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.

Lucy Dougan: The Guardians

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2015, 76pp.

Lucy Dougan’s new book seems structured in a way that is designed to recall her previous Giramondo book, White Clay. That collection began with a letter from a friend that was clearly designed to alert us to the sort of angled perceptions that are at the base of her poetry when it speaks of “working quietly at the edges” and it concluded with a poem about a treasured letter from her sister “carried . . . for sixteen years”. The Guardians begins with a poem about the vertical chain of genetic history – one of the book’s obsessions – and concludes not with a letter from her sister but with a drawing from her the subject of which is the author herself. Both letter and drawing seem to be messages from another world. They come from the far side of the world but they come from a member of the poet’s genetic community. “A Picture from Julia” seems a message that relates to the poet’s illness, an ordeal which is the subject of a number of poems in the third section: “Now I need your Spring / as I never did when it was simply mine”. It’s a winter portrait but it looks to spring, something which Dougan expresses in an uncharacteristically “high” mode with perhaps a suggestion of Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn” or “After the Funeral”:

. . . . . 
If anyone should take this green off me
I will summon the harpies,
set all of Campania alight;
and not rest
until the white button daisies return
and your feet make
a path through the thaw.

Most of Dougan’s poems do not have this elevated tone and, in the case of The Guardians, though every poem is built around personal experience it never seems to be a confessional book seeing the experiences of the self as the sine qua non of poetry. Even when the experiences are as traumatic as cancer surgery there is nothing of the melodramatic in their treatment, nothing of the “poetic diary of one woman’s journey through pain”. There is something distinctive about this poet’s attitudes to life and the way life and an individual poem are related that makes her look towards framing perspectives both to shape the poems and speak of the meaning of experience. Take the first of the poems about cancer, a poem which provides the book’s title:

I could not bear the empyrean capped,
not after living so long under the ground.

You were away
when I found the lump.
You came back with a wooden duck
and a black toy dog.
In the thick of it
the duck would come to live
with the small plastic shepherd
and the stone our daughter found out in the river - 
its shape sat safe in my hands.
The piggy bank was another gift.
My friend said put a coin in it a day
and smash it when you need to buy the dress
for your daughter’s wedding.
But the dog – the dog was quite something.
Being stuffed, it said nothing.
In a dream it sat quietly by our own living dog
and she looked at me straight out of her old eyes and said
Go on – it’s OK to pick it up.

Admittedly the first two lines seem odd and what I take to be their meaning – “After having finally got to the stage (in life or, more likely, in poetry) where I could more fully express myself, finding I had a potentially fatal illness was especially unbearable” – doesn’t really account for the strange vocabulary: “empyrean”, “capped”. But the movement of the poem is away from the conventional “How do I feel about this?” towards a listing of the homely totemic animals which begin to assemble. The mysterious animal world which these little creatures stand for is an important part of the framing perspectives of the poems of this book which often recount how wild animals, especially dogs and foxes, stand at the hinge of different realities. But the structure of the poem is striking as well. It begins with the body, quickly moves to models, then to a model designed to look to the future but, unknowingly, highlighting that that future suddenly has to be questioned. Finally the poem, rather than conventionally bringing us back to the pressing issues of the flesh, moves into dream and imagined dog-speech. The constant rejection of the conventional in favour of the more interestingly enlightening perspective is matched in the unpredictable but rather satisfying shape of the poem.

“The Guardians” comes from the third section of the book devoted, fittingly, to the body. The first section focusses on what might be thought of as historical and genetic history. One of the major changes of perspective that happens in our lives happens at the moment when we go from seeing ourselves as self-contained experiencing objects (an illusion bizarrely fostered not only by genre fiction but even so-called “serious” fiction) to expressions of a long genetic history. It seems, superficially, restricting because it suggests some kind of determinism but it is, in actuality, liberating: we are part of a community structured vertically in time as well as one made up out of contemporary lovers, friends and neighbours. Having a slightly unusual genetic history (the poems of the earlier book, White Clay, establish Dougan as one of those people whose familial father is not her genetic father and she thus finds herself with an exotic “other” family in Naples, the subject of a number of interesting poems) must mean that you are more sensitive to the complexities of genes than most of us.

