My Darling Derry, Sally Festing
Letter-poems about Derek Richter,
founder of The Mental Health Foundation
Fair Acre Press, 2019 £5.99
The Hang of Things
Sally Festing’s fifth book of poetry, My Darling Derry is a substantial pamphlet. At 46 pages, it's almost the size of a full collection. The length of the pamphlet is relevant. A leaner volume would fall short in terms of adequately exploring all of the material that the poet inherited from her father, Derek Richter. There would also be far less breadth in terms of form.
My Darling Derry defies categorisation: it is a shifting journey of poetic memoir, elegy and the epistolary. The inherited diaries and letters — ‘moths, ghosts, my house is full of them’ — are hung together seamlessly with her own poetic angle and skill. The archive of family ghosts refuse to remain in their ‘wounded suitcases tied with string’.
The epistolary element of the book quickly becomes apparent, with references to Festing’s grandfather’s notebook. From these early poems, there is a shift towards more overtly epistolary poems that take the form of letters, to a powerful poetic sequence that begins with a cleave poem, ‘The Question of Uncle Ben’s Balance,’ before a return to more conventional texts.
Arguably, the key piece in the book is the penultimate one: ‘Derek Makes A Commitment.’ In this poem, Derek (‘Derry’) states his manifesto: ‘committed, I’ll hunt down / the causes of their curse.’ The ambiguity of ‘committed’ is of course no accident.
Throughout My Darling Derry there is a sense of foreboding rupture. This is most acutely felt in the Aunt Eone poems, but just as Derek Richter, whose steadfast nature is most apparent in ‘The Hang of Things,’ created something immensely positive from Ben’s and Eone’s experiences of mental illness, Festing has created a vital read, drawing upon a wealth of approaches as she recounts the lasting influence of her family.
All profits from the sale of this book are donated to the Mental Health Foundation.
Elisabeth Sennitt Clough
The poems here have all drawn their inspiration, and some ‘found text’, from family papers, carefully angled to show us the changing lives of three siblings, two of whom suffer from mental illness. They are caught in the stillness of a family photograph on the front cover of the publication and this photo is the first thing the reader sees before starting to read.
‘I’m Ben’ ends a letter from the poet’s uncle: he is the young and solemnly bespectacled boy in the photo. Later, he says thank you for ‘the ripping box of tuck’, and writes of enjoying Greek and coming first in Maths. But then we see Ben’s schoolboy normality and sense of self slowly disintegrate. Later attempts to maintain his mental balance are shown in a powerful poem that takes his own words and fragments them, suggesting his struggle for coherence:
I was stuck on a tightrope
under huge unleafy trees
[‘The Question of Uncle Ben’s Balance’]
As he goes on, Ben writes of of ‘Weeping for my sister’, Eone, whose ‘shattering’ he describes. Eone is the older sister, whose central position between her two brothers dominates the photograph.
Several of the most moving poems relate to Eone, with phrases from letters woven into stanzas that highlight her artistic talent, her vulnerability and her growing awareness of her own mental disintegration. A letter to her younger brother Derek (the ‘Derry’ of the title, who appears in the photo as a small boy in an Eton collar), shows her fragility:
I mustn’t worry Mother.
Sometimes death seems the only way
to solve the problem — how to fly.
Will she hear my voice shut altogether?
Matter-of-fact first-person statements from ‘Derek’s Diary’ (‘Helped Pater plant bluebells. / Picked flowers for mother') are accompanied by the poet’s narrative insight: ‘Your sister had begun to doubt her own sanity, / so you had to hold onto your own.’
The youngest brother in his Eton collar finally dedicates himself to researching the ‘causes of their curse’. His is the one life of the three that did not unravel.
Prefaces and notes
Sometimes prefaces to poetry collections seem altogether unnecessary.
Here the brief preface, the family tree, and the notes at the end of the collection are vital in understanding and responding to the work, which tells a real and painful story.
The subtitle refers to the texts as ‘Letter-poems’, and many of them draw on actual letters (using an italic font to indicate found text), with locations and dates to root them. The collection title, My Darling Derry, is drawn from a letter sent by the author’s paternal grandmother to her father, then aged seventeen and still at school. The letter describes the mental breakdown of his older sister Eone, and how even his mother has ‘been very unwell’. Indeed, this is the terrible story that underpins the poems: how first Eone, then later brother Ben, break down mentally. Psychosis ravages this family, and by association shapes even the life of the youngest, Derek (Derry), who dedicates his life to neuroscience.
After Derek Richter’s death, his daughter, poet Sally Festing, ‘inherited hundreds of family letters, diaries and medical notes’. Reading through them must have been both fascinating and distressing. One poem, ‘Market Scene’, describes one of Eone’s paintings and how she falls for her painting tutor: ‘For a moment her yearning / comes on like madness’. It seems madness is probably what her feeling was, or certainly where it led. Even the note on the poem strikes me as incredibly moving: ‘Eone’s pastel hangs within sight of my writing table.’
These people – Eone, Ben – were intelligent, gifted individuals – who became terribly ill. There was no cure for them, but their younger brother dedicated his life to mental health research, and founded The Mental Health Foundation. And their story has inspired Darling Derry which, together with the preface and notes, allows the reader insight into what happened to them, and ensures they will not be forgotten.