Review The Sorrow in our Marrow, Domestic Interior by Fiona Wright

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                          “Domestic Interior” by Fiona Wright

                                                                          

Giramondo Publishing
Poetry, Paperback, 96pp
2017
$24.00
Print ISBN: 9781925336566

Reviewed by Jena Woodhouse

 

In a review of Fiona Wright’s second collection of essays, The World Was Whole, which is currently long-listed for the 2019 Stella Award, Gabriella Munoz references Fiona Wright’s PhD dissertation topic: Staging the Suburb: Imagination, Transformation and Suburbia in Australian Poetry, and  notes the connection and continuity between the dissertation, the  essays and the poems of Domestic Interior. (Mascara Literary Review, January 22nd, 2019)

Fiona Wright, in an interview with Bri Lee of Kill Your Darlings (04/08/2017), expresses this opinion in relation to genre: “I’ve always thought that poetry is much more interested in momentary stuff, in capturing intense moments or thinking about tiny things – well, not tiny things, but details and moments of significance rather than trying to weave those moments together to create a more coherent story which is what I really like about essays and memoir – the drawing together of things that might not seem to hold together from the outside.”

While it’s true that poetry collections generally work differently in their internal dynamics from prose ones, nevertheless the poems in a well-constructed collection do talk to each other and set up a subliminal hum of associations, consonances, dissonances, which can collectively evoke a sense of the poet’s inner world and orientation to the outer world; a sense of the poet’s way of being in the world, an internal coherence. This is certainly the impression created by the poems of Domestic Interior, a collection disarming in its seeming absence of contrivance; its ability to write the personal/ subjective in ways and modes that do not follow the confessional prototypes of earlier generations; its air of vulnerability and implicit acknowledgement of the precariousness of being, which we all share, but which is Fiona Wright’s lot in perhaps greater measure than most. These aspects  of the poet’s perception of and attitude to the experience of living in outer and inner Sydney suburbia, and in her own skin and consciousness (her own particular and personal “psychic geography”) are variously manifested in elements of idiosyncrasy, superstition (and idiosyncratic superstition); phobias, the mock-sinister that lurks in the banal suburban settings of Gothic imaginings and figments of fancy, for instance in the poems “Inner Suburban Omens” (24); “Suburban Monsters” (28); “Charm Against Casual Cruelty” (62).

A black dog leashed to a bike rack bespeaks fair weather.

A windfall will follow

When spotted – in this order – are coconut water,

coconut water, a coke bottle,

half-empty or half-full.

(“Inner Suburban Omens”)

 

*

There’s one that lives

in the hollow heart of a rolled-up yoga mat,

another just beneath

the garage door:

One that nestles in

amongst the scrunched spare plastic bags

shoved underneath the sink and another

in the bathroom vanity – it feeds

off cotton buds and old toothbrushes

There’s always several hiding in the fridge.

(“Suburban Monsters”)

 

Domestic Interior is arranged in five sections, with the part-titles Origin; Never Simple; Elsewhere; A Crack in the Skin: On Illness; Enviable: Love Poems. Origin circles through suburban landmarks and events familiar to the poet, focusing on such topics as Miranda Fair, Sunday en famille; “Centro: Bankstown”; “Tupperware Sonnets”; whereas the second section, Never Simple, introduces quirkier, darker, sometimes sadder themes, as in the two poems quoted above, and the title poem, which, as Wright explains elsewhere, is a response to a short-notice eviction pending the sale of a share-house where she had been part of an urban family.

I had a mirror mounted opposite the window and the steady hum

of light refracting: I have lived in a belly of sun.

I have lived, I have been loved inside this house, and I have cried;

I have danced in this kitchen, and though my potted herbs

have always died, I have loved this house.

(“Domestic Interior”)

 

Impermanence, the desire for stability, the unlikelihood of ever owning a home of one’s own, the threat of chronic illness are aspects of the precariousness of being that recur in various guises in these poems, albeit obliquely. Elsewhere includes poems from a residency in Berlin:

 

They say this language can’t be hypocritical

or overly polite, they shout me down

when I cross against the lights: das darfst

           du nicht! I learn

 

three different words for lonely

 

but they’re all too big

to fit my frame.

(Neukolln IV)

 

The poems in Elsewhere evoke a sense of vulnerability, angst, evanescence, new discoveries, wonder.

 

A Crack in the Skin: On Illness casts an at times forensic eye on the elusiveness of wellness and the implications of this. Recurrent themes in these poems echo those identified by Gabriella Munoz in her review of The World Was Whole (cited earlier) as body, home, food, ritual.

