Reviewed: Lucy Dougan and Tom Dolin (eds), The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, UWAP, 388 pp; Thea Astley, Selected Poems, ed. Cheryl Taylor, UQP, 167 pp; Judy Johnson, Dark Convicts, UWAP, 138 pp; Melinda Smith, goodbye, cruel, Pitt Street Poets, 107 pp; Shevaun Cooley, Homing, Giramondo, 102 pp.
The Zwicky Collected has been superbly edited by Lucy Dougan and Tom Dolin, and beautifully produced by UWAP: the book is a pleasure to the eye and feels good in the hand. That said, I am not sure what I feel about its contents.
The poems from Zwicky’s earliest book, Isaac Babel’s Fiddle, read now like the work of a 1970s academic: quick-witted and adept with imagery, they nevertheless often struggle to achieve a seamless synthesis between their fast-moving language and the insights or emotions they articulate. Many are set in America, and for all the deftness of their observations, have something of an expat quality to them—as of an outsider looking in—and are seldom able to draw on the full response available to those whose imaginations have been shaped by a culture.
That changes with Kaddish, her best-known book, where she is back on home turf. In the title poem, a response to the death of her father, she accessed a tradition of weighted, religious language, which she tempered with the directness of contemporary free verse. Her subsequent work consistently displayed features that she first learnt to use in Kaddish: a measured pace and gravitas of tone; an understanding of the difference between essential argument and connective tissue (with a satisfying forthrightness to her address, and a pleasing unexpectedness to her changes of direction, as a consequence); and an amused, albeit jaundiced, reluctance to deal in anything but people’s real motivations. Any distinctive style is an accomplishment, and it may be that Zwicky’s style is her achievement. Even when there are questions about whether she subjected her material to the hardest intellectual scrutiny, her peremptory, querulous voice consistently engages the reader. The slightly later ‘Pie in the Sky’, for instance, a riff about Australian cultural inadequacy (‘I’m eating an Australian meat pie / reading a book about / Beethoven’s spiritual development,’) might choose the easier negative comparison over the difficult engagement, but it is a pleasure to read.
‘Kaddish’ is a strange piece. Despite its name, it is neither an elegy nor a ritual of mourning, but an assertion of the right to speak under the liberating realisation that the father is no longer present. This is why it has resonated as a feminist text: a difficult girl is insisting in difficult circumstances. What matters is not what she says so much as the fact she is speaking at all. As it happens, the poem’s most powerful argument is not with the father, who is presented as having performed his duty humanely enough (though to the accompaniment of a bitter laughter that the disaffected daughter can relate to), but with the mother, who insists that the daughters continue to observe the law the father upheld, even when he is no longer there. There is a distancing to the way the father is imagined. Much of what we hear about him is by report: ‘It was impossible for / Him to be rude, rough, abrupt.’ But the mother is dangerous, many-sided and viscerally present:
She is mother of thunder, mother of trees, mother of lake,
Secret springs, gate to the underworld, vessel of darkness,
Flame-spewer, tiger-tongued queen of the dead and the violent dancers.
Because her wilfulness is seen as an expression of power, rather than a legitimate upholding of the law, she is presented as a destructive force:
The home is the centre of power.
There I reign
Childless. Three daughters, all whores, all—
Should be devoured by the fires of Gehenna
Should be dissolved in the womb that bore them
Should wander the wastelands that bore forever.
Instead, they dance.
The poet forgives her at the end, saying ‘after forgivenesss, / silence’, but it is hard not to read the silence as ambivalent: I forgive you, but you still did wrong.
If she resists the law in ‘Kaddish’, in ‘Mrs Noah Speaks’ she submits. It is not, however, a submission without resentment. She accepts her daily tasks: ‘Lord, the cleaning’s nothing. / What’s a pen or two? / Even if the tapir’s urine / Takes the paint clean off.’ It is their lack of justification that she finds difficult. Once, she says, ‘we lived neighbourly with our birds. / Creation, your handiwork, was one. / No good and bad—just men and women. / But with your sages came the rub … Duty-fettered, love / tumbled like a lightning-stricken tower.’ Whether or not one accepts this Edenic narrative, Zwicky is signalling what turns out to be a characteristic resistance to being ‘duty-fettered’: in the case of ‘Mrs Noah Speaks’, to an idealisation that is less satisfying than the life it replaces. Ultimately she questions the law because the fulfilment of its requirements does nothing to ameliorate the world’s suffering (‘I mourn the wrack, the rock under the / blue sea, our old wound, the / dismantling storm and cannot / thank you’).
