source of pleasure on the woman’s part and a focus of desire on the man’s, it is of course biologically linked to the maternal function. It is one of the central tenets of feminism and indeed post-feminism, that these two features of human sexuality – sex and sexual pleasure on the one hand, and reproduction on the other, may be considered as separate entities. Though the breasts in Farish’s poetry represent pleasure and desire (as well as life-threatening illness), their maternal function cannot be entirely overlooked, especially as there is much in the volume about childhood, or rather girlhood, and motherhood. One might apply Nancy K. Miller’s term, “a poetics attached to gendered bodies”, to Farish’s poetry, with ‘Look at These’, brief (two four-line stanzas of fairly short lines), confident and specifically gendered as it is, providing the signature for such a poetics.12 I take the word ‘signature’ from Miller, who goes on to say that feminist criticism has enabled us to read for “emblems of a female signature”.13 It almost seems as though Farish had taken this idea to heart and decided to begin her first volume with just an emblem. The dualistic nature of such an image is something that in fact applies to much of the volume, confirming the duality Iriguay points to: with Farish it is two breasts; two lovers; mother and father; brother and sister (Dorothy and William); the wildness and danger of a relationship, akin to crossing the Niagara falls, to which Farish admits she prefers the “picnic spots” on the other side of them; the new and the old (“Dad liked everything/that was new and yearned for everything/that was old”). The Dorothy/Wordsworth poem is both an attempt to bring to the fore the Lake poet’s sister’s literary status, and to achieve a certain intimacy with the poet himself, as though by implication Farish were, or saw herself as being, Wordsworth’s twenty-first-century sibling.

11  Farish says in ‘Empire State Building’, a poem written from the standpoint of one who is at the top (it is incidentally a rather kitsch phallic symbol to write a poem about, but the poet’s teasing, ironic intelligence shows she doesn’t mind provoking such criticism):

Such magic, it was as though
you were by my side
having your say in the proceedings,
making straight lines curvy,
slipping your cold hand
under my coat, finding my bare
back then hanging a right
to my breast, lighting me up.

12Though the male partner is ostensibly the active one here, the “bare/back” – one’s attention is drawn to it all the more by the enjambment – is an invitation to sexual contact on the speaker’s part, while the “having your say in the proceedings” shows that, however active the man may be, he is not the dominant force. The fine eroticism of this passage is equally finely undercut from the start by the phrase “it was as though” which, as with several of Farish’s poems, makes the poem more about loneliness and desire and less about human connection than would appear at first sight. The next line (“making straight lines curvy”) seems to refer to two coins mentioned earlier in the poem, representing the speaker and her lover, that the speaker drops from the top of the building: they fall “in gloomy parallel lines”. Perhaps inevitably, the word “lines” connotes the lines of the poem itself, and the transformation from straightness to curviness evokes the idea of roundabout means of expression or truths discovered intuitively rather than arrived at intellectually, this in itself corresponding to ways of imaging the feminine and masculine minds. The phrase “hanging a right” sounds like boxing jargon for giving a right-fisted punch (or it may be a regional – Northern - expression); here it seems to hint at welcome sexual aggression on the part of the lover. The poem lights up here, as the city previously did in the poem (“[…] the city lit itself up/in response to dusk”), and as the poetic persona does. The woman here becomes the symbol of light and the man darkness, a possible reversal of this traditional opposition.

  • 14  Toril Moi, What is a Woman? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 391.

13  However, Farish’s poetry, while being a celebration of femininity and of what it means to be a woman poet in the early years of the third millenium, is also a celebration of the physical manner in which a human being interacts with the world. The latter could (and may) be a masculine perception. But it is a point that happens to have been stressed by feminist theorists. Toril Moi has pointed out that, for Simone de Beauvoir, “the body is our medium for having a world in the first place. We perceive the world through the body […] Our subjectivity is constituted through […] ongoing, open-ended interaction between ourselves and the world.”14 This insight is borne out in Farish’s poetry by the number of verbs of physical action to be found in it. It is a poetry of sitting, standing, walking, chopping, writing, growing, getting up and following: the Biblical allusion is explicit, part of a discreet current of prayer running through the volume.

  • 15  Sharon Olds, Selected Poems (London: Cape, 2005), 137.
  • 16  David Lehman (ed.), The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, (...)
  • 17  Ibid., 993 (‘The Red Poppy’), 990 (‘Mock Orange’).
  • 18  Daniel Morris, The Poetry of Louise Glück: A Thematic Introduction (Columbia and London: Universit (...)
  • 19  A comparison between Farish on the one hand and Olds and Glück on the other remains to be drawn.

