Read John Kinsella’s poem ‘Graphology Endgame 101’ in Westerly’s Online Special Issue 5: IM Fay Zwicky.
In her introduction to Quarry: a selection of Western Australian poetry (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1981), Fay Zwicky began, ‘In selecting poems for this anthology, I have tried to present a range of attentive responses to living.’ This statement of intent might also work as an ars poetica for her own poetry and literary practice. Fay knew the complexities of living entwined with the complexities of history and place, the injustices and the ill-distributed rewards of life. She was aware of her own failings, as much as she was aware of the failings of others. This twofold awareness was what made her such a remarkable poet—in her social dissections there is self-awareness; in her engagements with the traumas of history and ‘the now’, there’s a sense of collective human responsibility.
Strongly conscious of where she was writing from—be it Perth, Western Australia, or Florida, or cities of Indonesia—Fay was also wary of reducing place to a mere impression, to an easy descriptor. Place is made up of many co-ordinates that are constantly in flux, and even in her most satirical moments, she doesn’t leave her pinpoint observations as the final word—the poem allows us to believe there are other ways of seeing. In the same opening paragraph of her introduction to Quarry, she writes:
Seeking poems to bolster regional clichés did not play a part in my selection. The thematic range and very avoidance of stereotype (so often defined by and accepted from external and internal sources) will, I hope, allow readers freedom to discern for themselves what it is like to be human in a certain world. (1)
We have more of a possible ars poetica statement for Fay’s own work here. The right to discern for ourselves—to be provided with knowledge but to use that knowledge in ways and contexts that we personally comprehend—and vitally, to ask, to consider ‘what it is like to be human in a certain world.’ To be human when so often humans are brutal to other humans; to be human when mere existence can be unforgiving and cruel (I hesitate to use the word ‘fate’!), but the key to this statement is in fact ‘in a certain world’. For each of us, reader or writer, there are many worlds, though each of us has a ‘certain world’ in which we function—a sense of where we are and what is around us. We may doubt the veracity of existence, but we basically take our awareness of the world as reliable. Yet, of course, it is contestable by others and ourselves. In creating a poem, we create a certain world, and the humanity presented in it is contingent on that world. In a sense, all poems become processings, tools, and moments of survival. The poem doesn’t just exist to entertain us, even inform us; it exists because without it a way of being human would not exist.
Fay was rigorous in her making of poems, and in part that was because there’s a deep responsibility in creating these certain worlds where we might be human. An ethical and moral poet, she deeply felt that a poet must write with integrity or not write at all. This is evidenced in her own critical writing, her social conversation that so many of us remember, but most vitally in the poems themselves, especially the poems of her first volume, Isaac Babel’s Fiddle (Maximus Books, Adelaide, 1976). And shortly, I am going to consider the second poem from this collection, ‘Survival Kit’, in the context of managing to be human in a world.
It is worth recollecting that the subtitle of Fay’s collection of essays, The Lyre in the Pawnshop (UWAP, Nedlands, 1986) is ‘Essays on Literature and Survival 1974-1984’. And it is worth considering her review in that book of The Poems of Stanley Kunitz 1928-1978 entitled ‘Awkward Survival’ which she concludes as follows:
For all the difficulties of having chosen ‘a damnable trade where winning is like losing’, Kunitz is at his best in the survival stance, balancing between two worlds and refusing to fall:
The sands whispered, Be separate.
The stones taught me, Be hard.
I dance for the joy of surviving,
On the edge of the road.
The quote from Kunitz is quite telling in considering Fay’s ars poetica, of a contemplation of the liminal, but really, more a contemplation of hard and difficult edges and decisions we have to make for survival that are both rational and moral, an equation that troubles Fay’s poems in so many ways. Rejecting sentimentality, while having a strong stance on the obligation of parent and teacher towards child and/or student, the issue is not one of hierarchy or authority but of trust and responsibility. And even more, it’s an awareness that as parent or teacher one is likely learning more than one is teaching, and that these relationships, like that between creativity and rationality, might seem antithetical but need reconciling.