If there is a characteristic note to her work, this is it: the world is irredeemable, no matter what we do—with the corollary that happiness is provisional and ungrounded. The problem this creates for the poetry is that her argument with God, or the conditions of existence, can undermine—or invalidate—the personal grounds on which the poem is based. It is not an issue in ‘Mrs Noah Speaks’ because the point of the poem is to tease this out. It is problematic, however, in a poem such as the later ‘Picnic’. There, joining some Afghanis at a park, she observes the provisional nature of their lives: waiting on decisions from Immigration, looking for jobs, managing in temporary digs. The effect of this is to remind her of an unhappy period in her own life when, recently married and in a strange city, Munich, she shared a condemned building with uncommunicative fellow tenants who hassled her about her baby’s crying and competed for the use of the washing machine. In ‘Picnic’, the implication is that one never quite leaves this state of waiting, a general complaint that overrides and diminishes—in terms of the hierarchies of the poem’s meanings—her feeling for the Afghanis.
There is a further issue in this poem: the way her gaze moves from other to self. The characteristic movement of interest, in human discourse, goes in the opposite direction: it moves outwards from the subject. One might go further, and say that discourse is founded on the gesture away from the self, towards the other. When the direction of interest moves the other way, interaction is closed down: the self becomes a sink. I am not suggesting that the subject is not ground for all observations. I think, though, that our social existence depends on our willingness to gesture beyond it, and that this outward momentum is equally important in the arts: one searches for something grounded in the subject that matters to the audience, and offers it to invite interest and, at best, communion. The subject should be the source of an idealism, not the point at which communication ends. But that is not the case here, where the effect of seeing the Afghanis’ troubles is to make her think about her own. By drawing the parallel with her own past, and by ending there, she usurps the empathy she began with.
The way one’s emotions express themselves in one’s work tends to be one of the last things that a writer discovers, but in the late poem ‘No Return’ Zwicky meditates on the way her needs overwhelmed the relationships she nevertheless valued:
Standing on the stump
of the self I might have been,
I crane to catch
call back those once-
huge troubling presences
receding down the road
of memory, the dearest
and the worst for whose
going I was never ready
whose end I hastened
as a child forever
waving them off …
In this poem it is the idealism of the ‘self I might have been’ that has caused the damage, rather than the idealisations of a sacred book—but its effect has been the same. Zwicky’s teaching career coincided with the years of greatest prestige for confessional poetry, when a taste for the honesties of the self meant that its solipsisms were examined less rigorously than they might have been. It is difficult to gauge the effect this had on her work, but it is hard to think it wasn’t an influence. Some of her best poems, however, were written when the focus shifted towards others. One of her strongest sequences, from Ask Me (1990), is of poems that derive from her work as a carer for a hospice: poems such as ‘Reading’, about a miner dying with exemplary fortitude, or ‘Home Care’, about a woman with cancer in ‘a rented one-room unit / right above the freeway’, whose strong personality overwhelms her well-meaning husband’s attempts to assist.
Like any poet operating at the level Zwicky did, her career incorporated much self-conscious experiment, so there are all sorts of left-field and one-off successes, such as ‘Jack Frost’, a disturbing poem about coldness in lovemaking, and ‘Letter from Claudia in the Midi’, about her relationship with a difficult and very different school friend. And, inevitably, there are misses: ‘The Terracotta Army at Xi’an’, for example, in which she imagines lives for some of the clay figures. The poems are polished and complete, but as a sequence they have little creative momentum: ‘The Terracotta Army’ was a project—something she wrote because she felt that she ought to be writing. The first half of ‘The Age of Aquarius’ displays an attractive incisiveness: she is at a pool, watching the young and fit train. They are disconcerting:
One hell of a century:
between the holocaust and the atom bomb
who are these people?
But then the poem peters out, as if, beyond expressing her sense of their difference from herself, she did not really know what she wanted to say about them:
We stand and wait, walk up and down
in the rain talking or not, holding
in sagging muscle, spreading paunch,
talking about things that must matter.
So much seems to hang on
getting in that door.
It is both a strength and a weakness that Zwicky’s speaking self has such presence. The reader always knows what she feels about her material: with the exception of some of the earliest poems, the emotion is never merely attached, or there by convention. Even when it is invented, as in ‘The Terracotta Army’, it is done so plausibly: this was a fertile and sophisticated imagination. But there are questions about the reductive nature of the emotion, and the way it can operate as a vanishing point, drawing the rest of the poem’s material towards it. And one never quite feels that the cries of assertion, in ‘Kaddish’, or of complaint, in ‘Mrs Noah Speaks’, ever really evolve, in the subsequent work, into a distinctive way of seeing things. She asserted her right to speak, and found a way to do so, but beyond that never really worked out what she wanted to do with her freedom.
The poems in Thea Astley’s Selected were mostly taken from two exercise books: one collecting work she had written at school and for university magazines between 1939 and 1946, and the second, poems ‘written while working as a high school teacher in Sydney between 1949 and 1957’, with the purpose of compiling a publishable collection, an aim abandoned as her interest in prose developed. There are also a few occasional poems written later—translations and semi-jocular disputes with other academics. Very few of the poems strike one as warranting publication for their own sake, but they are all of interest in terms of Astley’s development as a writer.
