Diane Fahey, ‘The Wing Collection’ in Southerly

Michelle Borzi, Southerly 73.1 2013

Diane Fahey’s The Wing Collection: New & Selected Poems is her first broad selection from her eight books of poetry and it offers a timely reassessment of one of Australia’s finest contemporary poets. My first encounter with Fahey’s poetry was Metamorphoses (1988), her second book. I was struck by how skilfully these poems reinterpreted ancient Greek mythological stories, and by the fierce exigencies of the imagery; for this reader, then and now, Metamorphoses presents tough and gritty narratives. Over many years, I have watched Fahey’s poetry evolve to include richly diverse interests and she effortlessly casts her voice for the poem at hand. Her distinctly narrative stance can be varyingly hard and resolute, compassionate and ironic, or it can delicately hover over its subject.

The many facets in Fahey’s poetry range from ecological observation to ekphrastic, to reflections on travel, place and landscape, to meditations on family and relationships, to an engagement with writers and the act of writing, to feminist questionings. Across all these, the language keeps illuminating the particularities of the human and the natural world. The book has six thematic sections and three of these include some new and uncollected poems. Among the best new work are these poems, which have a mythological touch: “Dürer’s The Little Owl”, “The Annunciation”, “Angels: a Dossier”, “Walpurgisnacht”, “Dracula”, “Remembering Ophelia” and “Sower”.

Fahey is well known for her observations of birds, insects and animals. A circumspective curiosity towards wildlife is clearly complemented by research on her subjects. That habit continues in new poems, such as “Lyrebirds”, “Cockatoos at Dawn”, “Macaws” and “Pearly Nautilus”. In these, and her earlier nature poetry, Fahey’s language and imagery continually surprise, and perhaps more so when she writes several poems about creatures in the same species – sea dragons and seahorses; midges, mosquitoes and other insects; wrens and hummingbirds. The behaviour of animals and creatures is sometimes closely associated with that of human beings, but as the poet says, with typical grace, in “Butterflies: a Meditation” (1993), “Metaphor is such a dance of / possibility, a weightless touching”. The ineffable weightlessness of Fahey’s own language works to catch the energies that are precise to each species of creature. Here are the opening lines to “Weedy Seadragons” (2006):

With something of a race-horse’s
              vigilance of eye,
                           taut slenderness,
              they move just faster than

 the speed of stagnation –
              by drift, out of
                          sheer necessity –
           sip plankton through a straw,

sport manes of kelp
          that ripple like tourney flags
                         as they flow nowhere –
          at one with their milieu.

On the page, the uneven indentations and rhythmic free verse, with its deft line-turns, may well be mimicking the shape of the seadragons, or the litheness with which they move through water, or both. There is a lively tranquillity of tone in those lines. This poet observes things intimately and in doing so conveys a delight in making – in seeing a subject and transforming it and, equally, in letting it be. 

Fahey has diligently revised all but a small handful of her older poems, for the better. This is an extraordinary accomplishment. Some of the revisions are a matter of slight re-wordings, and minor changes to punctuation and stanza breaks; others involve acute adjustments to line-turns. “Diver”, for instance, from Fahey’s first book Voices from the Honeycomb (1986), is a poem about spring-boarding into a river, and simultaneously about plunging deeply into the self to work through something utterly private. The original version had emotional force, but the changes have brought a new clarity and strength. In “The Gold Honeycomb” section, Fahey has made revisions to all except three of the poems from Metamorphoses (“Niobe”, “Danaë” and “Underworld”), and to all but one (“Ares”) from Listening to a Far Sea (1998).

Every poem in “The Sixth Swan” section has been revised, some quite radically. “Rumpelstiltskin”, for example, has a new final stanza and a number of lines and phrases have been totally re-written; and “The Handless Maiden” has a new opening stanza, with major re-writings throughout. Fahey has even made slight, but finely judged revisions to the sonnets in “The World as Poem” section, taken from a very recent book, Sea Wall and River Light (2006). These sonnets are quiet meditations on the sea, the natural world and the townspeople of Barwon Heads, a coastal town in Victoria. On first reading, they seemed too low-key, but their refinement has grown on me in subsequent readings. The language catches at the continual shifts and flows of the natural world in time – as the poet says in “Tides”, “the tremendous drift of things” – and they respond to nature’s landscapes, and the self too, as endlessly changing. “Time” decisively hits this note: “I watch time pass in the dip and bounce / of branches, the spiral dance of my stripling / eucalyptus”. But there is also an idea of encountering “time”: “Outside, I enter the pressure / and pull of it, my ten thousand footprints / mark sand as the river ruffles to fish-scaled / silver, and waves leave the ocean beach / scalloped with fine piping”. This voice reaches through to the ephemeral with a fine precision. In this group of poems, but often elsewhere too, Fahey has “time” in mind. Her question is not so much with what “time” signifies, but with the self in time, and it is the immensity of the temporal world, with its wonder and hardship, that she homes in on and unaffectedly brings to expression.
An early poem, “Assemblage” from The Body in Time (1995), is significantly revised. The opening lines have a light-hearted gravity:

I wake, reposition my head carefully 
back on my shoulders, revolve the bolt.
Dents in the teapot on my breakfast-tray evoke
the dimples, oily with light, I’ll dive into at the pool,
a liquid bowling green draining through shark gills.