In her introduction to The Lyre in the Pawnshop, Fay writes:
If it is true that creativity is the outcome of a struggle between spontaneity and form, then I want to look as possibilities of reconciling what are often assumed to be two antithetical forces. (1)
And in the next paragraph:
For the teacher, the conflict lies between the subtle and insidious illusion of being able to reclaim the lost, and the simultaneous awareness that your students are often wiser, less lost than you are yourself. (1)
What’s being discussed here are issues of trust and perception. Trust in the sense of any relationship of responsibility that is mediated by a sharing; and perception in the sense of what experience and knowledge one takes to the process of teaching, of offering tools for survival. In a world capable of the Holocaust, Fay’s poetry consistently repositions ways of perceiving history and responsibility to articulate its brutalities, its crimes. She constantly mediates her own position of authority to comment, while defining and questioning her own position in ancestral, familial and cultural ways.
Fay also says in the introduction to The Lyre in the Pawnshop:
My own origins, so thoroughly attenuated by generations of assimilation, give me no claim to sentimental atavism or self-repudiating utopianism. Yet Steiner’s questions and Wesker’s considerations [‘writers of Jewish origins were asked to assess the role played by these respective cultures in their work’ especially in the sense of the effect of Torah commentaries: the question of it being ‘natural’ to be ‘writer’ or ‘scholar’] coincide with my own reservations connected with the mysterious act of writing. (3).
And Fay qualifies this further:
How does the poet reconcile the growth of his individuality with the demands of the society in which he lives?
‘Survival Kit’ is a poem about a world of the poet’s creation, but also a world into which she raises her children. That anxious dynamic of responsibility, teaching and being taught, imparting knowledge (often threatening and disturbing) and receiving awareness (often illuminating, redemptive), resolves into the form of the poem, into the rationality of line and metre, of shape on the page, and offers the mechanism for an expression of the contradictions of being human. All poems, in a sense, are makers of contradiction, if not paradox (not the right word for Fay’s work—really, she counterpoints certainty and uncertainty, and the musical suggestion here seems apt), for Fay, but there is unquestionable value in the mysterious act of writing, even if there are questions about the rights and worth of an individual doing the writing. It was never easy, never straightforward for Fay. Writing carried responsibility—in what is said, in how one listens.
Interestingly, when Bruce Bennett and Bill Grono anthologised this poem in Wide Domain: Western Australian Themes & Images (A & R, Sydney, 1979), they included it in the thematic section of ‘Growing Up’ (along with pieces such as ‘School’ by Peter Cowan, ‘The Witnesses’ by Dorothy Hewett, and ‘First Love’ by Kenneth Mackenzie). The poem begins:
I have waited to be forty all my life (always a
Sucker for precise reckoning), and
Here is the year beckoning me
To be where I always wanted, legitimately.
Poets have a thing about turning forty, as maybe we all do. Peter Porter wrote, ‘On This Day I Complete My Fortieth Year’; Tranter has played with turning forty. Irony is the only way one can deal with an artificial marker constructed more by social mores than any biological reality, and, of course, as literary trope. Fay does irony especially well. She manages that edginess between aloof poise and idiomatic sarcasm. As she often achieves, a trigger word opens to a theme, an idea that will be further critiques. From ‘legitimately’, we go to the next line’s legal play, and the further play on the saying:
Dieu et mon droit, a confirmation devoutly
Wished for, a mark on the census that I am beginning
Where I began, that nothing has been worth winning,
That nothing has definitely been won,
Or absolutely lost.
Dieu et mon droit is the motto of the British crown (‘outside Scotland’—‘God and my right’. As a student of an Anglican Girls’ School she operated under this directive. A confirmation that was contrary to her heritage and antecedents, but not to her mother’s social desires in the Melbourne of Fay’s childhood. And of course the play on Hamlet’s great soliloquy in which consummation (death) is reckoned as the reconfirmation of baptism’s promises. The equivocations of belonging and presence that mark the Australian colonial experience are ironised, but so is the world and language the poet is able to create, given the tools with which she’s been raised. In there, approaching a sign of absolute social maturity, she is still searching and learning the human, appropriate (or not) responses to living. By the grace of whose God is society ruled? These are poor tools for survival, and likely complicate the presumed speaker’s Jewish identity and heritage.