Most of the poems are trapped in a mid-century Platonic diction whose air of cultural authority and implied scale of concept make them sound forthright enough, but whose meanings are too general to interact in interesting or significant ways. Under close examination, semantic intent evaporates into brushstrokes that are simply too broad:
This day has been a season out of place.
Summer greenness rising from the dust
Of winter’s heart; a memory-sharpened thrust
Of time’s slim finger. Through the chain-locked space
Where world chased little world, I caught the face
Predestined by the year to break the crust
That winter built about the spring. (They must,
Those memories, tortured in grim time’s embrace!)
(Sonnet: Chance Meeting)
One senses that these large symbols were a frustration for Astley (the ‘greenness’ rising from ‘winter’s heart’, the ‘face / Predestined by the year’); that she sought something sharper, but struggled with the language she inherited from her models. Over and over she wrestled successfully with the shape of her ideas in these shortish poems, but could find no way around the vagueness of her diction. Perhaps this was only resolved when, in her prose works, she stopped seeking explicit referents for her big terms, and let them settle into the background, as a texture of resistance to the crippled imaginations of her characters.
One does suspect, however, that the poems were a key step in her search for a language that would satisfy her: they represent, after all, a decade or more of meditating on what she really felt, and she was never to lose that impulse. Satire needs gestures of otherwise, and the poetic language of her novels supplies an important counterweight to their angers—a dimension missing from the work of mere iconoclasts.
For all the limitations of the poems, Cheryl Taylor, Susan Wyndham (who contributed a brief but illuminating introduction) and UQP have performed a valuable function in preparing this volume: it says that we care about our literary culture, and that some imaginations are interesting enough to warrant all their experiments being made available.
One current myth is that prior to Australia becoming a multicultural society, with all its variety, there used to be an Anglo society, where everyone was the same. However, like all societies it was endlessly complex: the variables of class, religion, education, origin—to say nothing of personality—that any particular individual might be heir to, were more like a swarm than a grid. One set of variables—one set of stories and perspectives—that attracted the attention of Judy Johnson was prompted by the discovery that, of the 11 black convicts who arrived on the First Fleet, two were ancestors—and this became the origin of her new collection, Dark Convicts. ‘By the time Washington won (the War of Independence) in 1783, over 8000 fugitive slaves had defected and were fighting for the English.’
Many of them made their way to an England where it was no doubt very difficult for them to survive as outsiders—and so, in turn, some became convicts. The ex-slaves of particular interest to Johnson were John Martin and John Randall, ‘one of the Governor’s three game-shooters’—both of whom eventually received land grants at Parramatta on adjacent blocks. When Martin married Randall’s daughter, a line of ancestry began that now numbers 25,000 descendants, although, as Johnson notes, ‘Many of them probably do not yet know …’
Poetry is a genre of subjectivities, and by turning her historical material into poems, Johnson re-creates the interior lives of people who would otherwise only be available through occasional mentions and the weighing of probabilities. She doesn’t assume too much in this respect: there is little here that isn’t reasonable surmise. The following is about as speculative as she allows herself to be:
We watched the two of them led to sure death at that tree.
Particularly Peyton barely twenty years old.
He gave his speech looking up through the stark Colony’s
branches that seemed to rig the sail of the sky but sailed
nowhere near home nor heaven. He in no way struggled
against the why of his fate but was quiet and very
penitential acknowledging the weight of his full
sentence. One said he had long deserved.
Nevertheless, poetry allows even limited evidence to perform a shadow-dance of rhythms and interiorities. It also prompts an implicit dialogue with the understandings one brings to the text. Here is John Randall on his hunting rifle, a ‘Brown Bess’:
the part she likes best is when you withdraw your ramrod
from where it rests under the barrel and tamp that ball
until it cannot go further into her cold hole.
Then shoulder her. Make ready bringing your weapon to
full cock. Present arms. And then fire at the nearest fast
moving target. Preferably not at a native.
The eroticisation of the rifle is realised in knowing ambiguities, and sly, stop-start rhythms. A rendering of Randall’s humour, it is also an item from our contemporary doubts about guns: two voices are speaking here, from different time frames.
Most of the poems are prefaced by a paragraph or two of prose. These notes are an essential part of the book: in that respect, it is a hybrid text. Dark Convicts shifts between the limited colonial evidence, Johnson’s elaboration and embodiment of that evidence, and a twenty-first-century awareness of the way in which current readings might differ from eighteenth-century ones. She has constructed a 13-syllable line for the poems, which, apart from being an adaptable vehicle for her characters and situations, manages the transitions between prose and verse with fluency so that, a little unusually, changes in pace, density and tone do not disturb the reader’s momentum.