14  Farish is the author of a doctoral thesis entitled Sex, God and Grief in the Poetry of Sharon Olds and Louise Glück, and it is therefore not strange that these themes should appear in her own poetry. This poetic current plays off against the occasionally brash expression of sexuality and eroticism. Her poetry nevertheless does not share the pornographic element in Olds, nor the latter’s moral concerns: one of Old’s poems, about the whiff of “Fish Oil” pervading a house, ends: “one could awake/from the dream of judgement.”15 Another, “Topography”, a love poem, a conceit taking American places and time zones as metaphors for parts of the lovers’ bodies “like maps laid/face to face”, ends: “all our cities twin cities, all our states united, one/nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”16 As for Glück, there seems to be a polemical edge or subtext to her work which is far less evident, if present at all, in Farish: for example, “Feelings:/oh, I have those; they/govern me.” (‘The Red Poppy’), or the (mock-?) disillusionment of ‘Mock Orange’, in which the orgasmic cry is ‘one sound/that mounts and mounts and then/is split into the old selves,/the tired antagonisms.’17 One critic has written that Glück enacts “a dialogue between identity as biological essence […] and identity as a usable social construction (a postmodern notion of self-fashioning, in which identity is subject to the constant flux of verbal recastings of self in different disguise[s].”18 One might find a trace of this dialogue in Farish, with her focus on the features of the female body on the one hand, and her willingness to write in different voices on the other.19 In her poetry Farish approaches such questions with a sense of English whimsy which is beyond the scope of these American poets, despite their other qualities.

  • 20  Ellen K. Fedder, Mary C. Rawlinson, and Emily Zakin (eds.), Derrida and Feminism: Recasting the Qu (...)
  • 21  27th October 1818. John Keats, Letters, A new selection, Robert Gittings (ed.) (Oxford University (...)

15  Jacques Derrida argued that “the ‘practical struggles’ of feminism have resulted in a shaking and loosening of the decisive logic of identity […], making possible a multiplication of possibilities in the field of sexual difference.”20 Some of these multiple possibilities are explored, as it were naturally, by Helen Farish; while one might argue that such possibilities have always interested certain artists. The Wordsworth Trust, where a writer’s residency enabled Farish to write many of the poems in her volume, is twice mentioned on the Acknowledgements page and, as mentioned above, she also has a poem voiced by Dorothy. To the extent, then, that Romanticism is one of Farish’s aesthetic options, it seems worth recalling Keats’s famous thoughts on poetic identity, especially as they seem to foreshadow the thrust of Derrida’s suggestion by nearly two hundred years: “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually […] filling some other Body […]”21 If this is true, then the poet (male or female) need not be tied to specific gender identity (or other kinds of identity) in poetry, nor identify him- or herself with the ‘I’ of the poem. Farish lays full claim to such freedom, with or without the benefit of the results of the practical struggles of feminism, and in several poems does not limit herself to subject matter that would make them identifiable as having been written by a woman. She is, if not continually, at times to be found “filling other Bod[ies]”.

  • 22  The Guardian, ibid.

16  ‘The Ring’s Story’ alone would be enough to suggest that Farish is concerned with questions of gender construction in poetry. Though she does not dwell on these questions in the brief ‘Poetry Workshop’ in the Guardian, she does make one or two telling comments on poetry writing which may be useful to a discussion of her own work. She explains that the gendered point of view didn’t work for this poem, about the gift of a ring, hidden in a chocolate egg, from a man to a woman: “I tried telling it in his voice, in her voice, as a third person narrator and still it wasn't right. Finally, I realised […] that it was the ring that wanted to speak.”22 This seems to reflect, in part, the “multiplication of possibilities”, as regards gender, that Derrida argued for. Here, Farish goes one further, obviating the gender question altogether by making the object in the title the speaker, or narrator, in the poem. However, conversely - or perversely, perhaps - the main characters in the poem, after the object itself, are a “he” and a “she”, and the poem is one of the most erotic in the collection, all the more as it works through innuendo rather than the brashness of ‘Look at These!’. As the poem draws to a close it dwells on emptiness (or even powerlessness) – ‘I was more hole than metal’ – that is paradoxically offset by the strength of the poem itself. Awareness of the multiplicity of feminine sexuality is heightened by the fact that both “hole” and “metal” are easy, almost Shakespearean-sounding puns for “whole” and “mettle”, which further enriches the meaning of the statement: ‘hole’ and ‘whole’ are surely antonyms, and the youthfully upbeat mood of some of the poems is offset by an awareness of lack of wholeness. ‘Treasures’ – a poem title in some sense reminiscent of the volume title - takes what I understand to be a feminine stance with regard to wholeness. This is a superior sort of list poem – in fact, a potted biography in the form of a list. The man addressed in the poem has no interest in the woman’s identity, in the sense of what makes her who she is, the things she has loved and loves, except her sexual being – as if, the poem seems to suggest, you can separate sexuality from the rest of a human being.