The second stanza of these four stanzas of uneven length, staggered poem, confronts evasions of living, of life and its consequences—‘removing my glasses/ At movies, chickening on violence even at one remove,’—avoiding, hiding behind the magnificence of music even when that music relates to the ultimate tragedy, the loss of children (by scarlet fever in terms of the poems on which Mahler based his piece) and the anxiety over the wellbeing of one’s own children:
Moping with Mahler, weak for my children, lead
Bleater of Kindertotenlieder
This is harsh, tense, and even terrifying. A distance that Anne Sexton pretends in her own death-wish-fear poems is captured in Fay’s poem in a strangely self-distancing and hardening way that, nonetheless, emphasises the personal angst. In some ways, definitively unconfessional as a poet, Fay’s issues and play with ironising her own deeply felt angst make her a poet of self-scrutiny, a poet who retreats into academic thought as a protection, but knowing it is a smokescreen to avoid the self-confrontations she wishes to expurgate in the public-private space of the poem. The poem is a space of a world, and the poet is a world, and that world or those worlds will end as they are written, as they are read, as they are forgotten. She writes:
Bound to admit that I
Welcome the end of a world that I am
Note the ‘a world’, not ‘the world’. The article is vital here. (As in Donne: I am a little world made cunningly…— ‘Holy Sonnet V’) And ‘I am’ is what I create, not what is. The persona also notes
In the worm drinking dew, the lift as the leaf
Bursts its bud, gaiety in grief.
The final stanza of this failing and yet necessary, clung-to, survival kit of teaching and learning (self, the reader, those who will listen), is a dynamic bursting of the bubble into a staged loss of control (irony always holds her hand). In the end, nature, the world outside ‘a world’—those many other worlds that constitute our collective reality, and constitute existence, are going to remain indifferent to our fears, concerns, angsts, and our growing older. ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods’, and the eternal question relating even to the lesser or greater monarchs (and their mottoes):
Nightingales carrying on in the woods of Mycenae
Give a damn for Agamemnon?
And that’s it—the poet standing alone, but with angst and concern for the world that are not hers. And of hers? Well, there are her fears and concerns and her aloneness. And learning to live with it, and those others.
Fay’s poetry is recognised as one of the great accomplishments of Australian literature. She was also a remarkable teacher, and family stories will always centre on her having taught my mother, on me searching her out when I first arrived at UWA from Geraldton and Fay saying, Your Mum taught me about Wordsworth. This brilliant teacher, who along with Dorothy Hewett and Veronica Brady, shaped my mother’s perceptions of literature, and consequently my own, had that way of disarming largesse. A gentle irony, no doubt, but also an acknowledgement of the complexities and mysteries of both teaching and writing. Of learning to live, of articulating a world, of communicating with other worlds. As the poet, critic and editor of the great American poetry journal, Poetry, Don Share, wrote recently in an interview with City Lights bookshop, ‘Fay’s Zwicky’s Collected Poems—an utterly life-changing book!’
Bennett, Bruce. and Grono, William. Wide domain: Western Australian themes & images. Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1979.
Zwicky, Fay and Barrow, Susan Eve Quarry: a selection of contemporary Western Australian poetry. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1981.
Zwicky, Fay Isaac Babel’s Fiddle. Maximus Books, Adelaide, 1975.
— The lyre in the pawnshop: essays on literature and survival 1974-1984 University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1986.
John Kinsella’s most recent books of poetry include Firebreaks (WW Norton, 2016) and Graphology Poems 1995– 2015 (Five Islands Press, 2016). A recent book of short stories
is Old Growth (Transit Lounge, 2017). He is Professor of Literature and Sustainability at Curtin University, and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University. He lives and works at Jam Tree Gully in the Western Australian wheatbelt.