One of the images of genetic history is the vertically suspended chain and the book’s first poem is a version of this. It begins memorably by a poetic sleight of hand – “This is the house of her childhood. / It’s not standing anymore.” – which one could expand out into a tract of explicatory material about the status of reality in a poem, the opposition between remembered experience and the “real”, and so on. In the poem a trunk is dragged out from under the room in which the girl sleeps. In it, amongst other initially disappointing bric-a-brac (the value of objects can derive from their historical and familial context), is a linen face mask which both mother and daughter put on. But the mask was made by the mother’s grandmother:

That night she wondered
if there were more rooms
beneath the room under her bed.
How deep did they go down;
and if each of her mother’s mothers
stretching right back
had left a fearful face there
for her to try on?

When I first read this I worried about that word “fearful” but I think, on rereading it, that it exploits the ambiguity of the word (“fear-inducing” or “fear-expressing”?) deliberately though it never explains why the girl and her ancestresses should have fearful expressions.

Other poems in this first section explore genetic heritage or, as the last says, the vision of “genetics sparking magnetically / along the lines.” “Wayside” begins “My body wants / the long way back / just to find lost land” and deals with the desire to discover “the uncertain map / of family trees”. The central image though is not of a rigidly mapped line of descent but of randomly sown seeds sprouting in unexpected places after having been sown by some medieval farmer “jaunty in a book of days”. At the end of the poem we meet her “nipote” – the son of her half-sister – whose vision of familial descent is not so much seeds as fireworks:

And of my nipote,
a love child too,
who took me aside
and mimed at fireworks
with hands and eyes,
his fingers sprays.

We’re like this, you see,
all kaboom and splutter - 
who knows where we’ll fall . . .

What the body had wanted was “the dark of a city / when paths were lit / by shrines, by love . . .”

Running alongside these poems about genetic pathways are those which stress, if not so much the sideways vision of working from the edges, then at least the blurring of borders that this can produce. When her sister and the poet walk either side of a garden bed at the Villa Bruno in Naples, “we step outside all drawn rings”. And in “The Mice” a childhood site once more is revisited and the author finds:

            a man sitting
on a fold-out chair
just at the edge
of where it used to be wild 
. . . 
he seemed to be doing an imitation
of a man sitting in the sun
like me
the place was lost on him.

The second section, begun with a quotation from Geoff Dyer’s book on Tarkovsky’s Stalker, is about places and one of the poems, “The Old House”, makes a kind of connection with the first poem in the book in that it is about a girl revisiting a childhood home. This time the home still exists but has a new, welcoming but slightly sexually sinister owner. Significantly it is the girl’s dog, acting on scent-memory, which runs into the house first. In this sense the dog is not only more attuned to the paths of history but perhaps acts as a symbol of one of his human counterpart’s buried senses (there is a very significant dog who inhabits the zone in Stalker). But the dog is only one of the inhabitants of these spaces: the first poem of this section begins by describing an impossibly small attic hotel room in London but finishes with the jetlagged poet hearing the arrival of doves which coo “their own flight histories”. Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider introduces an exhibition at the Tate Modern and a visit to Kensal Green in search of Wilkie Collins’ grave discovers a fox, perfectly at home in the cemetery. Significantly, the poet follows the fox “in the hope that he will / show me what he knows / about the dead”. The poem of this group which stays most with me, though, is “The Foxes”, perhaps because it is less explanatory than the other poems and simply presents a visitation. Arriving back in London

We stood at the deep sash window
and beneath us
two foxes stared up.
Their gaze was not territorial
or neutral but simply there

as the grass was there, the trees
were there, and the cold summer furniture.
They did not hide their boredom
and crossed back over
into another evening.

But we stayed for a while
as if their candour held us to the spot
until lights started up
- those other unknown lives -
in the flats across.