17  Another poem, the brilliant ‘Auto Reply’, perhaps the most contemporary in the collection because of its reference to internet culture, is written from the point of view of a man. A man? The man, rather: the unsourced epigraph to the poem is an extract from the Gospel according to Matthew (Mt 9, 9-13). The same event – the vocation of Matthew – is recounted in similar terms in Luke (5, 27-28) and Mark (2, 13-17). Farish also cleverly turns the narratological characteristics of the Gospel account on their head. The poem is both religious experience and textual – and sexual – questioning. In the Gospel, Matthew writes of his vocation in the third person, whereas in the poem Farish uses a first-person speaker who addresses Christ. The first problem is to establish the link between the epigraph and the poem itself: there’s apparently nothing religious about the latter. Nevertheless, Farish shows herself to be sensitive to the spiritual dimension of both poetry and love, and the Gospel context of the epigraph makes it hard for us to read the poem as a wholly secular statement. The poem can be read in the light not only of the Matthew passage as quoted in the epigraph but also as a borrowing from Luke, who includes the words (my italics) “Leaving everything, he got up and followed him”: hence the phrase “I left”, which appears three times in the poem. Farish sets the vocation of Matthew in a twenty-first century context, and subtlely uses contemporary diction and vocabulary. In this first-person poem, Matthew is leading the life of a twenty-first century taxman, a hurried office worker’s life, and describes answering Jesus’ call in perfectly contemporary language. In answer to Jesus’s call to follow him, among the things the taxman leaves are “no out-of-office/auto reply” to “unanswered emails”. The “Auto Reply” of the poem title thus refers to this but also to Matthew’s instinctive, physical or rather performative response to Christ’s call: he answers it at once, unquestioningly. The poem, brief as it is, wonders what lies behind this kind of response. The answer lies not only in Jesus’s attractiveness but also in “something” within the life, perhaps more particularly the inner life, of the taxman. The poem remains true to the spirit of the Gospel account, particularly as regards the irresistible attraction that Jesus holds for Matthew, comparable, as the poem appears to suggest, to the experience of love at first sight: “I’d fantasised about such a thing thinking/it would take the form of falling/for a woman.” Yet the words are well chosen: in the poem Matthew forecast – wrongly – that the spiritual experience he has would be like “falling for a woman” – a fall – implying that it isn’t. This is similar to the “it was as though” passage from ‘Empire State Building’ discussed above, as the poem manages artfully to proffer and withhold experience at one and the same time. The ending of the poem, which follows on from the line just quoted, takes the poem in an unexpected, upward direction – the opposite one, in fact, to the idea of falling:

       I remember how easily

I used to well up – an advert
in which the sea was slowed down
or that movie line: always be yourself.

Looking back it’s clear
something had risen to the top.
You walked by, skimmed it off.

18The “something” that “had risen to the top” is perhaps the poem itself: an excess of emotion of which Christ’s passing-by somehow effortlessly relieves the poet. One notes that this is expressed in terms of fluidity: not only the sea, but the “something” rising to the top like cream on top of milk that can be “skimmed off”. In these last three lines, though, the dominant sound becomes the repeated /k/, denoting, perhaps, the hard reality of the spiritual experience at hand. The “something” is comparable to the poem ‘Dorothy’, in which the eponymous persona notes “voices/rising to the surface”, the plural, typically of Farish, adding a note of indeterminacy to the idea of the poetic voice here, similar to the indeterminate “something” in ‘Auto Reply’. I think that, if I am correct in detecting this indeterminate aspect, it shows a desire on the poet’s part not to be tied down too closely to an over-definite poetic identity or voice.

