In the essay ‘Border Crossings’, included as an opening to The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, the poet recounts a memory. The night before she was to start at a new school, her mother sat on the end of her bed and taught her to say the Lord’s Prayer. This would be a rather commonplace recollection except that she and her mother were Jewish, the school she was about to start was the Melbourne Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, her mother’s alma mater, and when Zwicky described this memory to her mother, her mother said that such a thing had never happened.
As a reader of Zwicky’s poetry, this unverifiable memory is significant because it expresses the idea that words do things. The words of the Lord’s Prayer were worth learning for their power, not as prayer, but as a tool that might be needed starting at a new school. Reading Fay Zwicky’s poetry and critical writing involves repeated encounters with ideas that at first appear to be presented as convictions, but are gradually revealed as knotty problems that Zwicky works at, pulling on threads and tangles until they are loosened, or frayed, or bound tighter than ever. That the poet has a social responsibility because poems do things in the world is one of these assertions. Not only does Zwicky make this claim in her critical writing, it is also evident in the intensity and integrity of her poetry. But then she reflects that she grew to adulthood in the time of the Holocaust and Hiroshima – and asks what it is to write poetry in such a time. Commissioned to write a poem after the Boxing Day Tsunami, she came close to refusing, then delivered ‘Aceh, December 2004’, a poem that includes the lines, ‘True grief is tongueless/at the site of desolation’. Being unable to speak was a recurring motif in Zwicky’s dreams, a supreme fear that was coupled with her periodic frustration at feeling she was not being heard.
Her life would make a good novel. Born Julia Fay Rosefield, her mother a musician, her father a doctor, two younger sisters. A getting of wisdom education at a Melbourne girls’ school with her father away at war for six years. She overcomes a stutter and debilitating self-conciousness, goes to university, has a career as a concert pianist, performing and touring with her string player sisters as the Rosefield Trio. They tour through South East Asia, and in Java Fay meets a Dutch biologist called Zwicky. She marries him, and takes his name and becomes Fay Zwicky instead of Julia Rosefield. They have children, and she’s not a concert pianist anymore, she’s a wife, and a writer, and her mother is angry about this. Her father dies at sea, far away from his wife and his daughters. She and her husband live in Europe for a while, but then they come back to Australia, and settle in Perth, the most isolated city in the world. She gets a job at a university, travels to conferences and residencies. She raises her family, and writes poetry, and reads and teaches. She’s not as well-known as she should be, perhaps because she’s a woman, perhaps because she refuses to follow fashion, perhaps because she’s writing in the nineteen eighties and nineties, when there is less interest in poetry than at any other time in this country, perhaps because she lives in Western Australia, perhaps because she’s busy, living her life. But when her mother has died and her children have grown up and her husband has died and many of her friends have died too, at last, there’s this Collected Works, edited by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin with great care and even tenderness, and she lives long enough to see what it will be, to hold it in her hands.
I’m not saying that’s the way it was, but that’s how you could write it. And it’s useful to have a thumbnail biography of Zwicky out of the way, because it’s hard to talk about the poetry without knowing something of the life, not because her poetry is confessional, but because, as she wrote in the introduction to her collection of critical essays The Lyre in the Pawnshop,
creative consciousness is always probing the interchange between a man’s individual powers and the culture to which he belongs. There is always an edgy engagement between these powers and the culture that holds the individual within its confines.
The individual, the culture and the ways in which they produce one another, often abrasively, sometimes transformatively, is a thread that runs through her thought and her poetry. Ivor Indyk has described her emphasis on the poet’s role in society as a moral stance, and Martin Duwell has characterized Zwicky’s worldview as Levantine, as opposed to Greek or Oriental, that is, a worldview that sees God as a powerful, at times wrathful, often difficult presence, and where living in the universe requires an ongoing argument with its creator. And here is one of those times when we need to know a little of Zwicky’s life, because it is Zwicky’s mother, not her father, who appears in Zwicky’s often humorous descriptions, as authoritative, omniscient, and at times wrathful. The authority that Zwicky argues with is not straightforwardly patriarchal.
In 1990, when she was in her late fifties, Zwicky gave an interview to Hena Maes Jelinek at the University of Liege. In the interview she describes herself as an ‘outsider’.
