Fay Zwicky: Picnic

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2006, 79pp.

The floor plan of Fay Zwicky’s poetic house was described brilliantly by Ivor Indyk in an article in Southerly published nearly thirteen years ago (54:3. 33-50). Her position as poet derives from her position in a moral universe and Indyk quotes an essay from her collection, The Lyre in the Pawnshop:

There is a whole way of being at home in the world that is best described by the word “reverence” which accords life meaning in terms of  debt to something. One is what one owes, what one acknowledges as  rightful obligation, what one feels about the taking of responsibility  for oneself and for others.

She inhabits what students of religion would call a Levantine culture as distinguished from Greek or Oriental. It is a hierarchical universe dominated by a grotesque old father-God who is so powerful and so demanding that even in his absence he is a demonic presence – in other words, he is not diminished by absence. He is manifest in all transactions in which one person wields power over another but the universe he has set up is one in which obligations move up and down the hierarchical scale: even the god of the Old Testament made contractual commitments to his people. Little wonder that reverence (whose model is surely submission to the father) and obligation are the crucial terms.

But, as Indyk points out, there is nothing demurely accepting about Zwicky’s attitude to obligation and reverence. She is quarrelsome and the drama of her poetry is to be found in the chafing that the bonds of duty cause. More interestingly, she is adept at those strategies which remind God (or his relevant manifestation) of the situation (and rights) of the servant while accepting the servant’s obligation to serve. The central text here is “Ark Voices” from Zwicky’s second collection, Kaddish, especially in the dramatic monologue of Noah’s wife who has a wonderful way of accepting her lowly role in the great drama of the Lord’s destruction of the world while at the same time reminding God that he may not be behaving towards his tiny creatures with quite the required sensitivity to obligation:

Noah is incorruptible and good, a large
sweet soul.
Sir, I have tried to be!
But does the frog whose home was in a well
assail an ocean?
How does the summer gnat approach the ice?

It’s an old, probably pre-Deuteronomistic, Jewish position – you can hear it in Abraham’s arguing with God about how many righteous men it would require for him to spare the cities of the plain.

Is this a common or even familiar Australian world-view? I’m not so sure (coming from the Germanic inflected Greek end of the religious/philosophical spectrum, myself) and it is always difficult and dangerous to make generalizations about a culture’s perspective on the cosmos. But it is a perspective that makes for a good kind of poetry because it shuttles between the small and the ever-looming large. Individual things are always simultaneously dead particulars and part of a divine creation. And there is room for a lot of drama that can be expressed in the human – ie poet’s – voice, adrift in this cosmos. There is less doubt than in the Greek-based tradition and a lot more than in the oriental. You can hear it, in a very different form to Zwicky’s poetry, in Islamic mystical poetry where God is continually upbraided (in a properly cloaked allegorical way of course) for being absent, or at least for being unprepared to show his face. As a quatrain from Baba Taher, a contemporary of Omar Khayyam, says: “Separation made me like a bird without feathers or wings / You say to me: Be patient, be patient / But patience is like dirt thrown on my head.”

We meet this world of mutual obligation in Picnic in a fine and moving poem, “The Young Men”. At one level it is one of those poems in which the dead rise up in dreams and demand to be heard, to enter our lives. But it is a more complex and challenging poem than that suggests. The dead, when they speak, are positively hostile to the poet’s infantile world of book, candle and night light. I think the suggestion here is that, while they were dying in the Second World War, the poet, born in 1933, was living a happily protected innocent life of reading. This literary life has continued and retained its otherworldliness. The poem’s conclusion is both an admission of this and a promise to change:

“You’ll sleep all right with us
and never never wake. Night lights,
books and candles lost the war against our
childhood, growing, long ago, their power
to charm away the everlasting dark a myth:
silence lasts forever. Listen, while you can,
to unseen saplings somewhere falling.”
Young men, you dear young men, I’m listening.

