In the spirit of re­bel­lion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Only a few days be­fore she died ear­lier this month, Fay Zwicky was given this mag­nif­i­cent vol­ume by one of its ed­i­tors and had the chance to hold in her hands the sub­stance of her life’s work in po­etry. Zwicky is one of four great West Aus­tralian po­ets, along with Jack Davis, Dorothy Hewett and Ran­dolph Stow. Born in Mel­bourne in 1933 and raised there, she ar­rived in WA only in 1961 with her hus­band, bi­ol­o­gist Karl Zwicky, hav­ing lived and worked for lengthy pe­ri­ods in the 1950s in In­done­sia (she also lived for a time in Europe and the US).

Per­ceiv­ing WA as iso­la­tion at the edge of the con­ti­nent, gaz­ing into the flux of In­dian and South­ern Ocean eter­nity, Zwicky be­came an es­sen­tial part of the city and its pro­jec­tion of voice into a broader Aus­tralia.

As Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin say in their in­tro­duc­tion to The Col­lected Poems of Fay Zwicky: ‘‘Once in Perth, she made it her home.” Her es­say Nei­ther Out Far Nor In Deep ex­plored how both the Swan River, “that great con­sol­ing stretch of wa­ter”, and the In­dian Ocean “freed” her “to med­i­tate”: My adopted par­ish handed me the very stuff of po­etry … A lit­tle rush of in­fin­ity that al­ters per­spec­tive how­ever slightly and briefly per­mits a stand­ing out­side of one­self.

But there’s noth­ing com­fort­able in this ‘‘re­treat’’ into the ‘‘sub­ur­ban’’. Zwicky’s Perth is also a place epit­o­mis­ing the dis­tance and dis­tanc­ing she in some ways em­braced re­gard­ing her own cul­tural her­itages and her in­tel­lec­tual and cul­tural re­quire­ments.

She came from what we call a mu­si­cal fam­ily, was ed­u­cated at Church of Eng­land girls’ schools in Mel­bourne and be­came more aware of her Jewish her­itage be­cause of World War II, which also took her fa­ther away from her, her two sis­ters and their mother for six years.

Dougan and Dolin in­clude a vi­tal es­say of Zwicky’s, Bor­der Cross­ings (2000), in which she dis­cusses her child­hood and tex­tual-mu­si­cal in­flu­ences, es­pe­cially from the Angli­can Prayer Book, and how she came to write her key work, ar­guably the ma­jor longer ‘‘Aus­tralian’’ poem of the last cen­tury, Kad­dish.

Writ­ten in re­sponse to her fa­ther’s death at sea (in 1967), Zwicky searched out lan­guage and lan­guages for her Kad­dish — lan­guages that needed to be drawn out of her her­itage and iden­tity. Not hav­ing He­brew, she en­tered the realm of speak­ing for the dead, main­tain­ing a pres­ence of mem­ory.

It’s not sur­pris­ing, as she notes, that this lib­er­a­tion in en­ter­ing the lan­guage and cul­tur­al­ity she re­quired for her lament came via Amer­i­can sources, es­pe­cially Allen Ginsberg’s Kad­dish, a poem for his mother, Naomi.

But it was Zwicky’s ‘‘fail­ure’’ to understand that the Kad­dish was tra­di­tion­ally the do­main of men that led her to dis­sent from tra­di­tion and make some­thing rad­i­cal, even re­bel­lious, a trait of which she was scep­ti­cal and wary, but which she em­bod­ied in so many ways: ‘‘the tra­di­tional or­der of pri­or­i­ties has al­ways ran­kled with me and con­tin­ues to do so’’.

In works such as the “In­done­sian poems’’ in The Gate­keeper’s Wife, where Zwicky’s first hus­band is re­mem­bered, love in mem­ory is em­pha­sised through loss; cul­tural ref­er­ents are lo­calised and grow in per­sonal re­mem­brance.

As time went on in Zwicky’s writ­ing life (which gained mo­men­tum and trac­tion when she set­tled in as a teacher at the Univer­sity of WA), she moved from a more for­mally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally con­strained dic­tion in the poems that make up her first vol­ume, Isaac Ba­bel’s Fid­dle, to the looser Amer­i­can-in­flu­enced con­ver­sa­tional line of the poems in later vol­umes such as Ask Me, The Gate­keeper’s Wife and her last, the master­ful Pic­nic, which con­tains a num­ber of her finest poems.

