Fay Zwicky: The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, Edited and Introduced by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2017, 388pp.

There is a minor but delicate problem with this book that arises right at the beginning and is reflected in the heading of this review: how should it be titled. Released, according to its publisher’s website, days before Zwicky’s death, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, edited by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin, has a distinctly posthumous sound to it, rather like a scholarly edition of a classic author – The Collected Poems of Kenneth Slessor, for example. Marvellous as Zwicky’s poetry can be – and I have always felt that her intense ethical engagement with the world coupled with a very tough, intelligent and humorous scepticism about virtually everything including herself, has made her one of the Australian poets who speaks most sympathetically to me – it isn’t yet that of an established classic and the title might be criticised as an attempt to smuggle her in immediately after her death. It is, in the long run, a minor issue but one feels for the publisher and editors who must have pondered long and hard over the title.

Poetic careers are made up of a combination of stable, unchanging elements and developments over time. Your view of poetry (and, probably, life generally) will influence which of these mean more to you. Zwicky is a good case in point. The two most important of the ever-presents that I find in her work are an ethical concern with “care” and a bracing, sceptical intelligence directed equally towards the outer world and her own, inner life. The first of these is a complex phenomenon. I have written about it briefly in a review of Zwicky’s Picnic on this site (where I endorsed Ivor Indyk’s excellent article on the ethical dimensions of Zwicky’s poetry, an endorsement I would like to take the opportunity to repeat). My interest was in the extent to which this derived from cultural perspectives: in Zwicky’s case an underlying Jewishness. As for many people in the twentieth century who were born into a secular middle-class environment, discovering Jewish roots among forebears was not an exciting adventure into origins but an enquiry into certain aspects of one’s intellectual set-up and, simultaneously, an attempt to define how one related to one of the great persecuted ethnicities of that century. Zwicky herself in the essay “Border Crossings” – included by the editors in this book – acknowledges Job as the central image of this tradition in contrast to Prometheus who stands for the opposed, Greek, tradition. In an essay in The Lyre in the Pawnshop she describes this inherited worldview as:

a whole way of being at home in the world that is best described by the word “reverence” which accords life meaning in terms of debt to something. One is what one owes, what one acknowledges as rightful obligation, what one feels about the taking of responsibility for oneself and for others.

This is a stance which underlies almost all the poems of her collected work. It seems as close as we can come to Zwicky’s essential poetic character though it isn’t without complexities and paradoxes especially when put in a volatile proximity to the second of these stable elements, an intellectual scepticism.

“Rightful obligation” takes the form of the imperative of care and it’s a theme that produces some of Zwicky’s best poetry. Mrs Noah, from the sequence “Ark Voices”, is a figure whose outlines have become steadily more solid and imposing as the years have passed since the sequence was first collected in Kaddish in 1982 – and that is not something that one could say has happened to many of the mouthpiece characters of Australian poetry in the last half-century. As in the other poems in this sequence, Mrs Noah speaks directly to God (“sir”) and her tone is one of complaint. Her burden, unlike that of her husband – “a large sweet soul and incorruptible” – whose actions are marked by an unquestioning dedication to the commands of God, is exactly that of “care”. Her task is to keep the entire animal world safe while the little ark floats above the results of the greatest holocaust in legendary history, afloat on God’s “watery negative”. Care is more than a matter of keeping bodies together like a good nurse – “Yes, / I’m just about to lance the horse’s leg” – because it leads to an involvement in whatever it was that caused the need for care. Mrs Noah, unlike her husband, is engaged in an ethical argument with God (as Job was, if only fleetingly) and, more important, is the one who hears the call of those beyond her care:

                  The speckled pigeon
and the tawny owl have drawn me to the edge.
The drowned folk call to me:
Deliver us from harm!

Deliver, sir, deliver them
and all of us . . .

