Extract from a Review Essay

Comments on Diane Fahey’s Poetry

From: A Review Essay by Professor em. Werner Senn,
Zeitschrift für Australienstudien – Australian Studies Journal, 2012, No. 26

Diane Fahey in The Wing Collection organizes her material (selected from her previous nine volumes of verse and augmented by new and unpublished poems) in thematic terms. It is structured in six sections containing texts of a certain thematic affinity. This particular arrangement by content or theme enables readers to appreciate the scope of Fahey’s poetic universe, which ranges from the minutiae of insect life to the great Western myths as recounted in the classical sources, above all Homer and Ovid. Myth and fairy tale, and the natural world with its infinite variety of animal species, figure prominently in Fahey’s oeuvre and hence in this selection.

“Small wonders,” the first and largest section, offers many poems on the truly wondrous variety of winged creatures, from bee, butterfly, and dragonfly to hummingbird, owl, and pelican, but also on such exquisite and fragile animals as seahorse, starfish and nautilus. Each of these is closely observed and depicted with the poet’s eye and mind. Despite the factual accuracy which characterizes these texts (at times supplemented by helpful notes) the poet does not merely attempt to render with precision the individuality of each species. Placing each creature in its natural context and habitat she seeks by poetic means to highlight its idiosyncrasies, as it were, its intrinsic animal being. Watching albatrosses in flight, she sees them

climbing or gliding, as simple-subtle
as a dialogue of speech with silence,
the stroking of a beloved into deep calm (“Albatrosses,” 19)

The scientist knows that the owl has “the most soundless feathers, the sharpest hearing,” but the poet wonders above all about the eyes:

Who does not long, somewhere in themselves,
[. . .] to be met by that startled eldritch gaze
searching the furthest corners of their soul? (“Owl,” 24)

The two sequences “Small Wonders” and “The Hummingbird Suite” are virtuoso variations on a theme. The poet gallantly meets the challenge she has set herself, and in her poetic bestiarium even the most humble and unpopular animals such as earwig or cockroach are given their due. In “Butterflies: a Meditation,” the connoisseur of butterflies blends with the poet suggesting a metapoetic dimension in the opening lines:

The poem’s creation:
a flight path seemingly
without pattern,
bewildering to the naked eye;
at moments
an incomprehensible lightness. (48)

“Mosquito” begins:

What if you could move freely through darkness
with the ability to miss all slapping hands –
wouldn’t you make that continuous raspberry sound,
blowing your own trumpet, slicing through
wakefulness, sleep, dream? (59)

In its inclusiveness, its verbal exuberance and sophistication this section is a celebration of natural life, its infinite variety and amazing versatility.

Linguistic dexterity and poetic imagination are also in evidence in the next section, “The Wing Collection,” which extends the theme of wings by including that supreme winged creature, the angel. By implication, nature here gives place to culture, although the transition from the previous section is astutely made by the opening text, a poem on Albrecht Dürer’s watercolour “The Little Owl.” Poems on paintings were a favourite genre with Fahey in her early work. Some are collected here, especially poems on the Annunciation painted by Fra Angelico or Jan van Eyck with their obligatory angel. The elevated tone and stately rhetoric suited to this theme are perhaps best illustrated in the poem “Praise,” which also gives spiritual depth to that all-embracing celebration of life in the previous section:

on this planet
whose every plant and creature
seeks fullness of being –
a poignant efflorescence –
we cannot hear those choirs that praise,
under the cathedral light of heaven,
the Source, the Mystery,
which holds us all in life
yet catch echoes of their frequencies
in sacred music here,
rising like incense
from chapel, mosque and temple,
from grasslands, rainforest, desert. (76-77)

Section 3, “The Gold Honeycomb,” draws on Metamorphoses (1988) and Listening to a Far Sea (1998). The transition from the previous section is again beautifully effected by the introductory poem “Philomela,” about the victimized woman in the Greek myth transformed by the gods into a nightingale. Fahey engages imaginatively with versions of Greek myths, explores and interprets their meaning for the present. She often treats them freely, giving a twist to the traditional story or raising an awkward question about it. “Philomela” can be read as a programmatic poem in this section: a woman raped and imprisoned by her brother-in-law, who also has her tongue cut out, finds, as a bird, the power and the voice to express her grief and utter her plaintive song.

