Diane Fahey, ‘The Wing Collection’ in ABR

Diane Fahey: The Wing Collection

Flight path: Rose Lucas, The Australian Book Review, Dec 2011 – Jan 2012

Over nearly thirty years and ten books, Diane Fahey has made a significant contribution to Australian poetry. The Wing Collection, from Puncher & Wattmann, showcases a wonderful array of her work. This generous collection offers a rich journey through Fahey’s key images and the recurring preoccupations that have made her work so distinctive. The six sections of this book have been grouped in order to highlight poems of similar style or intent, drawn from a number of published collections or introducing new work. However, the central image of the ‘wing’ pervades all six sections; whether it is the wings of birds or angels, or the uplift of wind on a beach, or the imagination’s trajectory of flight, Fahey’s work takes the reader into a sphere of in-betweenness, a potentially ecstatic space which offers passage between the known and the unknown, from the finitude of the image to the limitless sky.

Fahey is perhaps best known for her poems of observation, in particular poems that closely track the natural world. Poetry that takes the natural world as its subject can run the risk of being overly descriptive, offering only an inventory of what lies before the eye. Fahey’s work, however, pivots on the bi-directional point of perception, where the specificity of what is seen intersects with, and is informed by, the sensibility that is doing the observing, thereby drawing that external world in through the transformative lens of the poet’s vision and craft. The first section, ‘Small Wonders’, highlights this act of looking at the world, in particular the world of birds and other small creatures. The style of the poetry here is lyrical and evocative, the flow of the line reminiscent of some of the brevity and breathiness of poets such as Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver (whom she cites); the specificity of the image is the launching point for new perceptions and understandings. For instance, in the poem ‘Weedy Seadragons’ she writes: ‘With something of a race-horse’s / vigilance of eye, / taut  slenderness, / they move just faster than / the speed of stagnation – .’ Or in ‘What Herons Know’: ‘Real ecstasy, / they know, waits inside the long stillness – / or sweeps in with winds that solve puzzles / on the stream’s surface, offer new ones.’

In the section entitled ‘The Wing Collection’, Fahey shifts her gaze onto the world of visual art, offering ekphrastic poems that use the painting, rather than the physical world, as the point of imaginative and imagistic departure. The image, wherever one finds it – in art, in literature, in experience – is the source of the poem’s energy and flight, the grist for the metaphoric process that the American poet Jane Kenyon described as the ‘engine’ of the poem. Thus, in the poem ‘The Annunciation (after Fra Angelico)’, the poet’s eye reframes a familiar moment where the angel, or divine emissary, makes contact with the physical, tangible world in the form of the body of the woman: ‘In garments of primrose, olive, she leans forwards, / listening. The angel waits on her word which she gives / and it becomes flesh. The light does not change. / Only her folded hands tremble. There is no other sign.’
The subtle suggestion here of reworking the gospel’s very masculine idea of word becoming flesh also locates Fahey’s poems within an historical context of feminist revisioning of conventional images and stories. In this sense, Fahey’s work resonates with poets such as H.D., Anne Sexton, Judy Grahn, Margaret Atwood, and Adrienne Rich, in her efforts to read and reread the gender implications inscribed in images from the past. The past and its narratives become a ‘Gold Honeycomb’ to mine and explore, as one of the sections of poems put it, and the re-visionings of characters such as Orpheus and Eurydice, Demeter, Danaë, Leda, or the statue of the weeping Niobe (‘that slow trickle down flesh as cold as the gods’), as well as an animation of the voices of Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra, and Helen (from Euripides’ Trojan Women), offers the contemporary reader different ways in which to view old images and conventional ideas. This same strain is taken up in the section ‘The Sixth Swan’, where, as in Sexton’s Transformations, fairy stories provide the primary images and/or narratives for the poet to observe – and, in her observations, expose and refashion.

In the section ‘Secret Lives’, Fahey reveals a more immediately personal voice, such as the tender prayer for the sleeping child in ‘Lullaby’, or the meditation upon her experiences of her own body in the poem ‘Dressmaker’: ‘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 light.’ And in the collection’s final section, ‘The World as Poem’, Fahey takes us into the specificity and viscerality of her home territory of Barwon Heads: ‘Whale-shaped, the headland concentrates / all depths, reaches, of grey; like a star, / the lighthouse with its slow subliminal wink.’ Echoing Gwen Harwood, poet of the littoral, Fahey writes in ‘Estuary’: ‘Out on the beach, the sky’s a jigsaw this new tide / will fill in; spread with a silver-blue cloth.’ The image is particular, rooted lovingly in place and in the details of the tangible world; but, like all the poems in this memorable collection, the imaginative reach is wide, transporting the reader on rushes of invisible wings.

Rose Lucas

Read this review in The Australian Book Review

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