I’d never thought about these last lines too much on earlier readings of this poem, being distracted by the importance of the idea of the drowned calling the living. I think that the prayer for deliverance is supposed to be seen, on the surface(!), as applying to the inhabitants of the ark, but its proximity to the drowned makes it a prayer for them as well, impossible as “deliverance” is in a religion without a transformative afterlife.

Mrs Noah’s voice and concerns ripple throughout Zwicky’s work. Interestingly they can be heard in an earlier poem from her first book, Isaac Babel’s Fiddle, a poem in which the poet and her husband arrive at Urbana in the US mid-west in the middle of a dark December and in the middle of a fungus plague which has destroyed the town’s elms:

. . . . . 
People keep saying how normal it all is. They have seen
Disease, the day all the elms in Urbana died overnight:
Stretched beside my husband I have been found unfit
For saying what kind of place is this to bring
Children to when what I really mean is I am frightened
By the smell, the corruption of death, the shouting
Tides of my death specifically, an old woman fallen
Out of space, unready.
                                          Flooded, I shake in the dark. My hands,
Encrusted with apple-scab, lame the stride of his dream . . .

Just as Mrs Noah’s cosmic cares don’t stop her from including her husband among those who must be at least reckoned with, so here the speaker worries that she hampers the “stride” of her husband’s professional ambitions. And then there is “The Gatekeeper’s Wife”, the title sequence of Zwicky’s 1997 volume. This is a series of brief poems, framed in a kind of Roethkian invented myth of the self whose details we never fully learn. But the speaker herself, mourning her lost husband, lays out a version of this ethics of care:

When a man died
My ancestors lit a candle.
It guaranteed eternal memory.

Severed from my ancestors
I light a candle for you
Every night inside a clay house.
Memory is only half the story.

And, late in the sequence, she speaks of herself as “Maimed by compassion”.

Care also produces a sequence of poems about caring for the dying. They make up a substantial component of the third section of Ask Me, beginning with “Hospice Training”, an intellectual’s protest against the demeaning necessity to master the cliched language of health administrators, keeping its dignity by a lightly buried Shakespearian allusion – “I’m feeling murderous, / listening to the air explode / before their words put out the light”. It concludes with a story about a father, the iconic figure of all of these elegies:

. . . . .
When Lucia, Joyce’s agonised daughter
heard about her father’s death, she said:
“What is he doing under the ground, that idiot?
When will he decide to come out?
He’s watching us all the time.”

That doesn’t sound insane to me.
If you were ever a writer’s child
you’d know the terror of the word
from the mouth of a primary carer.

They put her in,
these masters of language,
breakers of the whys and hows of a tale,
deciders of your fitness for the road,
who tell you how to mourn
and how to die . . .

“Hospice Training” is followed by a number of examples of caring for the dying, all recounted unsentimentally, often humorously and with a sharp-eyed observation of both patient and self as though interacting with the dying were a crucial way of obtaining information about what it is like to be a human being.

And all such interactions of course produce what one might think of as proto-elegies with the subjects in death’s waiting room. Zwicky’s elegies – seen in the light of a collected poems to be not just an occasional genre but something fundamental to her whole poetry deriving from the idea of care, care for the memory and the name – are probably something that should be looked into with more critical devotion than I can afford here. The starting point is, inevitably, her poem, “Kaddish”, an elegy in memory of her father (though it isn’t the first: there is a conventional elegy for the painter Ries Mulder in Isaac Babel’s Fiddle and a number of the other poems in that book hover around the genre of memorial). Later elegies are often memorials to fellow poets including those for Vincent Buckley, Hart-Smith and James Legasse. (Other memorials are not necessarily elegies, of course, and there are a couple of them which venture into the comic: one, for the English poet, Charles Causley, is imagined as an ocker phone call from the bush, another, for Ted Hughes, mimics that poet’s Crow poems and “Finding Focus” is dedicated to Vivian Smith, a coeval and fellow wartime Argonaut.) Of all the elegies, the one that has stayed with me most is, paradoxically, the least specific. “The Young Men” is an elegy for all those who died before any kind of fulfilling achievement, most likely “in their country’s wars”. They come “with shattered skulls, intestines trailing / in the sand . . .” and they are examples of the “drowned folk” who call to the living. Their message is that the life which the living poet lives – of “book and candle, / night light burning infantile, shoes tucked / beneath” – has long since lost the power to repel the call of the dead:

“. . . . . 
silence lasts forever. Listen, while you can,
to unseen saplings somewhere falling.”
Young men, you dear young men, I’m listening.