The outsider is more or less always the one who doesn’t feel that he or she belongs. And I don’t know why that should be so, but I have a fair idea that it has got something to do with being born Jewish. Even though I was not brought up in a particularly religious home, with any particular links with traditional Judaism, there was some urgency (I mean historical urgency) that in some way bound me psychically to a history which also extended beyond Australia. To that extent, though it could not be practically demonstrated that I have had a particularly Jewish upbringing, the awareness of difference was already implanted, even if it was only unspoken.
You just knew.
Being an outsider is both a feeling, perhaps of unspoken rejection or subtle ostracism, and a position taken up. It is both a situation to be lamented, and a vantage point to be maintained. For Zwicky, being an outsider is about being Jewish, having a sense of foreignness that stays with her despite the fact that she and her family had lived in Australia for generations, but she also links her outsider identity with her sense of connection to European culture, and to the value she placed on intellectualism and high art, a belief that, in cultural terms there is ‘good, better and best’. Perhaps later on in her life as an academic, her rejection of what she described as postmodernism and cultural relativism may have meant that her outsider identity was reinforced. Her poetry shows, however, that Zwicky is also deeply connected, enmeshed in relationships with family, work colleagues, literary friendships, even entering intimately into the lives of strangers, caring for sick and dying people. For Zwicky, her sense of herself as an outsider was not complete licence, it was not a position of social or artistic libertarianism; to the contrary, it meant a relentless requirement to live and write in dialogue with social and personal obligations.
In her mid-thirties, Zwicky wrote the poem that required her to establish her own sense of being Jewish and her connection to Jewish culture and tradition while at the same time transgressing Jewish custom. This poem, ‘Kaddish’, marked a change in her life and her work. The word Kaddish refers to the ancient prayer that is part of the daily ritual of the synagogue, and is also spoken by the eldest son at his father’s funeral. Zwicky wrote her own Kaddish, speaking as the eldest of three daughters. It is a powerful poem that draws together biography, details of everyday life, nursery rhyme, phonetically rendered Aramaic, and vernacular speech. It is sometimes fragmented, sometimes uses repetition, sometimes flows and rushes. It’s a collage of memory and learning, and a wail of grief as well, sad and angry.
This poem marks a strengthened sense of identity, including cultural identity. It is interesting to read Zwicky’s essay on Sylvia Plath for the insight the brief commentary on Plath’s poem ‘Daddy’ provides for Zwicky’s poem ‘Kaddish’, but it was Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Kaddish’ that helped her to achieve her own breakthrough, personally and artistically. Having begun her ‘Kaddish’ in January of 1976, she read Ginsberg’s poem in March of that year. In her essay ‘Democratic Repression: The Ethnic Strain’, she says,
I would not have been capable of writing my poem ‘Kaddish’ in Australia ten years ago, so uncertain was I of my identification with the Jewish faith and the legitimacy of its existence in a bland Anglo-Saxon context. Nor would I have dared to insert segments of phoneticised Aramaic for fear of revealing that exotic, interloping status of which I was ashamed and afraid.
Writing ‘Kaddish’ made Zwicky’s outsider identity explicit. Reflecting on her first book Isaac Babel’s Fiddle to Hena Maes Jelinek she described it as ‘very masked, very literary … very defensive, very academic, very well-trained’. Where the poems in Isaac Babel’s Fiddle are masked, ‘Kaddish’ is crafted to appear unconstrained, expressive, raw. It is a poem about grief and identity, but it is also a challenge to her culture and her society, an assertion of her voice.
Zwicky’s description of how she felt writing this poem is also a useful reminder of the specific cultural conditions of twentieth-century Australia, the strange cocktail of racist ideology, egalitarianism, nationalism and exploitative colonialism, the contradictory urges to show the world that Australians were as good as anyone and to cut down to size any Australian who looked like they were getting too cocky. Meanwhile, the continent continued to be home to Aboriginal people whose varied languages and cultures were tens of thousands of years old and continuing, despite the catastrophic impact of colonialism. For Zwicky, this cultural moment meant that,
[l]iving and growing up in this country has been an exercise in repression. And breaking through this sense of repression has been central to the impetus behind my work. If I have managed to do so, it is to certain American writers that I feel indebted…
Zwicky saw Americans as facing many of the same cultural struggles that Australians did, but the work of the American poets she loved and admired looked like evidence that somehow, America was doing it better. For Zwicky, America meant freedom, a place where the outsider feels exuberantly at home, or if not at home, then at the right kind of party. In ‘American Safety Valve’, subtitled ‘(AAALS Conference, Humboldt State University, 1996)’, Zwicky writes, ‘America, you hand me poems on a plate.’
