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.

Fay Zwicky: Picnic

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2006, 79pp.

The floor plan of Fay Zwicky’s poetic house was described brilliantly by Ivor Indyk in an article in Southerly published nearly thirteen years ago (54:3. 33-50). Her position as poet derives from her position in a moral universe and Indyk quotes an essay from her collection, The Lyre in the Pawnshop:

There is 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.

She inhabits what students of religion would call a Levantine culture as distinguished from Greek or Oriental. It is a hierarchical universe dominated by a grotesque old father-God who is so powerful and so demanding that even in his absence he is a demonic presence – in other words, he is not diminished by absence. He is manifest in all transactions in which one person wields power over another but the universe he has set up is one in which obligations move up and down the hierarchical scale: even the god of the Old Testament made contractual commitments to his people. Little wonder that reverence (whose model is surely submission to the father) and obligation are the crucial terms.

But, as Indyk points out, there is nothing demurely accepting about Zwicky’s attitude to obligation and reverence. She is quarrelsome and the drama of her poetry is to be found in the chafing that the bonds of duty cause. More interestingly, she is adept at those strategies which remind God (or his relevant manifestation) of the situation (and rights) of the servant while accepting the servant’s obligation to serve. The central text here is “Ark Voices” from Zwicky’s second collection, Kaddish, especially in the dramatic monologue of Noah’s wife who has a wonderful way of accepting her lowly role in the great drama of the Lord’s destruction of the world while at the same time reminding God that he may not be behaving towards his tiny creatures with quite the required sensitivity to obligation:

Noah is incorruptible and good, a large
sweet soul.
Sir, I have tried to be!
But does the frog whose home was in a well
assail an ocean?
How does the summer gnat approach the ice?

It’s an old, probably pre-Deuteronomistic, Jewish position – you can hear it in Abraham’s arguing with God about how many righteous men it would require for him to spare the cities of the plain.

Is this a common or even familiar Australian world-view? I’m not so sure (coming from the Germanic inflected Greek end of the religious/philosophical spectrum, myself) and it is always difficult and dangerous to make generalizations about a culture’s perspective on the cosmos. But it is a perspective that makes for a good kind of poetry because it shuttles between the small and the ever-looming large. Individual things are always simultaneously dead particulars and part of a divine creation. And there is room for a lot of drama that can be expressed in the human – ie poet’s – voice, adrift in this cosmos. There is less doubt than in the Greek-based tradition and a lot more than in the oriental. You can hear it, in a very different form to Zwicky’s poetry, in Islamic mystical poetry where God is continually upbraided (in a properly cloaked allegorical way of course) for being absent, or at least for being unprepared to show his face. As a quatrain from Baba Taher, a contemporary of Omar Khayyam, says: “Separation made me like a bird without feathers or wings / You say to me: Be patient, be patient / But patience is like dirt thrown on my head.”

We meet this world of mutual obligation in Picnic in a fine and moving poem, “The Young Men”. At one level it is one of those poems in which the dead rise up in dreams and demand to be heard, to enter our lives. But it is a more complex and challenging poem than that suggests. The dead, when they speak, are positively hostile to the poet’s infantile world of book, candle and night light. I think the suggestion here is that, while they were dying in the Second World War, the poet, born in 1933, was living a happily protected innocent life of reading. This literary life has continued and retained its otherworldliness. The poem’s conclusion is both an admission of this and a promise to change:

“You’ll sleep all right with us
and never never wake. Night lights,
books and candles lost the war against our
childhood, growing, long ago, their power
to charm away the everlasting dark a myth:
silence lasts forever. Listen, while you can,
to unseen saplings somewhere falling.”
Young men, you dear young men, I’m listening.

Another poem, “No Return”, perhaps more clever than moving, deals with the paradoxes of loyalties to grandparents and parents – those “once-/huge troubling presences”:

Standing on the stump
of the self I might have been,
I crane to catch
call back those once-
huge troubling presences
receding down the road
of memory, the dearest
and the worst for whose
going I was never ready
whose end I hastened
as a child forever
waving them off, ready
to leave, always leaving
whose every footfall
kicked off avalanches
of grief in the place
I have stood upon,
am still standing,