There is, I suppose, only so much that even a poet can say about such visitations but you have to be able intuitively to understand them even before you can see them properly. Certainly foxes, rather than dogs and doves, seem the best symbols of this weird otherness of the animal world because, whenever I have seen one, I’ve been struck by the way they simply appear – as though they had always been there – and the way they go about their business, not looking at you, as though they didn’t see you whereas you know perfectly well that they know you are there and that they knew you were there before you knew that they were there! At any rate, they’re a wonderful introduction to the animal otherworld.

As I’ve said, the final section is made up of poems about the body and more than half of these “deal with” – a very equivocal cliched phrase – the experience of cancer. The last of these describes a “covert pilgrimage” to the ruins of St Catherine’s abbey in Dorsetshire, perhaps analogous to the nearby East Coker. Other experiences of the body focus on the way in which an experience can open a door. A poem about needlework – the labour (or art) of repair by hand – finishes with a memory of her mother’s Home Economics class; paintings bought by her father remind her that advice by the gallery owner about how to prepare instant coffee is something she has mysteriously taken into her own living practices; a poem about her daughter’s dance school modulates from a poem about dancing’s bump and grind to a poem about menarche and menopause, though without the Greek-based technical language – “the year that you start bleeding / and I stop”; and the second-last poem, “Dearest”, which seems a simple piece inspired perhaps by Mr Darcy’s declaration to Elizabeth, is actually a complex meditation about the way a single word can open “the door / to another century”.

At all levels Dougan reveals herself as a more challenging and more profound poet than the apparently simple personal tone of her poems may suggest. I think it might have taken her some while to reach this complex unassuming clarity – Memory Shell, her first book, clearly isn’t sure what moulds to pour pressing personal experience into and White Clay alternates between first and third person poems. The Guardians is made up of poems that always seem to be looking at the world – both outer and inner – anew and though this is an ability we want from poetry – which is, after all, the most successful destroyer of cliche – it’s rarer than you would think. A measure of the consistency with which the poems of The Guardians achieves this is the shock caused by a momentary lapse. In a poem called “Kenwood House” poet and partner find themselves looking at a stack of Jacobean portraits:

. . . . .
I ask you if we bumped into Donne
or Shakespeare or their wives
(especially their wives
I would want to meet)
could we all make sense . . .

This seems like a mere conventional contemporary piety to me. Though it’s true that a cultural historian interested in provincial England at the end of the Elizabethan period might get more out of Anne Hathaway than out of her husband, it’s hard to credit that a poet – of all people – would actually prefer to speak to Shakespeare’s wife when the writer himself was available!

Lucy Dougan: White Clay

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2008, 91pp.

Lucy Dougan’s first book, Memory Shell, was published as one of Five Islands Press excellent series New Poets in 1998. It didn’t seem really successful to me at the time – the individual poems were usually fine, often interestingly mysterious, but one couldn’t pick up a consistency of voice or consistency in the poet’s conception of the way she wanted the poems to work. It is true that there was a thematic consistency: as the title suggests, memory is a key preoccupation as is loss – the first and last poems record the loss of a parent, though they do so in very different ways. Another poem, “John Clare” concludes that nothing, neither “act nor pilgrimage” will bring back what has gone and only “imagination, / that sly politician” will trick us. Memory Shell does contain a poem which has stayed with me, though, “The Novice Embalmer’s Art”, a work that circulates around the issues of loss, memory and recreation:

The Novice Embalmer’s art

preserves love’s trace
in a forensic desire
from sheet stain and soap splinter,
dog-eared pages and circled text,
the sleep-pressed bed’s declivity,
flowers picked and left.

develops an obsession
for the newly vacated,
is jealous of last words to others
and begins to circumnavigate
an erotics of the used 
that great shifting land of love’s detritus.

it is beautifully real, this land
yet subtle as another’s shadow,
fleeting as your breath on a page,
as fugitive as any presence,
only I can truly fix your hereness
now it is erased.

This new volume, White Clay, is a striking achievement and represents a quantum leap. Its interests are not largely different to those of Memory Shell but it is consistent in its notion of what a poem might look like. One might have reservations that the poetic method has limited its horizons compared to the experimental earlier book, but there is no doubt that this is a far more successful individual collection. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that its general consistency allows us to appreciate more of the complexity of its author’s view of life and the way that complexity inhabits the poems.