Another poem, “No Return”, perhaps more clever than moving, deals with the paradoxes of loyalties to grandparents and parents – those “once-/huge troubling presences”:

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, ready
to leave, always leaving
whose every footfall
kicked off avalanches
of grief in the place
I have stood upon,
am still standing,

There is a large sequence in Picnic devoted to the psychotic Chinese founding emperor, Qin, he of the wall, the tomb, the terracotta army and the burnt books and butchered scholars. It belongs to that usually unpromising genre where a group of dramatic monologues allow all levels of an organization to speak and be heard. But in “The Terracotta Army at Xi’an”, Zwicky is so aware of the mutual obligation that stretches across all levels that the sequence is never mechanical. In fact the China of just over two thousand years ago is a pretty good metaphor for the contemporary universe, ruled by a god who greedily devours the devotion of others but who is the only being capable of appreciating the lives and skills of those others. Of the six figures it is the potter who is most important in this sequence. As a creator (though he describes himself as “more artisan than artist”) his role in this mini-universe is one that the poet responds to. It will come as no surprise that he is the most quarrelsome of Qin’s subjects:

                                   Qinshihuang just happened by
as I was casting a horse’s rump,
history’s enemy arrested by an old man’s fragment.
I assumed – wrong again – my audience would detect
the rippling tremor of irony behind my stance,
refused to bow. He laughed to show how deep his tolerance,
how insatiable his curiosity for what is commonly
passed by: the common touch indeed . . .

My rage touched off a burning energy,
muscles bulging over the mould, enough to
make him start.

What we have here is a poem about that strange relationship between the artist and the great-in-the-world. It is Napoleon and Goethe; Tamberlane and Hafez. They recognize themselves in the other – they are both creators of worlds – and also recognize that, though they need each other (artists created both Qin’s tomb and his army), they are also opposed to each other.

Picnic is full of poems about poetry, or about the role of the artist in the universe that Zwicky inhabits. A long poem, “Makassar, 1956”, chosen in Peter Porter’s Best Australian Poetry 2005 (I mention this because it is not included in the book’s acknowledgements), seems like a fragment of autobiography but is really a portrait of the artist as a young woman and it concludes, as such things should, with the first intimations of vocation. It begins with severance from the world of obligation:

. . . . .
Parents, relatives and friends cried and waved,
the streamers strained, snapped, collapsed
in lollypop tangles on the wharf. Pulling away
from the tumbled web, we didn’t care about
falling behind, getting ahead, dry-eyed and
guiltless went as everything was happening
somewhere else. I wouldn’t have seen the signs.

and concludes with a wedding and three veiled women seen from a shop in Jakarta:

                                                                      Their burning eyes
arrested me, speaking soundless of an older, fiercer order
of things. Haunted eyes that followed me in dreams – I see
them still – their black concealment hinting how
it’s possible to be in one place, also somewhere else,
possible to let things happen over and over, possible
to stick in silence to pain’s colours and, if it’s in you,
transmit poems: . . .

It shouldn’t surprise that this sounds not unlike Qin’s potter for Picnic’s obsession is with the position of the artist inside the strange universe Zwicky describes. True, this was a dominating issue in the previous book, The Gatekeeper’s Wife, but there was a touch of the theatrical in poems like “Triple Exposure & Epilogue” and “Banksia Blechifolia” that the poems of Picnic avoid. I think this was a wise decision as lines like:

              Neither daffodil nor
delphinium, poets project
no soft transports from

my fire-forged speech.
Barely exotic since I’m born here,
bearer of crueller histories

than your burning fields recall.
Seeded by typhoons, I’ve waited
years to raise my barbed and desperate

flower, colourless, odourless
and armoured. But reaching
reaching always skyward. My way

you might say, of letting you know
death’s around and ready.
. . . . .

just seem too over the top – though I admit that it is a shrub not a poet who is supposed to be speaking.

Picnic’s final two poems are both about poetry. The first, “Genesis” is about where it comes from whereas the second, “Poetry Promenaded”, is about how it is incarnated and situated in the modern world. As with “The Young Men”, “Genesis” is not quite so simple as it appears on first reading when it seems to be asserting, unremarkably enough, that phrases and images are kickstarted not by a “fixed notion” but

Rather something stumbled on at night
(the dark is best for stumbling),
chancing it blind, spoiling for a fall.

Will it be one more bulletin from the zone
of dread? Another bleat of unbelonging?
Or some grim soot-faced riff on the long-dead,
the incantatory singsong of nostalgia –
serial murders, violated wombs, decay,
the foot-in-mouth neuralgia of our days?

