CLIFF FELL

From 'L’Anima Verde'

III

To know where the soul goes on its journey,
to be in on the inside of what we are
when all else is shucked away,
to go savage and naked
and not give a damn about the world on his mind:
the quest for this knowledge (the quest for sex)
the quest for the primitive—
these things propelled Paul Gauguin
on his voyage into the Pacific.
Go, Gauguin, the world might want to say,
though what the world should mean by this
is hard to know—a rallying cry, perhaps,
or, rather, Go home, Gauguin;
but go, you bad man with your gaggle of girls
and the doozie douze of your big colonial footprint,
go as you will—to listen
to the silence of the Tahitian night,
not even the cry of a bird,
though a falling leaf might rustle like
an idea tripping its way through the dark.
But, go—that we may go with you
to sit in the shade for days at a time,
gazing sadly at the sky’s primal blue. And watching
for you to make your semiotic of heightened sensuality, 
the blocks of primary colour
that proclaim the virtue of nakedness
and transaction of the gaze.
Go, even as though you are not you,
but she or he or me,
the third person implicit in the work,
the one who is we—for it’s only in Tahiti
that Gauguin begins to realise
it’s all in the eyes,
the gaze that will return his gaze,
but obliquely, glancing it away
into the eyes of the viewer, of the beholder,
and holding us there as witnesses,
actors in the life and death of the painting’s deed.
This is what’s new: the intensity achieved before
only in self-portraits, and one painting of his mother,
and the sly vulpine regard
of the conqueror in ‘The Loss of Virginity’,
the creature who is, of course, himself:—
the artist who will tell us now
that we can’t live in these islands and not get to feel
the sleek muscle of the colonising eel,
the eel as it swims up into the land.
As in 1891, when Gauguin broke tapu
and wandered into the interior.
Through the valley of Punaru there is a huge fissure
which, as he tells us in Noa Noa,
divides Tahiti in two. From Tamanou,
you can see the diadem, Orofena and Arorai
which forms the center of the island
and is known as a place of miracles.
The people warned that he’d be tormented
by tupapo, the spirits of the mountain.
The riverbanks he walked were a confusion of trees—
breadfruit, ironwood, coconut, hibiscus,
guava, giant-ferns, what he calls
a mad vegetation, growing always wilder,
more entangled, until he entered the gorge.
There he made his way up the watercourse,
the river sometimes over his shoulders,
and the fissure so narrow, its walls so high,
the sun couldn’t penetrate so that (as he tells us)
he was able to see the stars burning
in the brilliance of the sky at noon.
Where was he going?—
Did he know of Māui, trickster god,
who turned himself into something sleek,
a worm (read eel) so that he might climb into the vagina
of the sleeping goddess of the night,
and the underworld, Hine Nui-Te-Po,
into her great cavern, on a quest
to find the cure for death.
We know what happened: he looks so funny,
the fantail laughed, its shrill piping song—
and so he was lost in there,
which is why, the story goes, we people must die,
all on account of a waiata.
Gauguin camped that night in the bush,
troubled by a powdery luminous light
that flickered around his head,
making him half believe
the mountain was alive with ghosts.
In daylight the river was now a torrent,
now a brook, now a waterfall.
Sometimes, he says, it seemed to flow
back into itself, the green of the jungle
cascading in such depths around him,
he walked as though underwater.
Crayfish in the river regarded him curiously
seeming to question why he was there.
Then, he says, at a narrow bend in the river
he came upon a young woman, standing nude.
She was caressing a great black rock
as she drank from a spring that flowed from above,
down the smooth surface of the stone. 
He watched her cup her hands to catch the water
and let it run over her breasts.
Sly old fox, Monsieur Gauguin:
the symbolism replete,
we gaze with him upon this scene
as she, his perennial subject,
senses his presence and plunges into the river,
though not before she utters a curse
Taehae—
meaning ‘cruel’ or ‘savage’,
even as she glides among river pebbles,
a human no more, but in the form of an eel.