I wear a twenties’ costume – black wool, knee to neck –
but anyone can see my skin’s rough patchwork;
that my joints have metal accessories.
I am what I appear to be – a walking industrial accident.
Thirsty for reassurance, I lope to the spa:

the circle widens with distant looks, its temperature rises.

“Assemblage” was originally published in three-line free verse stanzas with mostly choppy, short lines. Fahey has replaced the original 16 stanzas with five (of five lines) and the revised longer lines bring out the drive of thought and narrative; the complex thought is also steadied by the few word changes. The poem is dignified and sensual as it observes a human body convalescing – this experience may or may not be drawn from the poet’s personal story. In an interview from 1996, Fahey talks about the need for a “measure of distance” when “dealing with potentially overwhelming material” (Fahey 77): “First, how to get a handle on that experience. Second, how to avoid imposing on the reader. And third, how to preserve one’s private space” (Fahey 78).

A certain detachment from a private space is an imperative part of all Fahey’s poetry, and indeed it is fundamental to poetry in many traditions. “Seeing”, with Fahey, is not restricted to sight, but can encompass a wider awareness of a physical encounter with things in themselves, bodily and emotionally. The next lines from “Assemblage” nimbly balance seriousness and a warm-hearted humour:

Resolute fingers clamp bubbling thighs, I check my toes.
Back in the change room, I fiddle with scar cremes,
anti-rust spray, busy as a drag queen.

A half-fogged mirror shows two eyes, almost level,
almost equally blue, in this botched, transparent face
that will never tan. I’m an artefact, I know,
yet some kind of human – I can think with halting
fluency, admire sunsets, want love.

The images move with ease between personal and communal spheres – made to look easy, but hard-fought-for – and there is no self-pity. This voice resonantly catches intimate moments in time. “Assemblage” is a remarkable, celebratory poem.

In The Wing Collection, the division into six thematic sections inevitably means that some poems will have been chosen because they fit in neatly. The section, “The Gold Honeycomb” includes only fifteen of the sixty-two poems that were originally published in Metamorphoses, along with twenty of the sixty-eight other Greek myth poems from Listening to a Far Sea – approximately one-third of each original book. These two books, I believe, are signature Fahey. Through a female-centred mythology, Metamorphoses is daring and provocative in its concern for the female self and in its anger against oppression and violence. Listening to a Far Sea explores broader concerns of the human psyche, particularly in relation to the gender dichotomies that women and men face – socially, culturally and politically. The poems chosen from each are powerful, but the selection is a lean one in comparison to the number of animal and nature poems in the section, “Small Wonders” – an expansive selection that weighs the book a little towards ecology. From Metamorphoses, for instance, I would love to have seen “Medea”, “Polyxena”, “Oreithyia”, “Callisto” and “Semele”; and these from Listening to a Far Sea: “Astyanax Remembered”, “Medea’s Cauldron”, “The Sibylline Books”, “Calchas”, “Medusa”, “Marsyas” and “Sphinx”. “Cassandra”, among those chosen, shows the potency of this poetry:

She, who knew her own end would be
rape and murder, told herself this cell
was a haven. If only, oh if only . . .
A doorway of light shone at the centre
of the floor; dry leaves shuffled, whispered.

Lightness and dark, and the complex interplay between them, are key motifs across Fahey’s oeuvre and so too is her refusal to present female mythological characters as victims. Cassandra is trapped “in that stone cage, surviving, dying”, but this bleakness is resisted through the strangeness of “haven” and the turn to light.

The original publication of The Sixth Swan (2001) has largesse: 101 pages of poetry inspired by Grimm’s Fairy Tales; twenty of its eighty-two poems are chosen for a self-titled section. Formally a re-writing of mythical stories, The Sixth Swan is in some ways a coda to Metamorphoses and Listening to a Far Sea. The tightly ironic “I” of those two books, however, is turned in The Sixth Swan to a more laconic narrative mode. Quite independently of the original tale, many of the poems conclude by opening out to mystery or to irresolution (sometimes both) through an open-ended questioning or a playfully disconcerting refusal of stability. For example, in the final lines of “The Robber Bridegroom”:

The wine on the table was the crimson
of blood and pain. I drank deeply
then broke my glass, ready to choose
peace, have done with all this –
to follow rumours of joy.

There is wryness throughout Fahey’s oeuvre. At times, this shifts into something fanciful and out-of-the-blue. Here is the opening stanza of “Walpurgisnacht”, one of her new poems:

After we drove through the peasants with their clogs and alpine teeth
and eerie whisperings, (“Walpurgisnacht”), the coachman doubled our speed.
The sound he uttered was voiceless – a ghost sound: Wal-purg-is-nacht.
I savoured the word, quaffed its vertiginous brandy,
then lapsed back among cushions: I do enjoy my travel.

This two-page narrative about vampires and the strange callings of the writer’s craft should be read aloud. It glistens with mirth and agility.

Michelle Borzi

Read this review in Southerley

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