The metaphor of the plate invites culinary thoughts that soon arrive in the form of ‘thousand island dressings/In a thousand variants’. While salad is a favoured metaphor for successful multiculturalism, in preference to the assimilationist melting pot, the salad in this poem is also a prompt for memory
Takes me back to wharfside San Francisco Young together in the sixties, father, mother, Eight-year old enchanted kid. O memory! O America!
Is this Whitman, ‘A Star-Spangled Banner’, or both? Probably both, tribute and mockery together, in that dry, double Fay Zwicky way. Oh yes, and e.e. cummings, too, why not? The poem anticipates the conference – the narrator is in her hotel room, remembering, but also preparing herself for the conference experience, a mental massage that becomes a commando raid,
Crack the jointed brain, send in whatever’s still Alive and wham the lock gates open, Free the attic-bound deluded pacifist Fresh from hosing down the lawns On her volcano somnolent in W.A.
Fans of the academic and author of campus novels David Lodge might be anticipating the poem opening out into a picaresque of academic life by now, but in this poem Zwicky never leaves her hotel room, except in her thoughts, and around half of this eighty-something line poem is a description of her encounter with the radiator. It’s half playful, half genuinely anxious. She begins by attempting turn down the heat, and has already begun to ‘fiddle knobs,/Wrestle seized valves’ when she starts reading the notice that tells her not to touch, because ‘Steam valve may separate from radiator,/Causing steam to shoot out.’
The radiator wrestle is no distraction from her thoughts, instead it leads her back to thinking about America. For readers who have been following Fay Zwicky’s frequent criticisms of fashionable philosophies and New Age platitudes her last lines, quoting the Tao, are funny,
Can a man cling only to heaven, Know nothing of earth?
Is she settling on a position of defiance in relation to radiator-tampering? Getting ready to let steam, if not volcanoes, erupt? Back home in Australia, she attacked what she saw as the empty posturing of young poets she believed were more interested in being poets than writing poetry, showed no mercy to the editors of anthologies whose accounts of their own rationale she saw as muddled and inconsistent, and despaired at what must have looked at the time like the increasing irrelevance of poetry to Australian society, as big publishing houses were winding up their poetry lists, before the efflorescence of small publishers, the revitalization of literary journals, and the readings, slams and festivals that make poetry such a vital aspect of Australian culture now.
In 1988, Fay Zwicky travelled to China and India. Her poems about her time in China are strange, vivid pictures of jet lag and culture shock. In the poem ‘Out of This World’, Zwicky calls up every reference she has, a strange and uncomfortable assemblage of tourist brochure images of “silk and lacquered screens,/ sages playing chess in elegant pavilions” and the schoolyard casual racism of ‘Chinese Torture’ and “Chinese Burns’. Zwicky’s knowledge of Chinese culture is inadequate to make sense of her encounter with the China of the late eighties. It’s not the foreignness all around her that’s most disturbing, but the loss of the sense of identity, an identity particularly hard-won in Zwicky’s case.
Down in a vast reading room for students I saw two dogeared journals, China Reconstructs, In a bookcase with glass doors. Not a book in sight. Someone left a Chinese newspaper. I can’t read a word. Who am I here?
She does what many travellers do, and finds connection with home, even though it is only in the familiarity of cheap and unattractive hotel furnishings, ‘dead brown grainless/pub wardrobes … dun green felt carpeting.’ The intimacy of bodies is another point of connection, in the form of a pair of plastic flip flops and a red thermos that have been used by previous guests. My favourite lines in the poem:
Don’t look out the window yet. Try to deal with what’s inside.
I have a mental image of Zwicky as I have seen her in photographs sitting monolithically, taking in the familiar and the foreign, but also, bravely, turning her attention inside the self, what’s left of it, alone in a hotel room, without the people, the objects, the language, that authenticate identity. Eventually she does look out the window to see a man dressed in black standing in the street.