It can be ar­gued that in do­ing so she was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly con­scious of a mis­sion to speak ‘‘against our mu­tual oblit­er­a­tion”. As the for­mal­i­ties of the poems seem to become more re­laxed, the in­ten­sity of their po­lit­i­cal and eth­i­cal gaze in­creases.

Pub­lisher Ivor Indyk has ap­pro­pri­ately lo­cated Zwicky’s po­etic pur­pose in the zone of the moral, and Zwicky is al­ways a morally and ethi- cally at­tuned poet, but she was con­stantly aware of avoid­ing di­dac­ti­cism and ide­ol­ogy, which she per­ceived as be­ing the en­emy of the imag­i­na­tion and ul­ti­mately free­dom it­self.

I would agree that she avoided these traps all her work­ing life, but I would also ar­gue that her moral pur­pose was po­lit­i­cal, re­bel­lious and far nois­ier than her man­ners or her Church of Eng­land up­per-mid­dle class (Euro­peanised) cul­tural up­bring­ing might per­mit. Ev­ery­where are the signs of a spirit in re­bel­lion, but also a re­bel­lion in lan­guage it­self. I con­sider her one of the most in­tense and even an­gry voices speak­ing for the sanc­tity of the hu­man spirit to have come out of Aus­tralia.

Other than a num­ber of the late poems, such as Pic­nic it­self, in which the ease and strain of em­pa­thy work hand-in-hand, and Boat Song, the re­mark­able poem for refugees she pub­lished in The West Aus­tralian news­pa­per in 2014, it’s easy to for­get how topical Zwicky could be in the con­text of po­lit­i­cal events.

Kad­dish is one such poem, though it’s rarely if ever read that way. Nei­ther are poems of voices such as Ark Voices, Mrs Noah Speaks or The Pot­ter from the se­quence The Ter­ra­cotta Army at Xi’an. The Pot­ter is surely Zwicky’s sen­si­bil­ity again re­belling within the pot­ter’s male voice as con­trary, as fe­male-au­thor provo­ca­teur, as the voice of the cre­ator against the tyranny of a deathly pa­tron­age.

In this se­quence of voice poems, Zwicky’s Euro-Aus­tralian in­flec­tions of ways of see­ing, her West­ern­ised moder­nity, com­bine with tac­tile ‘‘mo­ments’’ and the arche­ol­ogy of China’s his­tory, cre­at­ing strange dis­am­bigua­tions rem­i­nis­cent of TS Eliot. There’s a po­lit­i­cal sub­text of the self in these poems, but its sub­tex­tu­al­ity doesn’t pre­vent the pol­i­tics burst­ing out when con­fronted by hor­ror, even if there’s a strug­gle for the poet-ob­server’s cul­pa­bil­ity in the fail­ure to pre­vent hor­ror. Con­sider Tianan­men Square June 4, 1989.

It’s through the imag­i­na­tion that the poet can qui­etly com­pel change. For one who wres­tled with si­lence, as Zwicky did, we might con­sider that ‘‘quiet’’ and ‘‘si­lence’’ are dif­fer­ent things, and the lat­ter has a moral grav­i­tas that ‘‘quiet’’ seem­ingly doesn’t, and yet it’s in the quiet, the husky-voiced steadi­ness, that the qua­ver­ing, hes­i­tant and brood­ing anger re­sides, ready to burst out of its con­straints.

Rather than poem af­ter poem, it’s line by line that we dis­cover this, lines that we can sense have been drafted and re­drafted, left and re­vis­ited, maybe years af­ter their in­spir­ing events, like the Kad­dish that had to come, in time, in the way mem­ory, knowl­edge, ex­pe­ri­ence and deal­ing with the quo­tid­ian al­lowed.

Here are a few such lines taken from early through to late poems: from Emily Dick­in­son Judges the Bread Di­vi­sion at the Amherst Cat­tle Show, 1858: ‘‘About my neck the acid vic­tor’s wreath’’; from Talk­ing Mer­maid: ‘‘The wa­ter­front is mur­murous with at­ten­tion’’, and ‘‘Pure play is for the feu­dal few’’; and in terms of the

Fay Zwicky

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