This stresses that the poem’s beginning will be in something which is stumbled on but which is also clichéd. That is interesting in itself, and a countervoice to all the other poets’ predictable obeisances to the unconscious, but the poem goes on to speak in more detail about the “stumbling”:

The ground can cave in anywhere, undreamt-of
mystifying shifts and gaps, like waking up
one day without your face to say
I cannot recognise this life as mine.

and then tell an Irish joke – admittedly apposite! The conclusion takes the idea of genesis by stumble into much more uncomfortable territory than we might have expected:

                                                  It’s what
you can’t trim down to the manageable that
seeds the poem, keeps the poet sparked
awake to what could be, to what might
fan him into flight. Better not to know
but stumble unawares on randomness,
like walking mapless in an unknown town,
get recklessly resiliently lost without
your face or life you thought you knew.
The poem will either find
or find you out.

“Talking Mermaid”, whose subject is poetry, seems in a quite different style to the other poems of the book. To begin with it is a symbolic narrative where the speaker, a mermaid, watches a man swim out to sea with dolphins, “They tease and lollop close in chorus file: his path’s / presumptuous, chancey, stretching things beyond / his lineage. There is no lyric in the human stride.” The lyric voice is, in other words, pitched between the natural and the human. The mermaid speaks of two “natural” people, a man and a woman: “they lit my life” but “were they ever trouble!” and how she now inhabits both sea and land. This poem is intriguing because the poem that precedes it, “Push or Knock”, a comic but significant tale about being visited by a Chinese translator, contains a critique of “Talking Mermaid”, whose drafts are dragged out when the visitor wants to see the poet at work:

I tell him that the poem’s fighting decorative
scrolls, rhetoric’s fancy needlework,
the sequinned tale. Does he know what memaids are?
He says he does.
Seduced by metaphor, I wither into pedagogic prose:
“The lyric voice is struggling with the ordinary,
seams are showing, do you understand?” He does
he says.

I like this idea of what can be read as a two-part poem: proleptic and oblique critique followed by the poem itself.

Two of the book’s early poems, both about poetry, can be read in a similar way. “Close-up” is about Lowell’s “Epilogue” written shortly before his death and brutally criticizing his own early poems and asks “If this comes from the best / of us, what future for the rest of us?” The answer is

Burn-out blues for big note orphics,
small-pond croakers brought to heel;
batteries out of juice, that’s what.

But, like so many of Zwicky’s poems, this poem moves in unpredictable directions. If poetry’s pretensions are easily exposed, surely it can provide an ideology-free account of its world. Not so:

So “why not say what happened?”
What makes you think we’d know?
Know thyself? A bad Socratic joke
from bearded know-alls handy with
the blanket rules. Like God,
A CEO without the common touch,
not one can help at crunch-time,
tell you how to pass for decent,
tell you why your life is skewed,
why your poems stall in scavenged diction,
stick contraptions held by string and glue.
. . . . .

“Hokusai on the Shore” is not so much an answer to this as a counterpart. It is not an answer because it doesn’t remove the pain of “Close-up” but it does provide a bleak but comforting counter. Hokusai’s great wave paintings came after the age of seventy “old, ill, destitute / your money gambled away by your / grandson, your name forgotten / by the world you’d survived.” Hokusai’s comment ends the poem:

“Until I was seventy, nothing I drew
was worthy of notice. When I’m eighty,
I hope to have made progress.”

Written by a poet turning seventy, this is a heartening realization that what you know is your craft and that this is the last (in both senses) that you need to stick to. It is also tempting to allegorise out the wave simultaneously into one of god’s random acts of brutality (of the kind that caused the flood that left Mrs Noah in her predicament) and into the tsunami of 2004.

But finally, in this consideration of the poems about poetry in the book, I need to look briefly at a strange poem, “World Cup Spell, 1998″. It interests because it is a mock magician’s spell (perhaps based on lurid accounts of the kinds of questionable befeathered shamans that African national football teams are inclined to bring with them so that they can perform curses between the goal posts before matches) designed to secure victory for the Brazilians (Taffarel et al) over the French (Lizerazu, Barthez et al) in the World Cup Final of 1998. Because it is a spell, even though it is only a comic parody, it raises the spectre of another kind of poetry altogether – much more primitive, pre-literate and chthonic – and not, generally, Fay Zwicky territory. Judith Rodriguez’s wonderful “Eskimo Occasion” does something very similar. The problem of course is that, as everyone knows, not only were the Brazilians defeated but they played with such a bemused, frustrated air that it appeared to all observers as though they were under some sort of spell. The awful possibility is that charms uttered by Australian poets with a Jewish perspective and an allegiance, however tentative, to the angry great father in the sky, always work in a counter way. I would think very hard before I allowed this poem to be printed in Brazil.