The book is a meditation on identity: not just through the strange story of genomes whose historical expression involved, among other things, capture in Africa, misery in the slave holds, war under the flag of the English king and misery in the convict holds. These were extreme events, but all attempts to make sense of identity are a little unsettling these days. The settlers themselves are becoming remote: one cannot enter their perspectives without reading for their distance from one’s own. There is something destabilising about clearly articulated shifts of cultural difference. It is even worse when the others you are reading about are versions of yourself: not just Randall and Martin, but the whole earnest, tenacious, duplicitous crew.
Melinda Smith’s goodbye, cruel is in five sections: ‘Tiny Carnivals’ is concerned principally with love poems; the title section comprises poems about suicide; ‘Safina’ contains a small number of poems that are either translations of, or responses to Persian poetry; ‘Riverine’ focuses on her physical environment (Smith lives in the ACT) and ‘Endtime’ moves between the political present and more general visions of horror. One of the strengths of her previous collection, Dig Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call (PSP, 2013), was the solidity of its engagements—with other people, with the physical world, with her own emotional life. This is true also of goodbye, cruel. She has the means to express this: an understanding that less is often more, that the unadorned image may be the cleanest way for the material to be available, that most commentary is redundant.
Some of the strongest poems, however, occur when she also discovers that extra ‘poetic’ dimension; when the meanings play that little bit beyond their anticipated boundaries: ‘here I am / broken open / to a tiny carnival’ she writes, in Day 277 of ‘Leaves from the Lovers’ Almanac’, or ‘Such a small rich life. I will embrace it / When the cramping stops,’ she says, stuck in a gully, in ‘Accommodations’. ‘The Undiscovered Country’ is a response to Canto XIII in Dante’s Inferno, the hell of the suicides, but ends with a quietly disturbing comment on the joylessness that accompanies suicide: ‘Somehow / it has been arranged that I will always see / that which is always unpleasant.’ In ‘Dirge for Pete Smith’, an elegy for an artist who committed suicide, she knows there is nothing to say, and simply ends, ‘The sky has no bones / and is full of blue fire.’
The less successful poems are those that have not moved far enough beyond their point of contrivance: erasure poems, and more or less straightforward lists, such as the ‘Museum of Broken Relationships’. Of the assemblages, ‘Let us go in’ works best, perhaps because it has been compiled from the suicide notes of those who wrote well themselves: ‘Virginia Woolf, Stefan Zweig, John Berryman, Arthur Koestler’ among others. In poems such as these, however, Smith is in danger of being content just to produce something for the sake of doing so. An author’s exploration of what can be done with a poem, however, is ultimately a private matter. It is her mind, not her craftsmanship, that is the real point of interest. Smith is at her strongest when she works in difficult areas: in shifting ground between beauty and hunger in ‘Black Angus’; in her challenge to Mary Gilmore’s ‘Nationality’ in ‘Nationality II’. There is a courageous side to her imagination. I am sure it doesn’t make the writing any easier, but it is the element that appears in her best work.
Writers who embody their meanings in the physical world walk a tightrope between the ideal, which is when the plants and rocks cooperate to provide a tactile and satisfying symbolic language, offering their presences to the poem as it were innocuously, so that only the cunning reader notices what is going on, and those poems in which the balance between symbol and meaning just will not nudge into place. Shevaun Cooley’s first book, Homing, walks this tightrope: somewhere in her creative imagination she has conceived an admirable ambition, but she is not quite achieving it yet. The poems, prompted by road trips, climbs and fishing expeditions, are situated in two landscapes: Western Australia and Wales. Prompted, perhaps by Raymond Carver, to write a poetry that moves only sparingly beyond the prose virtues of poise, economy and space, Cooley’s style is, nevertheless, a self-consciously literary one.
The poems display a convincing sense of landscape: much more than generic environments, these settings have temperature, mass and flux; they have been felt on the body. But she has not yet quite sorted out the relationship between the landscapes—waiting, as it were, in symbolic readiness—and the things she wants to do with them. My impression is that it is the latter that is the problem. She doesn’t quite know yet what it is she wants to say, but has a good idea of the landscapes and language in which it will be embedded. She can say interesting and confronting things: ‘You think’, she says in one of the Welsh poems, ‘ran with a dark current’, ‘you could stay here / and lose the names of every-thing, even yourself—and the price / would be to find the deepest intimacy with something / you couldn’t speak’—though in some cases where she does, it is noticeable that she has moved out of her purely symbolic language into a more explicit mode. It is no small thing to have developed a style that possesses as much finesse as Cooley displays here. The development of a fully fledged writer rarely happens in a straightforward manner. It will be fascinating to see what she comes up with next. •
Martin Langford’s most recent publications are The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (2009) and Ground (Puncher & Wattmann, 2015).