CLIFF FELL was born in London in 1955, to a New Zealand father and
an English mother. In 1997 he moved to New Zealand, to Motueka, where
he lives on a small farm and works as a tutor in the School of Arts
at NMIT in Nelson.
His poems have been published in New Zealand and the United Kingdom
in magazines, chapbooks and anthologies, including The New Exeter
Book of Riddles (Enitharmon, London, 1999), and have been broadcast
on Saturday Morning with Kim Hill on National Radio.
In 2002 he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University
and was the first poet to win the Adam Prize. His first collection,
The Adulterer’s Bible was published by Victoria University
Press in 2003.
Fell comments: ‘ “Ophelia” was written in response
to an exercise set by Bill Manhire – and as can happen with exercises,
it ploughed open an unexpected furrow. The instruction was to write
about “My pet”, with the direction that the pet had to be
imaginary. In my case, exercises usually stimulate immediate ideas,
but this time I was completely stumped. It kept taking me back to Class
1 of Infant School, which wasn’t somewhere I really wanted to
‘Two days left until submitting and still not a dickey-bird.
That afternoon, a murky April autumn day, we acquired a billy-goat.
I watched in awe, and with a certain degree of admiration, as he ferociously
served 14 of our 16 doe-goats in about ten minutes. It was then that
it occurred to me that sex would be an unusual take on the “my
pet” theme. But, goats? . . . no, somehow I thought not, wonderful
companions though they can be.
‘As it happens, I’d started reading Jumping the train-tracks
with Angela by Paul Durcan earlier that day, and later that evening
I came across the fine and funny poem, I think it’s called “The
Giraffe”, in which the poet ends up in bed with a fellow lover
of giraffes. And that was it – it kicked me back to the late 1970s
when I lived and travelled in Africa with a friend, the actor Guy Williams,
now based in London.
‘Guy had been born and brought up in Kenya, and as I reread
the Durcan poem I recalled him telling me that during a particularly
wild and lonely period of his teenage years, after he’d been expelled
from school, he’d rescued and raised a baby baboon.
‘I also remembered how fascinating it is to watch baboons in
the wild – from a respectful distance. Out on the plains of East
Africa their troops can number in the hundreds and take an hour or more
to pass, during which time they display the full range of primate behaviours,
not least the young adults’ uninhibited onanism.
‘But now, as the idea of a poem was beginning to take shape,
all I could remember of Guy’s baboon was that he’d called
her Ophelia and that she’d once had him mistaken for the devil.
I hadn’t seen or spoken to Guy for eight years, but I had a phone
number, and he answered. Needless to say, it was as if we’d last
spoken two days before – and he was enthusiastic about the poem
idea and immediately began to regale me with memories of his Ophelia
. . .
‘So, in some ways, the poem is a kind of found poem –
there are lines, from the monkey’s mouth, as it were, that are
just as I scribbled them onto a scrap of paper, the phone clamped between
my ear and shoulder. And when Guy stopped to comment on their relationship,
to try and analyse it for me, and said her jealousy of friends and visitors
was almost sexual in its intensity, I saw how easily I could take the
poem into a deeper layer of “truth”. I wrote most of the
poem the next day, in about 45 minutes.
‘And if my Ophelia has a quality of tenderness and emotion that
is “almost human”, as they say, it most likely comes from
the nature of the other primates on this planet – and our relationship
with them. In a recent copy of New Internationalist I came
across this report by Abraham Odeke, of BBC Uganda, which illustrates
what I mean:
Baboons protest road killing
A group of baboons by a busy highway in eastern Uganda became furious
after a speeding lorry killed a female from their troop.
They surrounded her body in the middle of the road and held a ‘sit-in’,
refusing to move for 30 minutes and blocking the highway completely,
even when witnesses threw them food.
Last year a similar incident occurred when the baboons hurled sticks
and stones at passing cars after a baby baboon was killed on the same
New Internationalist, July 2003