“Kaddish” is a large scale, almost operatic piece and, I think, shouldn’t be seen as representing the core of Zwicky’s elegiac mode. It’s subject – the father – does, of course, belong to the elegiac core since the relationship between poet and good man is here strongest. It’s operatic not only in its slightly baroque ambitions towards grandeur but also in the way it accommodates other voices than the poet/daughter’s. It also accommodates other modes apart from the solemn especially when it moves into nursery rhyme. There is also a colouring of folk-tale when Zwicky sees herself as the eldest of three daughters, the wicked one accompanied by the wise one and the simple one. I suspect that musical analogies lie behind its structure and not the model of the Jewish prayer for the dead and, if I could pursue this line of enquiry, I’d look first at the late Beethoven quartets, invoked in a later poem, “Pie in the Sky”, which is a humorous experiment, responding to the imperative, “Only connect”.

(It is worth noting that one of the later, uncollected poems that Dougan and Dolin have included marks a painful closing of the circle of the issues of caring. In “In Rehab” the poet gets the fatal diagnosis, at dusk, from a black man, Dr Kiberu, “geriatric oncologist supremo” who wishes he had better news. At the very end, the endless ethical complexities of caring get dissolved when one is in the position where one can only be the recipient of care. Zwicky’s recorded response is interesting: “Being well brought up I thanked him warmly, / My mother would have been so proud”.)

Revisiting “Kaddish” I’m struck by its epigraph – “Lord of the divided, heal!” – which has stayed oddly memorable. This may be because it looks like a slight modification of something completely and uninterestingly conventional – “Lord of divided Israel, hail!” – but more likely because the idea of dividedness is so important in Zwicky’s poetry. Again, in the conventional sense, there are those in exile (productive or paralysed) divided from their homelands but there is also the sense of division within the family (accorded a central status here), division between husband and wife and, especially, division between a daughter and her father who dies, away from her, on a sea voyage, thus preventing the daughter from making final apologies and accommodations. In a sense a later poem from the hospice series, “Afloat”, is a kind of addendum to “Kaddish”, celebrating love of father from the adutlt perspective of parenthood:

. . . . . 
Each day I waited for the toy-box
called an Austin
to rumble down the street
between the elms towards a
grey-green Melbourne sea,
jumping the running board
to ride that little strip of freedom
called “our drive” before our mother
collared us to silence:
“Be quiet. Don’t disturb your father.”

Would it disturb you now
to know I know what duty let you in for?
Or to tell you how, each day,
I wait that day’s-end glimpse
of the whispering sea?

In “Kaddish” – as well as in many of the poems from Isaac Babel’s Fiddle – we meet the frustrations of guilt which is a kind of dark counterpart to the imperative of caring. Zwicky’s father, an admired and sympathetic doctor, is a carer and his daughter, rebellious in an entirely conventional teen-aged way, can only feel later (and perhaps at the time) that she is ungrateful, a “wicked”, child. “Isaac Babel’s Fiddle Reaches the Indian Ocean” describes how Babel, destined for life in a performing troupe, and given violin and money by his impoverished father, suddenly decides on a different career and throws the violin onto Odessa’s sandbar. Zwicky responds to this as a parallel to her own decision to abandon life as Julia Rosefield with a possible career as a concert pianist and become, instead, Mrs Fay Zwicky. As the poem says, “whose voice / Did you obey that day you / Sounded out the waterfront?” and though it’s imperative to obey this call, it doesn’t lessen the guilt produced by a decision that puts the maker at odds with, even in exile from, the family.

