‘I like the fictional part of poetry, the lies and deceit. But it only works if there’s an underlying truth to it. It has got to ring true to the reader.’ In Cliff’s work, authenticity is enhanced by finding the real in the smallest audible word or touchable matter and then forcefully re-textualising it. He says: ‘In fact most of my poems are true.’ In his first volume an omission of minute proportions leads to a voluminous invocation. ‘Not was not there where not should’ve been’, concludes Fidel Serif, alter ego and protagonist in The Adulterer’s Bible, a 1631 copy of the King James Bible, made famous by he accidental loss of the single word ‘not’ to produce its inversion: ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’.
It is the attention to material & poetic accidents that unveils the truth, it is ‘the physical detail that inspires me’, he says. Small beauty spots prompt are welcome inspirations for subversive interpretations. Cliff’s works in general, and his contribution to Poetic Brandscapes from The M at the End of the Earth specfically, seem to be about the ‘unwriting’ of the collective cultural myth. The poet works against a common currency and seems to lyrically assay the receptive proficiency of myths to accept personally created meaning. ‘I feel at home everywhere. I tend to research places that I visit’, he says. To his bohemian eye McDonalds features as a globally staged interface of human fragility, warmth, cruelty and fallibility. The poet, Dante and Bob Dylan are side walk talkers that singularise the brand’s liminal complexity. A brand is never a story, but a poem that prismatically refracts its temporary colours in the white spaces between the lines.
The characteristic cosmic irreverence that Cliff brings to many themes also unearths poetic brand essence, as in the transforming the material of a red VW Beetle into its organic opposite in The Greenest Car in New Zealand :
Not just any car,
but her husband’s red Beetle
abandoned in the backyard when he left.
Shovel by shovel, she filled it
with horse-shit and straw;
and worms began to congregate there
like lost souls holding a mass for themselves
Cliff Fell (1955 – ) is a poet and book reviewer and was born in Hatch End, London in 1955, to a New Zealand father and an English mother. Before settling in New Zealand in 1998 Fell travelled widely, living and working in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The Adulterer’s Bible was a finalist in the Montana 2004 New Zealand Book Awards. from The M at the End of the Earth was chosen as one of the best poems of 2007 in New Zealand. His new volume Beauty of the Badlands will be published in October 2008.
from The M at the End of the Earth
implicit in power and form in every sparrow’s nest Dante
Lights ripple on a highway glazed with rain.
The night turns silver, trucks slip by, cars rustle—
all heading south, into the land of M.
A boot-heel clicks on the concrete outside.
There are cowboys playing cards next door,
their bids sound like cries in the motel’s thin wall.
Rain was scouring down, night falling—
it was here or there, the rest-stop where this afternoon,
under the dark ponderosas, a young man in shorts
came swinging past on crutches,
calling to a friend, his right knee withered
and dangling free as he lurched past the car.
A fresh amputation—Iraq, I guessed.
And in the phone and info booth, a tall black woman
trying to make a collect call, speaking to the operator,
though her eye-line’s as to me, asking, Do you speak English?
so that I reply, loudly, Yes, I do. She smiles back at me,
pointing to the receiver. Five minutes later,
the phone was ringing. Couldn’t see her, so I picked it up—
a man’s voice on the other end, Delia? Delia? Is that you,
Delia? . . . when I tell him I can’t find her, can’t see her,
that she’s gone, You know her? Who are you,
what’s your name? You tell her, man, tell her, please,
say Curtis says you gotta turn around.
This on I-40,
west of Flagstaffe. That was when I turned around.
I figured my life on the map and saw I wouldn’t make it back,
that I’d never make the Canyon any other way.
Our first afternoon in Auckland—remember this, babe?—
a mynah bird in Miranda’s garden.
Then on K Road, waylaid by rain, we ducked into
McDonald’s—strange refuge, we’d never been before.
An order of fries for Nina,
after her night in Garuda’s silver belly.
queued for burgers and shakes—it was their land.
And then it was birdland,
as though in this last place in the world,
the world had turned upside down for us,
to find us with this simple cup of joy—sparrows
pecking at crumbs on the floor, and swooping from
their perch in the rafters, to feed on the fries
our fingers held in offering.
So the night turns silver—
after the rain, a full moon rising over Arizona.
The night makes shapes, an alphabet swoops and …
and it’s this I want to say—it’s as they arrive in Dante,
on wings of light, volitando cantavano as the poet says,
the saints in the realm of Jupiter revolving
in a swell of song, spelling out words in stars
and rhinestone spangles
as though it were Vegas,
and a laser show and showers of neon
were shaking the tree of paradise.
the rolling open hills of this afternoon’s highway
there was good reception on NPR,
Manfred Mann’s Mighty Quinn, ‘feeding the pigeons on a limb’,
and then the mysteries of Texan archaeology.
Listen up: there are artifacts
in strata older than Clovis.
No-one knows where they came from.
Out of the willowy light of the moon? Or boats—
from east or west?—both are possible.
Who really cares?
Here in the motel’s front-room, stashed with off-season junk,
there’s an old world map, America-centred, of course,
so that Russia, the old USSR, is cut plumb in two.
Out on the wings of the world, as it were . . . and that’s all
you know or need to know on earth—
that the US is as it says, us and them, them or us,
and the way of its way in the world
hangs on a motel wall.
Five days ago,
in downtown L.A., walking beneath a narrow sky,
the sun caught up in the towers above me,
a few beams glancing down, into the shadows
where I’m following a sidewalk talker—
she could be Masai—graceful and tall,
polished obsidian skin, a black hood pulled over her head,
she raps out her syllabics to the world, chanting her oracles:
fast, but you is overspent, coolbreeze was my friend today
hey! hey! cup— hey, cup, hey!—the hawk is talking speed to me—
She doesn’t stop for the Don’t Walk signs,
so that we follow like disciples, we the people, jaywalking
in her wake, into the traffic, and all its horns sounding.
And on to Seventh and Figueroa, she leads me
to a bus-stop—where it’s one dollar fish Friday
at the McDonald’s and
—take me back to K Road, babe—
a pigeon’s perched on the puffed-up golden M,
preening its feathers, a glimpse of
iridescence in the sign’s slow neon.
It surveys the sidewalks where she’s long gone,
the sidewalk talker, into the sibilance
of crowds and passing cars;
it overlooks the jewelry store next door
where two lovers laugh: a sharp-suited man,
a woman with a blue flickering stone.
The pigeon sees it all, then tucks its head under a wing—
it turns from those who stream out of the McDonald’s,
under the golden arches, fingers clasped on
big macs and shakes and filet o’ fish,
while two ragged beggars—this I really saw
in downtown L.A.—a Latin mother and child,
holding a broken cup at the door.
And the text falls
from heaven the returning words
I wanted to say—how Dante has the saints in Paradise
chanting their creed in lights, which
dance their message to us— Diligite iustitiam,
qui iudicatis terram
their voices sing
—Love justice, you who judge the earth—
and as the spell spells itself out
the M of terram,
the M at the end of the earth,
the M that lives in cheeks, brow and nose,
that with the eyes as ohs
spells a word in every human face—
‘oMo’, man, the legend of Omo Dei,
the M of all our mortal journeys in this world—
dissolves into a fleur-de-lys,
and again into an eagle’s crest and wings—
a bird that takes flight in the backlit sky
its wings beating slow
its talons clasped on arrows and an olive branch
a shadow that glides
out and over the empire of M.