There is a large sequence in Picnic devoted to the psychotic Chinese founding emperor, Qin, he of the wall, the tomb, the terracotta army and the burnt books and butchered scholars. It belongs to that usually unpromising genre where a group of dramatic monologues allow all levels of an organization to speak and be heard. But in “The Terracotta Army at Xi’an”, Zwicky is so aware of the mutual obligation that stretches across all levels that the sequence is never mechanical. In fact the China of just over two thousand years ago is a pretty good metaphor for the contemporary universe, ruled by a god who greedily devours the devotion of others but who is the only being capable of appreciating the lives and skills of those others. Of the six figures it is the potter who is most important in this sequence. As a creator (though he describes himself as “more artisan than artist”) his role in this mini-universe is one that the poet responds to. It will come as no surprise that he is the most quarrelsome of Qin’s subjects:

                                   Qinshihuang just happened by
as I was casting a horse’s rump,
history’s enemy arrested by an old man’s fragment.
I assumed – wrong again – my audience would detect
the rippling tremor of irony behind my stance,
refused to bow. He laughed to show how deep his tolerance,
how insatiable his curiosity for what is commonly
passed by: the common touch indeed . . .

My rage touched off a burning energy,
muscles bulging over the mould, enough to
make him start.

What we have here is a poem about that strange relationship between the artist and the great-in-the-world. It is Napoleon and Goethe; Tamberlane and Hafez. They recognize themselves in the other – they are both creators of worlds – and also recognize that, though they need each other (artists created both Qin’s tomb and his army), they are also opposed to each other.

Picnic is full of poems about poetry, or about the role of the artist in the universe that Zwicky inhabits. A long poem, “Makassar, 1956”, chosen in Peter Porter’s Best Australian Poetry 2005 (I mention this because it is not included in the book’s acknowledgements), seems like a fragment of autobiography but is really a portrait of the artist as a young woman and it concludes, as such things should, with the first intimations of vocation. It begins with severance from the world of obligation:

. . . . .
Parents, relatives and friends cried and waved,
the streamers strained, snapped, collapsed
in lollypop tangles on the wharf. Pulling away
from the tumbled web, we didn’t care about
falling behind, getting ahead, dry-eyed and
guiltless went as everything was happening
somewhere else. I wouldn’t have seen the signs.

and concludes with a wedding and three veiled women seen from a shop in Jakarta:

                                                                      Their burning eyes
arrested me, speaking soundless of an older, fiercer order
of things. Haunted eyes that followed me in dreams – I see
them still – their black concealment hinting how
it’s possible to be in one place, also somewhere else,
possible to let things happen over and over, possible
to stick in silence to pain’s colours and, if it’s in you,
transmit poems: . . .

It shouldn’t surprise that this sounds not unlike Qin’s potter for Picnic’s obsession is with the position of the artist inside the strange universe Zwicky describes. True, this was a dominating issue in the previous book, The Gatekeeper’s Wife, but there was a touch of the theatrical in poems like “Triple Exposure & Epilogue” and “Banksia Blechifolia” that the poems of Picnic avoid. I think this was a wise decision as lines like

              Neither daffodil nor
delphinium, poets project
no soft transports from

my fire-forged speech.
Barely exotic since I’m born here,
bearer of crueller histories

than your burning fields recall.
Seeded by typhoons, I’ve waited
years to raise my barbed and desperate

flower, colourless, odourless
and armoured. But reaching
reaching always skyward. My way

you might say, of letting you know
death’s around and ready.
. . . . .

just seem too over the top – though I admit that it is a shrub not a poet who is supposed to be speaking.

Picnic’s final two poems are both about poetry. The first, “Genesis” is about where it comes from whereas the second, “Poetry Promenaded”, is about how it is incarnated and situated in the modern world. As with “The Young Men”, “Genesis” is not quite so simple as it appears on first reading when it seems to be asserting, unremarkably enough, that phrases and images are kickstarted not by a “fixed notion” but

Rather something stumbled on at night
(the dark is best for stumbling),
chancing it blind, spoiling for a fall.

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?

This stresses that the poem’s beginning will be in something which is stumbled on but which is also cliched. That is interesting in itself, and a countervoice to all the other poets’ predictable obeisances to the unconscious, but the poem goes on to speak in more detail about the “stumbling”:

The ground can cave in anywhere, undreamt-of
mystifying shifts and gaps, like waking up
one day without your face to say
I cannot recognise this life as mine.

and then tell an Irish joke – admittedly apposite! The conclusion takes the idea of genesis by stumble into much more uncomfortable territory than we might have expected:

                                                  It’s what
you can’t trim down to the manageable that
seeds the poem, keeps the poet sparked
awake to what could be, to what might
fan him into flight. Better not to know
but stumble unawares on randomness,
like walking mapless in an unknown town,
get recklessly resiliently lost without
your face or life you thought you knew.
The poem will either find
or find you out.

