The mermaids of Nell Farrell’s latest pamphlet are strange, knowing creatures, life-affirming daughters/ visitors/ visitations. In the poem, ‘The Mermaids Start to Speak Like Busses’ (one of a number of poems with exuberant titles), the mermaids tell the speaker that she is, ‘entitled to work without fear of intimidation or assault’. But there’s a light touch at work as the speaker counters this with: ‘I ask if this means they’ll eat broccoli’. This playfulness allows the motif of the mermaids to work on a number of levels and allows Farrell to explore what might be seen as women’s traditional roles of caring and mothering, whilst at the same time challenging our expectations of what this entails.
For the speaker, the mermaids are ‘my girls’, yet they are also clearly ‘other’. For example, in the poem, ‘Finding the Mermaids Playing With Knives’, there is a sense that something dark is about to surface: ‘the fears I’ll never acknowledge’. However, it transpires that the mermaids ‘were laughing … clinking knives together/ not cutting anything’. Again, there is a playfulness here which prevents the poem becoming too didactic.
The mermaids are contemporary characters; they have a social worker and a speech therapist. Their language is not only that of busses but also of pirates and buccaneers (‘mum your dubber’, which is slang for keeping your silence, yet also plays on the word ‘mum’). The geneticist says he expects the mermaids’ cycles will be different. Indeed, the mermaids’ seeming inability to grow, and the fears this induces, are linked to the fear experienced in the speaker’s Catholic upbringing: ‘those R.E. lessons/ where I’d think about eternity and panic’.
Nevertheless, the mermaids do grow up, signalled by incidents such as their visit to the tattoo parlour: ‘they tumble in/ waterlogged in cling film/ trying not to scratch’. Farrell explores female identity, spirituality and desire without offering easy solutions. There’s an acceptance that the mermaids will eventually fly the nest, and this is accompanied by a sense of pathos: ‘In your peculiar absence/ how will I reshape my life?’ The actual moment of leave-taking is prolonged in a way that is heartfelt: ‘I’m trailing them, folding things away,/ clothes they may never wear again’. As I said earlier, they are daughters/ visitors/ visitations.
In the second section of the pamphlet, ‘Other Devices’, Farrell picks up on some of the ideas in the ‘Mermaids’ section, namely female identity and finding a way to be in the world. For example, in the poem ‘Once’, which is the narrative of a performer in a travelling circus, the speaker identifies with the caged tiger: ‘The same whip called us all in, knotted us together/ and threw us down like a glittering dare’. Submission is dutiful to the point where it becomes the norm. Thus, when the wire is not tightened, the performer says: ‘I put my thin, flat shoes on anyway’. There is a sense of resignation and acceptance.
Farrell counters this with the suggestion that freedom can only be experienced through transgression. Take ‘Mina Afterwards’, where Mina (of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) says of her friend Lucy: ‘in my dreams it’s you outside the circle in the snow’. The complexities of female identity, of resisting temptation, of self-denial and its consequences, are explored in this poem. The only way forward is to experience pain: ‘a needle slipped into the hem of every dress’, a metaphor perhaps of the refusal to accept the roles available without some hidden act of defiance.
Acts of transgression range from consorting with vampires, to a reckless nun running across the road in front of a juggernaut (in ‘The Art of Conversation’). The juggernaut is so close the speaker ‘can smell petrol on her neck’. Yet there is a sense that risks like this are necessary if women are to experience freedom and independence. In this poem, the speaker encounters Gerard Manley Hopkins in a dream. He is unsettled by the speaker’s stories, particularly that of the nun washing in a bathroom made of ice. The speaker, on the other hand, is transported and seduced by her own words: ‘I give up and think about her skin;/ how whole she looks, the way she never shivers’.
One way to be free of societal constraints is to assume another identity, as in ‘Idiolect’, where the speaker’s difference is acutely felt. She recalls, ‘learning all the words and all the faces/ used for saying them’. However, the image of the unravelled wool at the end with its ‘telltale kinks of having been something else’, is a comment on the difficulty of achieving freedom. Something of the old self must always remain.
This is a well-produced pamphlet and the A5 format gives a sense of space, as does the divide between sections one and two (although I would have liked a contents page). The pamphlet has an intriguing cover image by Tracey Holland – look closely and you’ll see mermaids and angels in tiny detail. It’s a serious work and Farrell’s humour undercuts but never weakens the poems. She recognises the challenges and complexities involved in defining the feminine and her interest in language develops the work in new, sometimes surprising, ways: ‘That’s my spanker to bet with, scolopendra!’. Google it if you don’t speak the language of mermaids.