The structure of White Clay involves a large slab of essentially autobiographical poetry framed at beginning and end by a set of rather different sorts of poems. The central, autobiographical group looks as though it were conceived as an individual book-length work, perhaps in answer to the question: if memory cannot restore the past, what can it do with my own life? It introduces familiar material involved with living (parents, sex, children etc) but also a lot of material specific to this poet. This includes a slightly mysterious ancestry and consequently distance from a sister who might be only a half sister (I apologize for being vague about what are biographical facts but I have only the poems and my readings of them to go on), and a Neapolitan family connection.

The childhood material is coloured by a healthy (in Eastern states it would be called Vitalist) interest in sex. The title poem – one of many involving white clay – recounts the experience of making plaster statuettes in a school art class.

In high school
she moulded a man
and a woman.
When the work
got her palms
tight and dry
she was learning
something about touch.
. . . . .
The man lay along
the woman’s back.
The girl stroked the slip
from faceless starts
to uncertain ends
and found a word
that softened her inside. 


Another girl
called it fucking.
She tested this word
against the raw silk
limbs she had shaped.
There was no congress
between form and sound.

Boys looked at her now . . .

This story of erotic beginnings, fittingly couched in terms of art, moulding and control (she learns that though the bodies begin cold and finish hot “they could not be counted on / to do what her hands wanted”), continues in “Frangipanis” to sexual experiences:

Now, the bruised gift
you carry to my lips, my hair, brings back
the scent of love before care . . .

and then quickly to social/sexual perspectives in “Perfectly Good Evenings” where private school boys (and their tendency to spoil perfectly good evenings) are passed over in favour of “ramshackle boys, often motherless”:

And another sitting in a garden at dusk
rubbed the heel of his hand
from chin to cheek.
I never said, but that sweet rasping sound
wiped clean the reign of private school boys
and made me begin over all again with men.

Between “Frangipanis” and “Perfectly Good Evenings” comes an impressive poem, “The Rose Round”. The central character, in a circular rose garden, breaks a bowl with rose decorations at the edge. Thus this is set up symbolically as an art-life poem: the character has been reading romances where the heroines “won out / and were more careful / with the world / than me”. Her brother shows her that the bowl (not insignificantly made up of clay, fired in a furnace) has broken cleanly and can be repaired but the same cannot be done with life:

But I felt the wind
spring cold
through the ragged rose round
sprays of tears
on the brim.

The art-life connection remains one of the themes of this group, indeed of the entire book. In “Stunt Double” the character imagines living her life like the actresses in soap operas, speaking “queenly monosyllabic / lines like – don’t ask this from me now”, and wondering if she really wants her family’s “messy life”. In “Mannequin Brides” the clothes-dummies (works of art, conceivably made with clay) stand above the ordinary world like oracles or goddesses. They challenge the passersby with an image of perfection which highlights the fact that these people have lived lives of compromise. But the interesting turn of the poem comes at the point where it leaves this perspective to focus on imagining the mannequins entering the real world, abandoning the fixed perfections of commercialized romance.

Perhaps the brides will forsake the itch
of borrowed lace for the tat shops instead,
being careful not to wed
legends like Mine Forever.
They are escaping
the most important day of their lives.

The point here is that, though in art the bowls can be mended and re-achieve perfection, this is not the case in a real world made up of imperfections and compromises. It’s surprising how rare it is for writers (and other artists) to stress this.

Real messiness enters the autobiographical material at about this point. The exact issue is not absolutely clear, but it suggests the discovery that her biological father is different to her parent. I like the fact that at this crucial point, far from lapsing into a denotative my-life-as-trauma mode, the poetry becomes very dense. The central image is her older sister’s compact – its powder (more chalk) is used to make-up the central character’s face so that it can face the crisis of identity involved. In a sense it is made into a work of art. The central event is reconsidered as an expulsion from the garden, the image of Eden having been used liberally in the poems of erotic experience.