We ate it first that autumn

when we pooled

what strength we had

my soft-eyed friend and I

we took things slowly, kindly

for a change.

For months, we held on only by our rituals.

(“Pasticceria”)

 

Rituals, often involving the minutiae of daily life, are important to the poet, as she has stated elsewhere. They provide structure in a life subject to the vagaries of illness and disrupted by the impermanence that not owning one’s home imposes on many people of her generation – the anxiety induced by housing insecurity. It follows that rituals are sometimes generated as charms against random threats to order and stability:

Take a small green chilli, an eggshell

a peanut, a wheat husk

a fish scale

the peel of a mouldy orange,

pollen from pigweed or goosefoot, acacia

or oriental lily. Wrap these in raw silk.

Drink gin. Press down on a splinter or an ingrown hair

and thrice chant

foreign body.

(“Charm Against Casual Cruelty”)

 

In the poems of this collection, attention to detail, often interior, sometimes bordering on the obsessive, is balanced by more expansive vistas of the natural world, as in “Wallis Lake”, “Riverina”, “Flowering Cherry”, “Surely”, and other poems. Space, in various senses, is something Wright is acutely conscious of, and attentive to. (“I want…to be/ my own psychic geography.” – “22 Days”). There is a tension set up involving different kinds of space; between an impulse to freedom and various forms of constraint; between a sense of precariousness and fragility and the courage and strength to survive and celebrate the minutiae of daily life. Hallmarks of Wright’s poetic style include her delicacy and lightness of touch, her deftness in negotiating painful terrain with an understated grace.

In the hospital

I watch my pulse throb on a monitor,

a pediatric cuff around my forearm

 

and know

I have to make this fertile, know

it’s all I can do.

(“22 Days”)

 

In “Small Sad Poem”, the themes of space; the body, its interior life; the human condition and its mutability; animal incomprehension and inchoate sadness in the presence of mortality: the mysterious nature of being – coalesce in nine spare, eloquent lines.

How did it help us

when we were animal?

Did we carry sadness in our heavier bones?

It rests inside the body, hot and wet,

it sits in the scoop of the clavicle,

all our cavities. How did it help us,

the sorrow in our marrow?

What could we harvest

from the salt of our own skins?

 

(“Small Sad Poem”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: The perfect balance between grace and power – The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, Ed. Lucy Dougan & Tim Dolin

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The perfect balance between grace and power

 

                           The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky

     Edited and introduced by Lucy Dougan & Tim Dolin. UWAP 2018

Reviewed by Jena Woodhouse

 

Although the title of this review is taken from Zwicky’s poem “Growing Up”, it does not adequately encapsulate the sheer vitality and range of Zwicky’s oeuvre, which is many-faceted – by turns sibylline and austere, provocatively irreverent, ironic, mordantly witty, wise, perspicacious, sober, uncompromising, sometimes grim, ultimately compassionate. This is her book, the book of her life in art, or rather, lives: a woman of prodigious intellect, integrity and talent; a one-off in Australian poetry, whose polymorphic style resembles no other. The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky curates the five poetry collections published in her lifetime (1933-2017), as well as a small number of uncollected poems. This beautifully presented volume includes a prefatory essay by Zwicky, “Border Crossings”, originally published in Best Australian Essays (Black Inc., 2000), and an illuminating introduction by the editors, Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin, whose observation that “Zwicky’s poems are the material record of what made her the person she is”, is borne out by the richness and variety of the poems.

 

Born and educated in Melbourne, of a secular Jewish family, Zwicky was to travel extensively in Asia, Europe, and the United States, initially as a concert pianist to Indonesia, Malaya and Singapore, and as a graduate student of music to the United States; then, through her marriage to a Swiss biologist she met in Java, to Europe and thence to a permanent residence in Perth, WA, where she lectured in American literature at the University of Western Australia. From that anchorage she again travelled, as a visiting scholar and poet, to the USA, the UK, China and elsewhere.

 

Her travels in literature were no less wide-ranging, and spanned many literary cultures, of which the beat generation, especially Ginsberg, was to be a liberating force in her own work. But her spectrum of literary influences, associations and inspirations (let alone the musical ones) includes Dostoevsky, Donne, Blake, Shelley, Hopkins, Dickinson, Whitman, D. H. Lawrence, many poets from the USA, certain Chinese poets, a number of British poets, the Canadian Mark Strand, and some of her Australian contemporaries. These represent the tip of a very considerable iceberg, as her poetry contains additional epigraphs from, echoes of, and references to, Homer’s Odyssey; Ecclesiastes; Cavafy, Isaac Babel, Theodore Roethke, Marguerite Yourcenar and many other literary sources. Some of Zwicky’s early poems from the first two collections appeared in Meanjin, where, as a graduate, she worked as an assistant to Clem Christesen, and in literary magazines in the USA, such as Antaeus.

