B. 1933 D. 2017
Be precise, said wise Wei T'ai, / about the thing / but reticent / about the feeling. - from 'Poems and Things'
About Fay Zwicky
Fay Zwicky was born in Melbourne in 1933. Her father was a doctor, her mother a musician. From early in life she trained as a pianist, performing with her violinist and cellist sisters while still at school. She began publishing poetry as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne, thereafter working as a musician, touring Europe, America and South-East Asia. She left the concert stage in 1965 and returned to literature, though the interconnectedness, complexity and theatricality of classical musicianship provided an artistic template which continues to inform her writing.
Zwicky's first book, Isaac Babel's Fiddle (1975) sets out her principal concerns, her moral stance in relation to duty and obligation action and contemplation. Duty for her is not a straightforward business, but a process continually assessed and calibrated against tradition and individual reciprocity. Her work is spring-loaded, even in a seemingly innocent description of the parenting duties of the male sea-horse. Its tender counsel to 'nuzzle your snouters, sweet/sons and daughters' capped off with an ironical aside; "They'd be mad to trust women/After this.", reveals a covert feminist framing never idealogically simplistic but hemmed with an ambivalence acknowledging reality's limits.
Zwicky's next book, Kaddish and Other poems, showed both her talent with dramatic personae and the use of other voices in the exploration of the centrality of family and forgiveness. In the powerful central poem – Kaddish – she asserts her claim and obligation, as the first-born, to recite the Jewish memorial prayer for her dead father. In what Ivor Indyk describes as "a mosaic of textual citations, of the Kaddish, the Passover Haggadah and numerous allusions to myth and nursery rhyme…Zwicky interweaves the many texts, and their voices… to show how power is used to still the rebellious heart and command devotion.", rebellion and devotion being themes intrinsic to Zwicky's work.
Subsequent books, Ask Me, The Gatekeeper's Wife and Picnic develop and expand her witty, argumentative, and, most importantly, passionate quest for, among things, justice, reverence and, paradoxically, humility. Stylistically the earlier lyrical work such as 'Whale Psalm' develops into the sparser clean lines of poems like 'The Witnesses'. There is also sharp humour in the varieties of female characters portrayed in 'Chicken' and 'Letter from Claudia in the Midi', the mordant comedy of woman as despoiler and rebel set against the ravages of age and time. The importance of her comedy to deliver acute observations, often overlooked, is constant, with plays, puns and satirical undercurrents in her poems. When she looks in at the self visiting China, as in 'Roosters and Earthworms', (cast as she must be as a Rooster), tellingly, she says of her 'best roles' she would choose clown over military hero.
Zwicky was widely acknowledged and awarded as one of Australia's most important and exhilarating poets. She has been extensively anthologised, and her work establishes a sometimes precipitous path for her reader. She writes personally and faithfully for the reader she doesn't know but might meet (and perhaps paradoxically for herself) – trying to stay, as nearly as possible, close to the stuff of reality.
Aside from her poetry Zwicky also wrote short stories. A collection Hostages was published in 1983, and a collection of essays on literature and survival The Lyre in the Pawnshop (1986). She worked extensively as an editor and for many years taught English and American Literature as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Western Australia. Her work is widely anthologised and the subject of much critical attention. She was survived by a son and a daughter, two grandchildren and a ghost-dog.
The audio poems featured here are from her 2010 audio CD The Witnesses recorded in Perth in February 2009. Zwicky's reading delivers the complexity, as well as the emotional and intellectual intensity of her work. Here is Zwicky, with all her musicality, her sense of rhythm and cadence, her passion and dry humour. The audio was recorded by Carol Jenkins for The River Road Poetry Series.