19 Helen Farish said in an interview, “I am very interested in gender and poetry. I feel very strongly about the issues of women and poetry, and I think it is very important to keep writing about women poets because they never receive the same level of academic interest.”23 One might note that when Farish uses the terms “gender and poetry” and “women and poetry”, she places the writing word second and the gender word first, as though the gender question governed the second term. I have tried to take into account recent and not-so-recent feminism-related theoretical work and the literary tradition, especially, and attempted a reading of her work in order to discern the nature, if not of Helen Farish’s poetic identity, at least her presentation of that identity. If all true poets and artists work against the grain of their times, or at least independently of them, the poetry of Farish takes post-feminism into account while being happy to respond to certain pre-feminist, or extra-feminist, realities.

My thanks to guest editor Marc Porée for affording me this opportunity to express my thoughts about the poetry of Helen Farish. It is to be hoped that the present publication may transform Farish’s “never” into an “almost never”.

Haut de page


Abbott, C. C. (ed.) (1956 [2nd ed.]), Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins Including his Correspondence with Coventry Patmore. Oxford University Press: London, Toronto, New York.

Brown, Clare, and Paterson, Don (eds.) (2003), Don’t Ask Me What I Mean: Poets in their own Words. Picador: London.

Farish, Helen (2005), Intimates. Cape: London.

~ (2005), Profile/Interview.

~, Poetry Workshop in The Guardian, 21st December, 2005 (at Books on the Guardian website

Fedder, Ellen K., Rawlinson, Mary C., and Zakin, Emily (eds.) (1997), Derrida and Feminism: Recasting the Question of Woman. Routledge: New York and London.

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1  Quoted approvingly by Nancy K. Miller, Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts (New York and London: Routledge, 1991) 98.

2  See Helen Farish, Intimates (London: Cape, 2005), for all references to, and quotes from, Farish’s poetry. To avoid overloading the article with notes, page references have been omitted.

3  The Guardian, 21st December, 2005 (can be found at

4  From the Introduction by Jane Cooper to: Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (Ashfield, Massachusetts: Paris Press, 1996 [1949]), xxi.

5  “…textual self-making”: cf Marc Porée, ‘La force de la poésie au féminin’, in Etudes anglaises, July-September 2007, 304-316 (309), citing Deryn Rees-Jones (ed.), Modern Women Poets (Highgreen: Bloodaxe, 2005), 13.

6  John O’Donohue, Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (London, New York: Bantam Press, 2003), 161.

7  Clive Wilmer, Poets Talking (Manchester: Carcanet, 1994), 32, quoted in Sean O’Brien, The Deregulated Muse (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1998), 148.

8  Clare Brown and Don Paterson (eds.), Don’t Ask Me What I Mean: Poets in their own Words (London: Picador, 2003), 32.

9  In fact, if one “looks at” the contents page before reading the poem, one might even think that the “These” of the poem title refers to the poems themselves.

10  Luce Iriguay, The Sex which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 28, quoted by Edward Larrissy in his chapter ‘Poetry and Gender’ in A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, Neil Roberts (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 108.

11  Larrissy, op. cit., 110, argues that Yeats’s “doctrine of the Mask […] is indebted to his sense of women’s self-presentation”.

12  Nancy K. Miller, ‘Arachnologies: The Woman, the Text, and the Critic’ (270-295), in Nancy K. Miller (ed.), The Poetics of Gender (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 288.

13  Ibid., 287.

14  Toril Moi, What is a Woman? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 391.

15  Sharon Olds, Selected Poems (London: Cape, 2005), 137.

16  David Lehman (ed.), The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 985.

17  Ibid., 993 (‘The Red Poppy’), 990 (‘Mock Orange’).

18  Daniel Morris, The Poetry of Louise Glück: A Thematic Introduction (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 32.

19  A comparison between Farish on the one hand and Olds and Glück on the other remains to be drawn.

20  Ellen K. Fedder, Mary C. Rawlinson, and Emily Zakin (eds.), Derrida and Feminism: Recasting the Question of Woman (Routledge: New York and London, 1997), 3.

21  27th October 1818. John Keats, Letters, A new selection, Robert Gittings (ed.) (Oxford University Press: London, Oxford, New York, 1975 [1970]), 157.

22  The Guardian, ibid.

23 with Helen Farish (2005)

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Adrien GRAFE, « Helen Farish and Feminine Poetic Identity », E-rea [En ligne], 6.1 | 2008, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2008, consulté le 23 septembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Adrien GRAFE

Université de Paris 4

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