Unpeeled: Strange Fruit and Helen Moffett

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Title: Strange Fruit
Author: Helen Moffett
Publisher: Modjaji Books
Publication date: 2009

I remember the first time I saw a pomegranate – it fell from our neighbour’s tree, and cracked open on the hard pavement below, a few feet from where I was standing with friends. Curious, we all stepped a bit closer to this strange fruit. Someone gingerly kicked it, and as it rolled away, a handful of pomegranate seeds escaped in a sudden burst of colour. I’d never before seen such a beautiful, delicious-looking burgundy pink, and a sudden hunger gripped me, but as none of us quite knew what to do with it, or whether it was edible, we all left it until consultation with my mom, older and wiser, revealed that it was definitely something we could eat. Since then, I’ve always associated it with flavour, irony, uncertainty, beauty, exoticness, and strangeness. Perhaps it’s apt, then, that this fruit finds itself similarly cracked open on the front page of Helen Moffett’s altogether edible debut collection, Strange Fruit, which contains a range of tones and themes.

Though bearing the same title as Billie Holiday’s song about lynching in reference, the collection bears no similarity in content, and presents rather intimate snippets out of Moffett’s life experiences. As the title poem explains:

No one knows how to unpeel me.
Some days, brilliantly coloured,
highly polished, I offer
no grip for fingers.
Some days, I’m scarred and scaled,
leathery like a litchi
no suggestions of sweet pulp.
But if you can find my invisible fault-line
and crack me open,
I am juicy inside.

Many of the poems relate to us moments from relationships which have managed to crack her open: we read of interactions between her and her parents, friends, family, lovers. Some, like “Amphibian” and “Homo erectus”, are bluntly frank in tone and content, while others, like “Libra rising”, “Real magic” and “Angel”, are laced with touches of sweet sensitivity when relating memories of female members of her family. There are also a few that speak of her relationships with animals or with nature.

Above all, this collection is about her. We read of her perceptions of herself, and her coming to terms with ageing, and above all her frustrations caused by her infertility. It is in light of this last revelation that the frontispiece gains a particular poignancy - for many ancient cultures, the pomegranate was a symbol of fertility. “Ultrasound” proves haunting here, carrying across in its powerful imagery Moffett’s frustration and anger:

Every woman has two:
almonds, sweet and milky,
seed, kernel, fruit, harvest:
but I have ticking inside
two lumped and lunar fists
scarred and blasted with rage.

The other poems about her inability to bear children are just as gripping. At a “Baby shower” she is “the only woman present/ with neither baby nor fecund swell./ The words ‘with child’ translate for me/ without child always bloody always/ without.” “At thirty-six” she is therefore left to “walk down avenues of/ everyone else’s summers/ shivering in [her] winter clothes”, leading her to wonder in “My daughter” and “Relativity” about what could have been. Is it any wonder that she asks, “Please, a moment of stillness:/ I’m watching myself die./ Holding my own hand/ as my gene-pool drains away” (“Vigil”)?  

What, then, shall we conclude about the poetry that has been unpeeled for us in Strange fruit? Moffett’s poetry still seems a bit tentative at times, perhaps a bit shy to release the juiciness inside. Some poems could do with some reworking, and lack a tautness that poems like “What mountains dream of”, “Postscript”, “After sex”, and “Mined” exhibit perfectly. At times, the writing reads more prosaically than poetically, which could be a strength for those readers that prefer prose-poetry. However, there are many poems which ensure that it is worth the reader’s while to consume Moffett’s clear and lucid writing.

Also noteworthy are poems like “Writer’s block”, like “The Sentinel”, “My daughter” and “Window of opportunity”, which show Moffett’s ability to create unpredictable endings that linger in the mind. How many people, after all, have the gift of showing the reader the “epiphanies we miss because we can’t believe/ they might materialize in our particular path”? The lasting impression is that this collection, just like the first pomegranate of the season, is a debut at heart, but one that holds much promise and potential for the anthologies to come.

Click here to read Michelle McGrane’s interview with Helen Moffett.

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