But that garden is gone
and my sister leaves me grown-up
games of gin and make-up
and a deep breath in, she promises,
will hold this spell for hiding tears.

I breathe with the lean-to for a while.
Its ship-like listings
forecast storms ahead.
I’m left to court strange blood
as the gin burns through
the buried scarlet of my cheek.
I try to straddle this uneven ground,
figurehead sturdy.
I might build an internal Armada.
The day overhead pales
and everything fades out
to a queen’s powder white.

And there are, indeed, storms ahead. The next poems deal with loss of father and mother and culminate in two important poems, “Everything Broken” and “White Clay II”. On my first reading of White Clay these made the profoundest impression, probably because they are comparatively free-standing meditations – though they undergo that pleasurable deepening as you get to know their context. “Everything Broken” begins with a broken up tea service and thinks about the way this stuff began as clay – it is material of life fired into art. But art carries with it the memory of the life in which it had its origins and so:

. . . . . 
When we’re very old
refusing food somewhere
a cup will sit
in the mind’s clearing ”“
the one thing saved
from everything broken
and the part of us going
will crave the intimate river
of its making – one toe
two – till we are cupped
in the mud we had
taken to our lips
daily – asking if things
were worth the life
we spent on them.

“White Clay II” describes finding a damaged statuette of her mother made by her father. It too thinks of the clay from which the piece was made:

. . . . .
There must have been 
a day, a time,
a starting point – one afternoon – 
when he carried the clay
close to his chest
and began to coax her out . . .

and seems to conclude by saying that this damaged statue is a kind of half-way point between the perfection of art and the messiness of life:

. . . . . 
She seems to say,
if clay could speak,
that there can be comfort 
in incompleteness.
His marks are echoes.
Like her, he wanted me to know ”“
a series of breakages,
a letting go.

The last poems of the book deal with these experiences more in the manner of the poems of Memory Shell. It is though poems are expected to justify themselves by being different in approach to their neighbouring poems. “Beneath Us” is a kind of surreal narrative where all of those who “went before” are imagined to be underwater swimmers above which we tread water. “The Chest” explores (again in a surreal way) the potentialities inherent in the symbol of the chest which contains all imaginative possibilities but which is also the human breast. “Strange Flowers” is a dream-poem in which, interestingly, the poet is instructed to look for “strange flowers” – in other words a dream tells her to look in dreams.

The obsessions of the body of the book recur, however. “Small Family of Saltimbanques” is a wonderful portrait of a family of performers who are probably symbolic of a life which is complete and un-messy: as perfect as a tea-cup or rose bowl:

. . . . . 
Their mother watches them with a poised neutrality.
She is with them the same way her oldest child dances.
At any moment she is tuned to another order, to almost
imperceptible openings. The colour of skin
beneath her eyes, a feather-blue in forest light.

The openness to erotic experience of the poems of early girlhood re-appears in “Female Pan” and there are plenty of poems in which one wants to read tokens, charms, and letters as symbols of the perfected life of art.

The book’s first poems are also about art but instead of clay and porcelain, the range is expanded to texts. The book’s fine first poem is built around a letter received from a friend in Spain and there are poems about books (The Transit of Venus, Anna Karenina) as well as a poem about finding lines transcribed from a poem by Rupert Brooke – it recalls Hope’s “Meditation on a Bone” though there is a big temporal gap between the Edwardian poet and the composer of that ferocious runic text. These are complex and interesting works and one doesn’t want to be reductive and see them merely as developments of the book’s general concern with art and life. However they have their own set of images. “Letter from Spain” is very much about edges. It begins “When I slip into the lane / there’s another order” and it is tempting to read this as a symbol of the tangential approach that poetry has to meaning, as is the phrase with which the poem concludes “working quietly at the edges”. The poems based on verbal texts seem to have interleaving as their central image: what matters is the way texts move in and out of our lives or, perhaps better, how we move in and out of texts. In the case of “The Quilt” in which a woman cuts up her dresses, makes a quilt from them and sends this to Gerald Brenan as a wedding gift, it is about how grief can create a work of art that someone can live in and under.