He’s all alone. The dawn is rising red before him. He doesn’t know or care That there’s a frightened watcher Following his stillness like a dream.
The dawn that ‘rises red’ is an image straight from Maoist propaganda posters, and the use of the word ‘watcher’ has a John le Carré feel. It’s almost a relief to at least hear the narrator in this poem describe themselves as ‘frightened’. Ah, so that is how she feels. And it’s satisfying, too, to think that, if this motionless man is there to keep an eye on what the foreign guests are up to, the narrator of the poem has inverted things, just a little, by watching him through the bathroom window.
Like a dream he turns and folds his hands as if in slowest prayer first one side and then slowly to the other, light years away and out of this world. He isn’t young.
I’m not sure how to read these last lines. Does the figure, who might be threatening symbolically, or even actually, becomes a figure of strange comfort, a middle-aged man who makes a gesture that is at last, something legible? Does he return to Zwicky her sense of self? Or is he a final, punctuating mark of foreignness?
What is a poet to do when she feels foreign at home in Australia? One strategy is described in ‘Pie in the Sky’. The poem is dedicated to Gwen Harwood, and it’s easy to imagine Zwicky’s fellow poet enjoying the analytical dissection of the Australian culinary object, a meat pie with sauce. The narrator of this poem is in Hobart for Easter. All the shops are closed, with the exception of a Greek deli. She’s reading a book about Beethoven, but the words of English novelist E.M. Forster, ‘only connect’ are what come to mind when she’s called on to give her order. In an attempt to connect, she asks for a pie and sauce. As she eats, the pie becomes a piece of music, and then a series of paintings, Hockney, Da Vinci and Warhol are invoked, before we come to what the pie is not: Little Jack Horner’s ‘individualistic, self-/congratulatory pie’, the pie of the four and twenty blackbirds, or ‘the tragic moussaka of Thyestes/brimming with his children’s gristle.’ The pie has by this time been elevated beyond reasonable expectation, but it doesn’t really go with Beethoven. Zwicky writes,
If I were marrying music to this pie I’d tie it to a wheezing barrel organ From some innocent old carousel … Round and round the horses roll] their diamond eyes, stiffening In full stride, biting the air With wooden teeth, Letting it go at that.
For Zwicky, art could be good, it could be better, and it could be best. The Australian meat pie, though enjoyable, is not ‘best’. It is the wheezy music of a carousel, cheering, good fun, but the meat pie is ‘what it is’. The poem is fanciful and self-deprecatory, Zwicky seems to be enjoying her pie. Its very mundanity is what pushes her into unexpected and pleasurable meditations on art and music, while the more prosaic delights of a hot meat pie with sweet-acid-salty and most importantly, red, tomato sauce, are surely best appreciated when alone in Hobart at Easter.
My first encounter with Fay Zwicky’s poetry came when I was at university. The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, edited by Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn, was a set text in a compulsory first year English subject. Collected in this anthology is Zwicky’s ‘Mrs Noah Speaks’. At just that moment in literatures in English, feminist writing and publishing was verdant and rhizomic, and part of this growth included the rewriting of feminist versions of all kinds of texts. At the time, I assumed that Zwicky’s poem was part of this project. Reading this poem again in the context of the entire Collected Poems, and with the benefit of now having read The Lyre in the Pawnshop, it is clear that, while part of Zwicky’s project is to write women’s experience, she also took issue with feminism. That is, while I would be quite comfortable calling Zwicky’s work feminist, I’m not sure that she would have identified herself as a feminist.
When Zwicky spoke about the Ark sequence that includes ‘Mrs Noah Speaks’ to Hena Maes Jelinek, it was the poems about animals that, she says, liberated her from the style of the over-cerebral and formal poems of her first book, Isaac Babel’s Fiddle. By writing in the voice of animals talking to their creator, she discovered she felt able to do anything, say anything. She described herself thinking about the animal’s bodies, how they might feel, how they might move, even trying out ways of moving like the animals with her own body.