To empower women seems a strategy that Fahey puts to considerable effect in these texts. Niobe, whose children were killed by envious gods, is transformed not into a bird but into a stone, yet even this can be turned to advantage:

But as stone that can weep, it will take
immeasurably longer for you to wear yourself away:
the grieving commensurate with the loss;
that slow trickle down flesh as cold as the gods. (“Niobe,” 105)

A specious, questionable triumph perhaps, but a triumph nevertheless. Leda, seduced by Jove in the shape of a swan, remembers his rape as “this sordid disturbance of a dream” and asserts her undiminished selfhood: “If I nestle deep down inside the mud, a new self / may hatch and arise, as if from fire…” (“Leda’s Story,” 114). Arachne, in a weaving contest with Athena, wove “rape after rape / by gods of mortals” into her tapestry and was punished by the goddess for “this groundling’s view” (117) and turned into a spider but retained her pride and creative power:

Now, ringed planet, nucleus of atom,
she waits in a network of dew
to catch and hold the sky,
moves with every wind,
anchored close to earth…
Trapped in that tiny globe,
her self is inexhaustible:
it spins and spins. (“Weaver,” 117)

In the section “The Sixth Swan” all texts refer to or rewrite fairy tales, from “Rapunzel” to “The Frog Prince” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” What is striking and delightful is the freedom with which Fahey treats the familiar stories, sometimes by avoiding the expected closure, sometimes by turning the story into a first-person narrative, thus producing unexpected effects of defamiliarization, as in “The Robber Bridegroom,” where the bride tells the horrid story from her own perspective.

In “Secret Lives” (section 5) we find texts of a more personal and philosophical kind, not a few of them from her 1995 collection The Body in Time. “Rooms” raises the intriguing question of the secret life of rooms:

Could one surprise a room,
fling open a door to discover
some unknown mood of silence

or, in the air, a busyness
one could not quite read –
memories, stored in brick flesh,

now seeping back into space
to be sparked by sunlight
into a sky of milling planets? (176)

In spare and precise yet also suggestive language the poem develops into a questioning of identity and the shaping power of contexts, of the spaces we inhabit. The loving attention to objects and animals, demonstrated literally in sections 1 and 2, is a virtue celebrated here e.g. in “Longcase Clock” or “Feeding the Birds,” while “Breath” is a moving tribute of a loving daughter for her aged mother. What these texts seem to promote is a way of caring and attention to the world and the people who live in it, our fellow-humans. There are also some more private poems, and the author even ventures on autobiographical ground. In “Dressmaker,” her love of fabric remains a life-long predilection whereas the dresses change in the course of time. It is in the present, after long illness, that she is at her most personal, in a mixture of frankness, courage and modest self-assertion:

Since then I have put on the garment of my womanhood.
It marks the curves and leanings of my flesh,
holds in, reveals, what I have come to be,
beyond promise and blight. I know its weight,
its transparency, its rawness, its flawed smoothness.
I wear it now with something close to ease,
with the freedom, almost, of nakedness. (182)

Acceptance of the world and the body is beautifully figured also in “Hourglass in an Interior (On becoming forty),” a text reminiscent of a Flemish still life with an hourglass among plants and flowers, itself an image of mutability:

The plant holds, resists, light in shapes
akin to the hourglass, angles its sensuous,
papery satin – on which I would like to record
such poems as this. (183)

In the final section, “The World as Poem,” the texts drawn from four collections foreground the poetic vision of things and people. Whether the setting is the seacoast, the estuary, or a room, the “I” is prominent, an alert, reflecting observer who tries carefully and patiently to delve beneath the surface of things. The various themes and preoccupations displayed in the previous sections seem to come together here. Winged creatures are present in the shape of birds, e.g. an ibis probing the seashore, “off-white plumage, / unbeautiful till its hidden life / fans into myth” (237), or flying low, “the lilt of [its] languorous black wings / a footnote in the unwritten book of days” (236). The sea is an enduring presence, benign and threatening at the same time – “the cradling, uncradling sea” – (215), an almost mythical power: “Resoundingly, ocean writes on itself / thick lines that slide towards foam on jade – illumined ciphers in a dissolving script” (212). The self is firmly placed in the world and in time:

Can I breathe time as I breathe the wind,
draw its strength into my lungs, resist
its strength with my body? Today, this is not
gale-force time: we are evenly matched. (“Time,” 211)

The experience of a lifetime of writing, the careful attention to the living world, result in an equanimity and wisdom expressed with calm simplicity in “Headland:”

Like stone, the body carries at its core,
in its textures, a history of becoming
and erosion. [. . .]
The wind
strips clean the skin of rocks; scours flesh.
The sea, too, is theft and gift and fusion,
its cliffs storeyed with aeons of drowning, spawning. (224)

Werner Senn