Encoded alphabet reveals message

SARAH DUNN
Last updated 15:26 12/03/2014
Between No 7
MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ
LAUNCHING: Poet Cliff Fell and artist Fiona Johnstone look over his book, The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet

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Moutere poet and creative writing teacher Cliff Fell may not have re-invented the wheel, but he has re-written the ABC.

His new illustrated book The Good Husbandwoman's Alphabet is a one-poem work, an alphabet poem in which each letter of the alphabet is assigned a six-line stanza, or verse.

The poem is also an acrostic, an ancient form in which words are encoded within the first letters of each line of the poem, in this case revealing a message about the nature of love and fidelity. Fell believes this is probably the longest acrostic written in the English language.

It was written in the voice of a woman who lived alone on a farm and could also be read as "a kind of farming calendar or almanac, though it's not seasonal as such." When writing the poem Fell had in mind the work of the 19th century English poet John Clare, who wrote The Shepherd's Calendar.

Fell's poem has a different take on farming, examining the word "husbandry" and how it links to the idea of marriage. It had been important to him that the poem was set in the New Zealand landscape.

Born in the United Kingdom, his father is a New Zealander. After arriving on Kiwi soil 17 years ago, Fell set about establishing himself as a New Zealand poet.

"I don't quite know how that happened, but I feel that coming here almost made me find another half of myself, another part of myself that I didn't know before."

The narrative in Fell's poem includes passages about visits from the woman's mysterious lover, whom Fell hinted could be an alien. "It certainly takes strange twists and turns," he said, "which often seemed to come out of nowhere, beyond my control."

The Good Husbandwoman's Alphabet began as a side project while he worked towards his Masters degree in creative writing under acclaimed Kiwi poet Bill Manhire. In 2003, Fell's MA thesis became his award-winning first poetry book The Adulterer's Bible, which contained his first acrostic poem, Ale Map.

Named after his partner Pamela, the poem described the bars and pubs the pair frequented during the beginning of their relationship as they sought to avoid their then-spouses.

While studying, Fell had taken this latest poem as far as the letter "g", and handed the half-finished work in with his thesis as "a kind of addendum". For the next six years, he shelved the project while teaching creative writing at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and working on other concerns.

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He pulled it out four years ago, saying it came easily once he got back into the swing of it: "I feel slightly detached from it, as though I didn't really write it, but in many ways it's the missing poem or missing piece to The Adulterer's Bible."

The essence of the poem was captured within two to three hours, although numerous revisions and tweaks lengthened the process. He said having a distinct form helped, describing the acrostic format as "exciting".

"You find yourself doing things that you would never otherwise do, the language taking unexpected twists and turns, just to [make the writing fit the form]. It can set up some interesting surprises for the reader."

The Good Husbandwoman's Alphabet has 10 illustrations by NMIT graduate and Moutere local Fiona Johnstone and published with supported from NMIT's research budget. Fell said he wanted to put the poem out as a "book-poem", envisioning a product which was more of an art object than simply a paperback volume.

Johnstone had been working on composing digital images that juxtapose found objects with landscape photography. "I was apprehensive about showing Cliff the digital images, knowing he had imagined drawings. I needed to find a form of abstraction that reflected a rural environment, yet remained evocative and not compete with the images Cliff had already formed with his words."

It was at this point that Johnstone thought of her husband Ivan's photographic archives and realised that some were of rural life in the early 1980s. His emphasis had been on recording human alteration of landscape, yet often people were absent. By combining these black and white images with atmospheric colour shots of her own she discovered that together they created a gentle place for the mind to wander, without linking specifically to the text.

Fell's response was positive "I could see right away that Fiona had achieved exactly what you want of illustrations to a poem, which is to add new layers or dimensions. In this case they accomplish at least two significant things: They ground the poem in place, a New Zealand landscape that is both contemporary but somehow timeless; but they also tease out the poem's ideas and heighten their intentions or tones, by foregrounding unexpected nuances. Now I can't imagine the poem without them, they're so much a part of it."

  • The Good Husbandwoman's Alphabet by Cliff Fell, launch Wednesday, March 26, 5.30pm, exhibition of Fiona Johnstone's illustrations, G-Space Gallery. A 25 minute performance of the poem by Fiona Johnstone, Pamela Coleman, Tanya Nock and Cliff Fell will start at 6pm in the Creative Industries performance theatre, widely known as the Johnny Cash room, Creative Industries Building, Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, Nile St, Nelson.

- Nelson

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