 

Isaac Babel’s Fiddle, her first collection, published in Adelaide in 1975, brings together poems on the themes of ancestry, pogroms, maternity, literature, music, life in the American Midwest of small towns and tornados; creativity, faculty and campus life, and other matters, in registers that range from the lyric to the satirical, with many shades between. I remember the excitement I felt, coming across the title of this collection. As a student of Russian literature, I’d been reading Babel’s collection of stories, Red Cavalry, based on his experiences as a Jew who rode as a journalist with Budyonny’s Cossack cavalry in the post-revolutionary Soviet-Polish war, committing atrocities against the Jews of the Pale in the process. Babel had discarded his violin in favour of literature. Paradox, contradiction and the irreconcilable are grist for Zwicky’s mill, as the magisterial “Kaddish” was to demonstrate. The poems in this first collection tend not to be lengthy, “A Midwestern Wife” being one of a few exceptions. Sequences of poems include “Emily Dickinson Judges the Bread Division at the Amherst Cattle Show, 1858” which might be read as a cryptic poetic. What other commentators have identified as Zwicky’s “ear for place” is already apparent, as is her ear for the vernacular.

 

Kaddish and Other Poems (UQP 1982), Zwicky’s second collection, is with good reason considered her breakthrough book. It contains two powerful sequences of poems, Kaddish, for her father — her unorthodox take on the Jewish traditional prayer for the dead, which is at the same time “a hymn of praise to God and a celebration of all creation” (Zwicky); and Ark Voices, in which her exuberant energy and inventiveness come to the fore. 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.// But sir, the care! (“Mrs Noah Speaks”) The poems that follow the redoubtable Mrs Noah’s vernacular litany of woes are in the first-person voices of animals: “Lemur”, “Bat” (by day I hang/ like one condemned/ to die)’; “Mouse”, “Mink” (fury of frisk and gore/ and the long strong smell/ of a death.); “Wolf-Song”, “Tiger”, “Hippo Sonnets”, “Giraffe” (Motionless mottle/ I blend: am/ sun-patches/ leaf-clusters/ everything/ nothing); “Whale Psalm”, “Elephant”. Each of these poems is distinctive; the menagerie is portrayed in text of diverse forms, for example “Wolf-Song”, where the singer has lost his true love to hunters and vows to avenge her, employing a traditional ballad form that is effortlessly sustained.

Whose blood is this in the forest?

What moon shines clear in the sky?

Though I have to wait out seven years

The hunters will surely die

The hunters will surely die.

 

Pretentious poets are satirised in “The Poet Gives a Reading” and “The Poet Puts It Away”, before, in an abrupt change of tone, the collection ends with “The Poet Asks Forgiveness”.

 

The third and largest collection, Ask Me (1990), is one I sub-edited for UQP. My first meeting with the poet took place at the Queensland Art Gallery, where she gleefully and illegally insisted on paddling in the pelican pool (the pelicans are bronze ones), to cool her hot, dusty feet. The sequence titled “China Poems” opens this collection, followed by a series on Hindu deities under the title “The Temple, Somnapura”: “Ganesh”, “Vishnu”, “Siva”, “Devi”. Fascinated by other cultures which she does not presume to know, Zwicky is very much the outsider (a lifelong role she consciously embraces) in China, and in the temple poems is drawn into a cosmic dance in contemplation of unfamiliar deities.

 

From the disconcerting unfamiliarity of China and the mysterious emanations of a Hindu temple there is a thematic, geographic and stylistic shift to “Four Poems from America”, and thence to the long, Homeric-inspired sequence, “A Tale of the Great Smokies”, whose “heroes” are Otis, Uriah, and, yes, Penelope.

She sings to the air, winding,

unwinding the threads:

‘Turn again, turn again

little wheel ever.

He shall have what I am

when he crosses the river.’

……

There but unseen, suspended to rock

in the wake of her song, I slouch

through the path of her

passionate waiting, scorpion

under a stone.

(“Uriah Mack behind the Sassafras”)

 

Here as elsewhere, Zwicky’s adroitness in interweaving poetry and narrative is one of the strengths of this extended work, as is her ear for the vernacular: (Most was white but now and then/ a black cropped out./ We liked a black born onst/ a while. It saved us / from the dyeing.) (“Otis Raises Sheep”).