[I]n the Ark poems, I got inside the animals and spoke through them. In other words, I felt free to do this in these poems, whereas in the first book I certainly could not have done that. I used to just go and look at the animals, and watch them and begin to move like them. You almost become the creature that you are impersonating. And the voice that speaks through each animal is not a human voice any more but the voice of the animal speaking to its creator.
Beginning with the body, then, helped her to find a new voice, not less intelligent, not less erudite, but freer. As though, in making the effort to sound like a lemur, a bat, or a tiger, she forgot to worry about establishing her credentials as poet. Perhaps it was mentally inhabiting the utterly alien bodies of the whale, the hippo, the giraffe, animals surely very awkwardly contained by father Noah’s vessel, that led her to such a joyful, interesting and audacious depiction of Mrs Noah. At first this character comes on like a vaudevillian comic turn. You can imagine her entering with a scarf knotted under her chin, carrying a mop and bucket, to declaim,
Lord, the cleaning’s nothing. What’s a pen or two? Even if the tapir’s urine Takes the paint clean off There’s nothing easier.
Bodies, of course, must eat and defecate. In five lines, Zwicky changes everything about the story of Noah’s Ark. It’s one thing to build an enormous ship, big enough to carry all creation, but what’s impossible to imagine is the organisation and labour required to keep everyone and everything fed, washed and reasonably content, and to deal with all the poo. In this poem, Zwicky moves freely between this comic voice to a more lyric voice. This seamless change of style is necessary, since Mrs Noah does the housekeeping, but also has her Odyssean side, battling the elements, the ‘[s]weep and push of waves against the sides’ and fire that ‘turns wood to ashes’, while still finding time and energy to talk to God, argue, asks questions. It’s Mrs Noah, as much as it is the ark, that keeps the saved afloat, despite the waves, the threat of fire, the fears and doubts of her children, the cries of the ‘drowned folk’ she cannot help. Mrs Noah almost miraculously performs the invisible work of caring for the bodily needs of all the creatures while trying to understand her place in the universe, and the universe itself. She is equal to the task, assuring God that ‘I bend but do not break under your /chilling stars.’
For most people, the great adventures of their lives are births, love affairs, illnesses, bereavements, starting businesses or changing jobs. Insights into our selves and our loved ones come through the difficult enough business of living together. Fay Zwicky writes about the way in which daily practices connect with deep struggles, the way culture lives, not in grand gestures and ritualised moments, but in commonplaces and taken for granted ways of thinking about things. Zwicky’s late work achieves the mastery required to write lines that sound like plain speech, about rather ordinary things, and yet are poetry. Women, especially, who write like this run the risk that they will be seen to be writing a journal with line breaks, an unskilled, accidental kind of poem, almost like an inoffensive excretion. Of course, with Zwicky, we know very well that she can write highly intellectual poetry full of references to history, art, music, poetry that is disciplined and learned. In The Lyre in the Pawnshop, she discusses Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, writing about ‘things as they are’, so we know that when Zwicky uses plain speech she does so deliberately, having thought through both the advantages and the limits of this tactic.
The poem ‘Picnic’ once again addresses the feeling of foreignness. It is a description of a picnic in Perth’s Kings Park. Food tells the story,
Meat balls, hummus and tabouli mingled with our sizzled sausages on paper plates. Coke and juice.
The narrator is picnicking with a group of families, Afghani refugees. The children play, the men smoke and brood, and the narrator sits with the women as they chat, the surreal chat of people who must balance extreme events with everyday life.
Someone had found work. Someone had been accepted as a A lab technician. Someone’s husband still in detention three years on. Did she get to see him? No, she couldn’t get time off, after school the kids alone and so on.
For the narrator in this poem, the picnic and these families recall her time as a young wife and new mother living in an apartment block in Zürich, unable to communicate with her neighbours or understand their customs.
The tenants roused the concierge: the baby cries all night, that pram is blocking the foyer. Tell the foreigner. I took it six flights up And six flights down on sunny days. Wasps clustered over cherry jam, The tiny kitchen, scrubbed washboard. Hovering useless over the baby’s wheezy breath.