“Talking Mermaid”, whose subject is poetry, seems in a quite different style to the other poems of the book. To begin with it is a symbolic narrative where the speaker, a mermaid, watches a man swim out to sea with dolphins, “They tease and lollop close in chorus file: his path’s / presumptuous, chancey, stretching things beyond / his lineage. There is no lyric in the human stride.” The lyric voice is, in other words, pitched between the natural and the human. The mermaid speaks of two “natural” people, a man and a woman: “they lit my life” but “were they ever trouble!” and how she now inhabits both sea and land. This poem is intriguing because the poem that precedes it, “Push or Knock”, a comic but significant tale about being visited by a Chinese translator, contains a critique of “Talking Mermaid”, whose drafts are dragged out when the visitor wants to see the poet at work:

I tell him that the poem’s fighting decorative
scrolls, rhetoric’s fancy needlework,
the sequinned tale. Does he know what memaids are?
He says he does.
Seduced by metaphor, I wither into pedagogic prose:
“The lyric voice is struggling with the ordinary,
seams are showing, do you understand?” He does
he says.

I like this idea of what can be read as a two-part poem: proleptic and oblique critique followed by the poem itself.

Two of the book’s early poems, both about poetry, can be read in a similar way. “Close-up” is about Lowell’s “Epilogue” written shortly before his death and brutally criticizing his own early poems and asks “If this comes from the best / of us, what future for the rest of us?” The answer is

Burn-out blues for big note orphics,
small-pond croakers brought to heel;
batteries out of juice, that’s what.

But, like so many of Zwicky’s poems, this poem moves in unpredictable directions. If poetry’s pretensions are easily exposed, surely it can provide an ideology-free account of its world. Not so:

So “why not say what happened?”
What makes you think we’d know?
Know thyself? A bad Socratic joke
from bearded know-alls handy with
the blanket rules. Like God,
A CEO without the common touch,
not one can help at crunch-time,
tell you how to pass for decent,
tell you why your life is skewed,
why your poems stall in scavenged diction,
stick contraptions held by string and glue.
. . . . .

“Hokusai on the Shore” is not so much an answer to this as a counterpart. It is not an answer because it doesn’t remove the pain of “Close-up” but it does provide a bleak but comforting counter. Hokusai’s great wave paintings came after the age of seventy “old, ill, destitute / your money gambled away by your / grandson, your name forgotten / by the world you’d survived.” Hokusai’s comment ends the poem:

“Until I was seventy, nothing I drew
was worthy of notice. When I’m eighty,
I hope to have made progress.”/pre>
Written by a poet turning seventy, this is a heartening realization that what you know is your craft and that this is the last (in both senses) that you need to stick to. It is also tempting to allegorise out the wave simultaneously into one of god’s random acts of brutality (of the kind that caused the flood that left Mrs Noah in her predicament) and into the tsunami of 2004.

But finally, in this consideration of the poems about poetry in the book, I need to look briefly at a strange poem, "World Cup Spell, 1998". It interests because it is a mock magician's spell (perhaps based on lurid accounts of the kinds of questionable befeathered shamans that African national football teams are inclined to bring with them so that they can perform curses between the goal posts before matches) designed to secure victory for the Brazilians (Taffarel et al) over the French (Lizerazu, Barthez et al) in the World Cup Final of 1998. Because it is a spell, even though it is only a comic parody, it raises the spectre of another kind of poetry altogether - much more primitive, pre-literate and chthonic - and not, generally, Fay Zwicky territory. Judith Rodriguez's wonderful "Eskimo Occasion" does something very similar. The problem of course is that, as everyone knows, not only were the Brazilians defeated but they played with such a bemused, frustrated air that it appeared to all observers as though they were under some sort of spell. The awful possibility is that charms uttered by Australian poets with a Jewish perspective and an allegiance, however tentative, to the angry great father in the sky, always work in a counter way. I would think very hard before I allowed this poem to be printed in Brazil.