 

Zwicky’s delight in the vernacular is given free rein in other poems in this rich and diverse collection, Ask Me, where she expands her range into new thematic and formal areas of experimentation. “The Call”, dedicated to the Cornish poet Charles Causley, one of Zwicky’s personal friends from her time in the UK, is a playful monologue purportedly emanating from a newly installed phone box somewhere on the edge of a desert in South Australia.

hello Charles how are ya

mate remember William

Creek I can’t talk

long there’s other fellers

waiting and a string of

camels kneeling on the edge

of nowhere and a bloody

great phone box stuck in

the sand like a dunny with

everyone wanting to use

it

 

“Pie in the Sky” (for Gwen Harwood) begins with the line I’m eating an Australian meat pie,
and, in keeping with the prevailing mood of levity and irony in the untitled section 11 of Ask Me, poems such as “Miss Short Instructs Her Latin Class on the Fountains of Nepenthe, 1912”, and “Growing Up” introduce further personae and imaginative projections:

When I grow up (I’m only fifty-five)

I want to be as mountainous and wise

as Marguerite Yourcenar.

A big stone sphinx

silent as a shadow.

The perfect balance between

grace and power.

(“Growing Up”)

 

The humour and high spirits of the middle section constitute an intermezzo before the sobering intimations of mortality in section 111, where Zwicky’s experiences as a carer for the terminally ill become the subject matter of some of her finest poems There are also elegies: “In Memory, Vincent Buckley” (“stoned on/ art’s austere virginities, frozen in our/ private dislocations…) and the sequence “For Jim” in memory of Jim Legasse, a younger academic colleague and poet at UWA.

 

The concreteness of imagery in “Home Care” and “Soup and Jelly” seems to foreshadow the poetic articulated in “Poems and Things”, which was published as part of Zwicky’s fourth and penultimate collection, The Gatekeeper’s Wife (1997), and, although subtitled Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1994, purports to evince the poetic theory of an eleventh-century Chinese poet and sage, Wei T’ai. In this context, “things” represents the concreteness of objects, not the generic abstract:

Be precise, said wise Wei T’ai,

about the thing

but reticent

about the feeling.

 

When the mind responds, connects

with thing, the feeling shows.

This, he says, is how a poem

deeply enters us.

 

This poetic is absorbed into Zwicky’s practice to powerful effect in such poems as “Home Care”, where the wooden stool made by the terminally ill woman’s son as a child functions as a synecdoche at the core of her tenuous hold on life; in “Soup and Jelly”, where the only foods the patient is able to tolerate nonetheless become the pretext for him to assert his independence; and in “Reading”, where the swollen feet of the gentle, unassuming miner whose lungs are beyond repair become the pivot of the poem’s pathos.

 

In Zwicky’s final published collection, Picnic, the poet-narrator again receives instruction from a Chinese sage in the poem “Push or Knock”, where a mysterious Mr Tang, the translator of some of her poems, pays her a visit at her home in suburban Perth and proceeds to dispense his pearls of wisdom (‘In China, we say punishing the poem.’) in connection with the problem of eliminating gratuitous verbal scaffolding.

 

The Gatekeeper’s Wife and Picnic revisit some of the themes seen in earlier collections, without being repetitive: there are elegies, meditations on art, homage to poets Zwicky admires, such as “Shelley Plain” and “Groundswell for Ginsberg” (Forget the tellers. Remember the tale/ and the frail ghosts of our passing flowers.) While themes from earlier work are reprised, new material is also introduced. Along with new experiments in form and voice (for instance, “A Canterbury Tale”, a pastiche in Chaucerian language which gives an account of a conference at the University of Kent), there is the sequence “The Terracotta Army at Xi’an”, a brilliant suite of poems as proof that the poet Fay Zwicky, like Hokusai, the subject of another poem in Picnic, “Hokusai on the Shore”, suffered no diminishment of her creative powers with advancing age, although there is an occasional note of vulnerability, also at times a mellowness of tone, more pronounced than in the earlier poems, and a deepening awareness of mortality.

 

The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky offers the reader an in-depth conversation with a passionate, eloquent, fiercely intelligent spirit, a poet who found inexhaustible delight in language and its possibilities; never one to flinch from asking the hard questions or avert her consciousness from the pathologies of the human condition, bringing to bear on her subjects an acuity of eye and mind and heart, an ethical rigour and an ultimately compassionate gaze.

Droughtbreaker

 

No sooner resolved never

to write another line

the habit of resolution

being so strong,

the air turned suddenly

sweet outside her window —

the longed-for stirring slow-start

hesitant splutter, first rain’s

rustling pitter over pear tree

eucalypt and star-studded stephanotis,

gripping her round the heart

deep into wakening dark where

the canny chortle of enchanted

magpies let her gently go

 

 

(New and Uncollected Poems)

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