Cliff Fell has almost completed work on Watertable, a new collection of poemsHis most recent book, The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet, is an illustrated acrostic published by Last Leaf Press in 2014. He currently divides his time between seeking out a last poem or three for the new book, working on a small farm in the Moutere hills and playing music with two bands, The Adulterators and The Barbaric Yawp Brothers. Fell teaches writing at NMIT in Nelson, but in 2015 he will be a teaching fellow for the MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University in Wellington, where he is convening the Poetry and Nonfiction workshop.

Fell comments: ‘“L’Anima Verde” came about in sad circumstances, following two deaths. Initially—it was 2 July last year (2013)—Lloyd Jones emailed me about writing a poem for the Pacific Highways edition of Griffith Review. I was at work, but wrote back instantly, outlining an idea for a poem about my New Zealand grandfather who'd captained a ship in the Pacific at the end of the last war. I had in mind tales my father had told me of the ship carrying groups of young women, Voluntary Aid Detachment, and various onboard goings on and affairs and so on and made a mental note to phone my father as soon as I could, because he might tell me more. Ah, but in the way of these things, when I got home that same night, it was to learn that he was in a coma, after a fall. He died within a week, as the poem relates, and I found I couldn't write anything, really, needless to say. Two months went by, and I was struggling with a poem that began, fairly lamely, “To begin with a boat called Bonaventure”.

‘Then, at the end of August, I heard—it was a Saturday morning—Seamus Heaney had just died. A different kind of sadness, but in some ways almost as weighty for me. I got out my copy of Human Chain and read, that morning, his poem about the eelworks—which obviously relates back to the Lough Neagh fishermen sequence from one of his first books—Door into the Dark, I think—which had been a profound experience for me when I first read it in the 1980s. Then, the strange thing: we live on a farm and later that same morning I was fixing a fence and redirecting a small winter creek, a runoff from the hills that had undermined a gate post, when I came across an eel, which is unusual, because you rarely see them, especially in the daytime, let alone that they've been in decline over the last twenty years or so. I had to shift it to another part of the creek and as I did it seemed like a gift, this eel in my hands. I know this will sound fanciful, but it was as though I could hear Heaney's voice, that mellifluous Derry accent, saying to me: “Go on, write about the eel—give yourself permission. Make it yours.” Well, that took me back to the Montale poem “L'Anguilla” (“The Eel”)—because how can you write about an eel without taking in that great poem? Originally, I should say, my poem had Heaney's death in it, too, at the close of the first section, but in the end it seemed to me that with the Montale reference driving the poem—the title, “L’Anima Verde” is an image from his poem—to have mentioned Heaney as well could have been overloading the poem.

‘Then, one other strange thing, which circles round like the eel itself: my father was a painter and when I'd last spent time with him, apart from the day on which he died, he’d given me a book, a Thames and Hudson edition of Gauguin's paintings, set against a selection of his letters and other writings. Gauguin is important for me, because when I was eleven I read a novel, something that was lying around the cottage where we spent our summers, either the source of, or else based on, Lust for Life (1956), the Anthony Quinn/Kirk Douglas film of Gauguin and Van Gogh, which I've still not seen. But back then reading that novel gave me some kind of sense of a Bohemian artist's lifestyle that was intriguing and strangely enticing to an eleven year old. That novel was also my first introduction to Polynesian culture and the Pacific. So, as I was writing “L'Anima Verde”, I found I was using the Thames and Hudson book as a kind of visual reference, a colour chart for the poem. But it sent me at some point to seek out and read the complete Noa Noa, Gauguin's Tahitian memoir. Perhaps I was fishing for just such a reference—in fact, I definitely was—but when I came across his encounter with the great eel, obviously an aspect of the mythical Polynesian eel, Tunaroa, the poem took on another turn. Talk about the serendipity of research … I knew I was on to something then. Though, and this occurs to me right now, perhaps there's a reference to that same eel in the Lust for Life novel that I've been carrying around in my head since I was eleven and so I’d have already known intuitively that it was to be found in Noa Noa. I'll have to check that out one day, if I ever find a copy of that novel. But anyway, I should say that parts of that section of the poem—the third section, I think—draw on Gauguin's writings.’

This note is an adapted excerpt from an interview with Madeleine Watts in Griffith Review.

Poem source details >

 

Links

‘L’Anima Verde’: the film
Cliff Fell interviewed by Madeleine Watts at Griffith Review
New Zealand Book Council writer file
Victoria University Press author page