With just three collections in over 30 years, Vicki Feaver has nevertheless made a substantial mark on contemporary British poetry. Described by Matthew Sweeney as “domestic gothic”, her poems often explore the domestic, everyday world through the deeper world of myth, folklore, and terrifying transformation.
She is in the deepest sense a feminist poet, whose work has been concerned with uncovering the creativity and power that has been repressed in so many women for so long.
Vicki Feaver's poem ‘Judith’, which won the 1993 Forward Prize for Best Poem - imagines the killing of Holofernes from the point of view of Judith herself, who has snuck (“Wondering how a good woman can murder”) into the sleeping warrior's tent, dressed as a prostitute, to kill him:
of tenderness, a longing
to put down my weapom, to lie
sheltered and safe in a warrior's
fumy sweat . . .
The poem takes place in Judith’s train of thoughts about Holofernes, and then of her dead husband, his death and the aftermath of her grief - “the mornings / when I rolled in the ash of the fire / just to be touched and dirtied / by something” – until the moment of the killing itself, which is “easy / like slicing through fish”.
Feaver has described wondering, like her Judith, how a good woman can kill, and then reading the story - that Judith's husband had died - and realising that “she was in a state of grief and the rage of grief and somehow she had nothing to lose, and she used the power of that grief and anger to carry out this incredibly brave act”.
This access to the pent-up emotions that drive people’s actions underpins all Feaver’s work, and it’s not at all surprising that she cites Stevie Smith as one of her main infuences. The poems operate through story – they buld characters, they tell what occurs, how things lead to other things. They are utterly unsentimental, but full of a warm, wry humour that can dissolve into tragedy or bathos:
and died last winter
Lil's had two passions:
the golden-haired boy next door
and giant jigsaws.
Feaver’s murders and frets are based firmly within the family: 'Medea's Little Brother', a series of poems about her rather grim grandmother. There is blood, as the title of her collection The Book of Blood tells us. We're full of it. Violeance is everywhere. In 'The Gun', putting a gun on the table “brings a house alive”:
and slicing, stirring and tasting –
excited as if the King of Death
had arrived to the feast, stalking
out of winter woods,
his black mouth
sprouting golden crocuses.
Flowers are also important in Feaver’s work, marking off a space of territory that drives much of the emotion in her poems. Flowers are, as she says, sexual organs. The drive to live is not soft and fuzzy, but in fact is what powers her characters. Her eroticism is matter-of-fact, joyful, and as physical as it is emotional. Love, death, anger, energy and life are all pieces of the same jigsaw puzzle in Feaver’s poetry:
of flowers, emerge sticky with nectar
and pollen, alighton your neck, crawl
under your shirt, and sting.
Vicki Feaver was born in Nottingham in 1943, studied at Durham and University College, London, and now teaches creative writing and English literature at the Chichester Institute of Higher Education.
Her collection The Handless Maiden (1994) won a Heineman Prize, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize, and includes the 1992 Arvon Competition prize winner ‘Lily Pond’ and the 1993 Forward Prize winner of the best single poem, ‘Judith’. A new collection, Like a Fiend Hid in a Cloud, is due out from Cape in 2013.
Close Relatives, Secker & Warburg, London, 1981
The Handless Maiden, Jonathan Cape, London, 1994
Penguin Modern Poets 2, Penguin, London, 1995
The Book of Blood, Jonathan Cape, London, 2006
Like a Fiend Hid in a Cloud, Jonathan Cape, London, 2013
Feaver’s page at the Poetry Archive.
The British Council’s profile on Vicki Feaver.
Rimbaud: What Makes Poets Tick - interview with Feaver.
An interview with Feaver in Magma Magazine: ‘No More Mrs Nice’.
Sheer Poetry interviews Vicki Feaver.