Rebecca Farmer, Not Really, Smith/Doorstop,30pp, £5

When I first read this collection, I was unsure why it won. On re-reading, however, always a wise practice when you’ve come to a quick judgement, I discovered my error. I wouldn’t report it now, thereby hiding my insensitivity from you, dear reader, except that I feel others may mistake it in a similar way. 

I was looking for the dramatic effect, the waterfall of music, the contemporary pertinence, the wittily clever competition winners. Farmer is more subtle than this. More subtle than me, perhaps. Instead of reading these poems for something, we must simply read them. Farmer is not trying to be clever. She’s simply trying to tell us how her world feels. 

This is apparent from the poignancy of the first three poems, touching, but very gently, the frailty, dementia and death of parents. These are common subjects in a population of aging poets but Farmer’s three poems are so clearly alighting on, and alight with, real emotion one simply has to take them at face value and accept their honesty. The emotion and its expression are both fragile. This morning my wife told me that the dew on the lawn felt like frost – that’s the sort of fragility I find in these poems. The poet cannot handle them without breaking, she must simply allude to them, gesture in their direction. Or, to use another analogy, it’s as if she’s drawn to an emotional precipice, peers over and wants to leap in, but teeters on the edge – fascinated, terrified – and only gives us a hint of what she sees and feels, so we shiver in our own vertigo.

This is a delicate art. Here, for example, is the ending of ‘My Mother is Using Her Imagination’. The poet’s mother is deep in dementia, in a world of her own and there is no way back for her.

     My mother’s at the centre,

     the smallest Russian doll.

     I feed her Turkish delight

     made from rosewater and pistachio,

     fairy food dissolving on her tongue

     with the sweetness she loves.

     My mother’s smiling. She wants more.

The poet’s mother here has become a child. She’s being fed, and being fed sweetmeats at that. Her dementia is ‘using her imagination’, the phrase used by parental indulgence for a child’s odd behaviour. She’s small as a Russian doll, her centre lost because of all that surrounds her. She takes in ‘fairy food’, both magical and deceptive, and redolent of childhood tea parties, fairy tales, the innocence of make believe. The language is the language of sentiment: ‘sweetness’, ‘smiling’, ‘loves’. 

All we are being shown is a single moment of intimacy, but it suggests much more. And the mother, heading to a conclusion we know is not too far away, simply wants more, more sweetness, more love, and by inference, more time. As we all would. There’s an innocence lost and found here, and the deep sense of loss conveyed by the reversal of ‘natural’ parent and child roles. Yet the mother is perfectly happy. And the poet says nothing of how she feels. This language is simple, but not simplistic. It treads a very delicate path, staying just the right side of sentimentality, without either being indulgent or histrionic.

The next poem in the book plays with the reader in a similar way. It simply describes a visit by the poet’s mother, who mildly interferes in the poet’s life, and has a peripheral interest in it, to ease her own 

     loneliness of long nights

     with nothing on the telly.

I dismissed this poem, and Rosemary did, too, on first reading, because we both missed one word in the poem’s title: ‘When My Mother was Alive She Never Visited Me’. Mother is a wish, a ghost, a desire, a regret. All the small concerns of the poem’s visitor become something different once we realise there is no mother to visit.

     Sometimes I give her a hug

     and feel her bird bones

     as they always used to be –

This is a haunted book, filled with such ghosts. At a relatively literal level, there are four poems about the everyday behaviour of ghosts: ‘The Fridges of Ghosts’, ‘How Ghosts Relax’, ‘Ghosts Choose their Mattresses with Care’ and ‘The Wardrobes of Ghosts’. This is a pleasant conceit and the poems are witty. But they are sad pieces, too, each with the same message: ghosts infiltrate our everyday, but their residue in the mundane is pointless, purposeless, random. They have lives without living. They’re treading water. And this is perhaps how the living tend to behave, too, if all we have is the past, if all we own and everyone we knew is now lost, if what fills our minds is what has already gone. 

‘My Boy’, for example, speaks of a lost child, a baby stillborn or who perished shortly after birth. Again we have that simple, everyday language, touching on the sentimental:

     My boy was born with the face of an angel.

The common cliché acquires something more by opening a poem. We can believe it, even though it remains a cliché. The boy’s death is not stated, merely runs through all the images of the poem. At the end, we can still believe, perhaps, that he lives as his mother will. 

     I held him as the winter trees tap- tap-

     tapped against thin, cold glass.

     My boy looked at my face and smiled

     like an old man who had been drinking.

     Then he folded his arms and turned away.

Again, the poem works with only the barest hints, given in unremarkable language. Again, we have the smile of the being in his or her own, distant, detached world. Again, the dead react, but only in negatively, passive.

I find this a terribly sad book. It seems like an attempt at reluctant exorcism, and one the poet is perhaps happy to continue to fail in. It’s intent seems encapsulated in the final poem, which I’m going to quote in full, and hope Rebecca Farmer will forgive me for doing so:

     Years after your death I need to destroy

     the memories that won’t fit in me.


     Some I cut – bit by bit.

     Others must be incinerated.


     Still something remains:

     the pentimenti beneath zinc and titanium white,


     the smell of cedarwood on your skin,

     our missed ferryboat in Piraeus still clinging to my horizon.


I suppose this collection will not be to everyone’s taste as it wasn’t, initially, to mine. But now I’ve given it the attention it deserves, I think it’s a precious collection, written from depth of feeling with little thought of art or artifice. If you want poetry to take to heart, you may find it here.