In the spirit of rebellion
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