Guilt is often comically connected with the values of Jewish culture, probably internalised from a history of prophets and writers finding that the only possible explanation for the god of the universe’s inability to protect his people from a range of real-world threats beginning with the Canaanites and progressing on through the Assyrians must lie in the faults of those people themselves. But whatever its status, it’s a wonderful antidote to any poet’s tendency to inflate themselves into a lyrical ego. Zwicky’s sense of self, though it is one of the themes that adds nuances as this book progresses, is always wry and simultaneously sharp and humble. The first poem of her first book is a two-part piece which puts together a poem written as an undergraduate celebrating, in the mildly hieratic tone of that time, a youthful love affair – “made / One and still divided in burning clarity of / Self . . .” – with a sharp critique of the same poem written twenty years later: an example of re-evaluation in visible action. And in the book’s second poem she is happy to characterise herself (among much else that is equally self-critical) as “fraught with quibble and / Linguistic tic, pernickety ironic nit-picking / Academic.”

This defining and understanding of the self, especially its intellectual dimension, is another of the continuous themes in Zwicky’s work. It’s intimately related to the experience of other cultures and again, now we have all of the poems together, it’s extraordinary how what had always seemed to be incidental in the individual books, now seems so coherent and important. Zwicky has always said that it was the literature of the United States which made poetry possible for her in what is really a wasteland: “The concerns of Australian literature have always appeared essentially solitary, inward-turning, never outer-directed, the babble of speech masking a dumb void . . .” and her first poems of visiting are, significantly, about America. (A poem like “Memorial Day & Tornado” from Isaac Babel’s Fiddle, which seemed fairly incidental when first read, now looks like an early essay at dealing with the theme of memorialising. It concludes with a list of – to an Australian – bizarre American names – “Bagby Bobowski Clabaugh Coonz . . .” – arranged cruciform fashion.) Other books include poems of visits to other cultures including Indonesia, India and China, cultures infinitely removed from the Levantine culture of reverence that is the basis of Zwicky’s sense of herself. Zwicky acknowledges as much in the first of the poems about the Somnapura temple which is devoted to the elephant-headed god, Ganesh:

. . . . . 
A light shaft strikes the stone,
mints spry slumped corpulent Ganesh,
elephant-crowned runt
of jealous Siva,
the enormous first parent –

Grant, O Lord, we beseech Thee
won’t do here –

It’s not an environment in which the intimate, pleading arguments of “Ark Voices” or the ambitious anthology of voices and modes in “Kaddish” make any sense at all. The Indian poems are balanced in Ask Me by a suite of poems based on a visit to China – in 1988 this was perhaps more of voyage into the unknown than it would be thirty years later. The opening poem revolves about defining the poet’s self in terms of the Chinese system of animal totems:

. . . . . 
I am a Rooster.
Honest, frank, obliging, difficult
to live with.
Spot on, so far. What’s this?
Vain? Despotic? Prickly about criticism?
Perhaps there’s nothing in it
after all . . .

It’s impressive how un-European these visits are (one thinks of Zwicky’s familiarity with Indonesia) and how, at the same time, they avoid the obvious pitfalls of “travel-writing” and, just as this Collected lets us see these “poems of foreignness” as a recurring mode, so it also suggests how close to the core of Zwicky’s poetry her narrative sequences are. “A Tale of the Great Smokies” from Ask Me, a long set of narratives that I have never felt entirely comfortable with, uses the trick of overlaying The Odyssey on a contemporary rural story and “The Terracotta Army at Xi’an” from Picnic is, like “Ark Voices”, one of those sequences which explores individuals whose personalities refract a core situation. That core is the presence of the first emperor, Quinshihuang, the builder of the wall and the burner of books. The last of the portraits is of the Potter and in its portrayal of the meeting of warlord and artist it not only visits a well-worn theme but probably also provides a disguised portrait of Zwicky the poet at the same time as recalling the voice of Mrs Noah:

. . . . .
                    Remember to stay calm.
Or, as our saying goes,
“Hide your broken arms in your sleeves.”
Who am I to pit the hollow of my skull
against tyrannic arsenals, soft body parts
afloat with sewer rats, heaped skulls,
atrocities of conquest? . . .