I want to go on and on, quoting this poem of everyday things. It’s full of nouns, easy to picture; meatballs, sausages, a pram, wasps, jam, a washboard. There is even a detailed and evocative description of the washing machine she must share with the other residents in the apartment block. The opening of the poem, the description of the Perth picnic, describes connection, conversation, the bright, clear light of the sun, at least from Zwicky’s point of view. The second half, the remembered time in Zürich, is grey, spotted with strong colour, the red of jam and geraniums, the black and yellow of wasps and widows. The narrator is surrounded by disapproving strangers. Her memory of life in Zürich hints at how the sunny picnic in Perth might feel to the women who are refugees. It is a memory that brings a sense of connection through the shared experience of being a stranger. She knows how it is to ‘sit quiet in a cold place/waiting to touch the sun-warmed earth.’ I’m still waiting, myself, to come to understand what Zwicky means here, by this waiting. Is it waiting until all those little prosaic details of life, the taste of food, the new job, the different light, no longer feel so strange? Is it waiting to return home? Or just waiting, waiting without expectation, until things change somehow and life is not so empty, not so lonely, not so cold.
The collection in which the poem ‘Picnic’ was published is also called Picnic. I think it might be a joke, that Zwicky’s ‘Picnic’ has a silent ‘no’ in front of it. Her interests continued to be varied: she writes about the twentieth-century American poet Robert Lowell, the Japanese artist of the Edo period Katsushika Hokusai, reanimates Emperor Qin’s two thousand-year-old Terracotta Army, finds words for the uncountable loss of the Boxing Day Tsunamai, writes an emotionally complicated ditty for a grandchild, even a poem for the 1998 Football World Cup. But for me, the treasures of this late work are in her apparently straightforward, semantically easeful, amused, intimate, unsentimental poems. There’s ‘Letting Go’, the clichéd phrase repeated, at first almost mockingly,
they also say you must let go learn to let go let your children go and they go and you stay letting them go
but as the poem opens out, and tells, as the opening line instructs ‘the truth of experience’ the letting go takes on a kind of whiplash force, coiled with emotional energy like the images Zwicky uses of a scorpion, a wave and twisted spine. Reading this poem I thought of how many women, how many millions, now and all through time, experience the powerful emotional experience that Zwicky gives voice to in this poem, and how few poems about it there are, at least how few published, anthologised, canonised.
In ‘The Age of Aquarius’ Zwicky begins in the third person
She slumps in the disabled bay clutching a waffle-cotton gown around a spreading paunch, shambling breasts
We see an old woman, perhaps pitiable, perhaps even a little grotesque. But Zwicky turns the tables on us in the very next line,
Why not say ‘I’? For that’s who sits at 6 a.m. Waiting for the health club Pool to open in the rain.
Oh dear. We’ve been caught, readers. It’s Zwicky herself who waits, an old woman in her dressing gown. Our intelligent, amusing, slightly scary companion through these poems, this life she has related to us, this woman of complex and difficult relationships, fierce and uncompromising intelligence, swift wit, it’s her we’ve just dismissed at a glance. The poem layers irony. That title is certainly funny coming from Zwicky, despiser of intellectual and artistic fashion, pseudo-philosophy and faddish taste. She is the age her mother was when she died, and the thought seems to liberate her. Zwicky is still here to witness
tight black butts in leotards … iPods, mobiles, water bottles.
She notes that these more svelte excercisers never greet or thank one another, never make eye contact. She’s literally out of step, singing herself a rumba as she walks up and down the pool, her self-created rhythm disrupted by the 4/4 time of the wall clock. And yet here, at last, Zwicky seems to experience a strange kind of contented belonging. Outside, in the carpark, with the earlybirds waiting for the pool to open, she finds that
[t]he waiting crowd are all, like me, up early talking or silent more vivacious than galahs, more foolish than parrots. We stand and wait, walk up and down … talking about things that must matter.
I can’t stop saying that line to myself: ‘talking about things that must matter’. Is it a return to the knotty problem of the poet’s role, of whether or not to raise one’s voice? We talk, so talking must matter, and the things we talk about must matter. But more remarkable even than that, is the line, the ‘waiting crowd are all, like me’ – that enjambment is not an accident, Fay Zwicky uses her line breaks as a lacemaker uses her needles. The waiting crowd are all like me. There’s kinship in this poem, a kinship of the body perhaps, the shared state of mortality, of waiting. And while you wait, why not think, or talk. Maybe start a poem.