The particular branch of a concern with the self which might be called a concern with the poetic self is the issue that one can trace developing across Zwicky’s career as it’s captured in this book. Whereas the culture of reverence and memory, with its inevitable outcomes of caring and guilt, is a kind of ground base, inflected by different events at different times but remaining essentially essential, Zwicky’s interest in what is involved in the act of making poetry is one that develops throughout her career, beginning with the satirical portraits of a performing poet at the end of Kaddish and including the calmly introspective meditation at the end of “Makassar, 1956” where a detailed account of her “flight” from family and career is concluded by a section detailing her interest in the way in which an image, encountered at what is really one of life’s crisis-points, can wait for a half-century to become a poem. She sees, on her first morning, a wedding procession and later, three heavily-veiled women:

. . . . . 
My heart stood open like a door – the bride looked
very nervous sitting, eyes downcast, beside her thin
proud groom in a little cart bringing up the rear.
As it jolted past us in the warm rain, I felt a poem
Starting to take shape under the reedy rhythms of the band.
It settled on my heart for nearly fifty years . . .

The move from initial comments about poetry and its engagement with an empty landscape to an interest in the mysterious inner workings of creativity can be traced across the entire book in poems like “Orpheus”, “Poems and Things”, “What Fills”, “Groundswell for Ginsberg”, “Close-Up”, “Hokusai on the Shore” and “The Ivy Visitant”, a symbolic set-piece in which a praying mantis, shaken out of the ivy onto the poet’s arm, becomes a vehicle for the poem itself, “something planted speechless / in the dark, waiting out its season”. In the late poems, there is no interest in large generalisations – something at odds with Zwicky’s habitual cast of intellect – but a kind of forensic fascination. About half way we come across a poem like “The Caller”, a brilliant set-piece devoted to the statue at the Art Gallery of Western Australia which, in its stance of “wordless patience”, expresses for Zwicky something of her own fate:

. . . . . 
Prompt me, brother. What is required of me,
long failed, who once craved silence
stillness timelessness? Obedient and rebellious
to what end? . . .

It seems just a fraction over-intense for this poet and one might explain this by saying that it deliberately mimics (or takes the opportunity to mimic) the statue’s over-the-top, expressionist conception. But it too is concerned with creative origins – “It can’t be / forced but, like the sparrow’s fall, will come” – and thus asks to be measured against “Genesis” the second-last poem of her last book. “Genesis” includes a bathetic rehearsal of all the possible sources for her own poetry, asking “what’s it going to be” this time:

. . . . .
Will it be one more bulletin from the zone
of dread? Another bleat of unbelonging?
Or some grim soot-faced riff on the long-dead,
the incantatory singsong of nostalgia - 
serial murders, violated wombs, decay
the foot-in-mouth neuralgia of our days? . . .

It may be that this list is no more than a list of the sources of bad poems by others but it’s hard not to see a phrase like “riff on the long-dead” as referring to the poems of the responsibility for the memory of the dead that have been part of Zwicky’s remit. And if the bathetic tone of “Genesis” wasn’t enough to convince us that Zwicky’s view of the mystery of poetic creativity is not going to be surrounded by clouds of elevated but obfuscating glory, there is the poem that follows it in Picnic, and, in a sense, the one that says goodbye. It’s a comic treatment of an invitation to read her poems “in a garden / somewhere in the city of / light” and the way in which a poet’s inevitable fantasies of “lovers lounging, children rapt / drowsy grandmothers, a hermit / or two, an emperor awake to / prophetic nightingales and / clusters of attentive courtiers / hanging on your every word” are punctuated by the dismissive comments of “a flat-vowelled crow”. No room for wish-fulfillment here, either in the stony wastes of Western Australia or in the bracing climate of Zwicky’s intellectual temperament.