Poetry Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Diane Fahey is a poet I’ve followed since her first volume, Metamorphoses, a feminist meditation on Greek women deities and their treatment in myth. Simply by inhabiting the female consort’s experience, she slyly, with compassion and irony, makes the case for a different gender order. Since then, I’ve read other volumes, including her verse novel, which has strong links to Ireland, The Mystery of Rosa Morland.
A much-awarded poet, Diane, with the help of an Australia Council Literature Board grant, spent a sojourn touring, attending festivals and writing in Ireland (see the article in Tinteán). An earlier pilgrimage in 2011 is the subject of her latest collection, The Stone Garden – a meditative tour in tanka – in fact, an extended rosary of 90 tanka – 15 tanka per suite, and six suites. There has to be a numerical reason for this regularity. Indeed, for those unfamiliar with the form, tanka is an ancient Japanese form (dating from the seventh century), five lines in each, and the number of syllables in each line are specified – 5, 7, 5, 7, 7. So, it is not unlike haiku, but in an extended form. It has by convention something like a volta (the ‘turn’ in a sonnet), in that the three upper lines may be distinguished in tone or content from the two lower ones. Tanka has been used to celebrate sacred places in Japan, like the Shrine at Ise (Ise Monogatari), and this convention seems not irrelevant to Diane Fahey’s practice. Ireland often excites in the poet a sense of the sacred, the numinous.
Tanka, also conventionally used to celebrate nature and the seasons, is also perfect for registering the evanescent responses of the cultural outsider to new landscapes. Although Fahey, like many Irish Australians, feels at home in Ireland, I really enjoy her sense of reserve and respect for difference:
From the farmer
high on his tractor
each morning, a wave – stronger,
so I thought, after
our first exchange of words steeped in
the holy water of silence.
The extra syllable in the last line paradoxically underlines the role of both words and silence in the farmer’s understated acceptance of the gently proffered relationship. It fills in and sanctifies words and wordlessness.
Difference is again registered ecstatically when she writes of the return of heat to the landscape of Clare:
The heat, at last
Wrens flower from hedges,
dart in charmed spurts through air’s
dip with closed wings, touch unseen
stones across unseen waters.
Portals are always opening to the sky in this collection.
The poetry is saturated with the names of birds and flowers. It is clearly important to this poet to catalogue difference in flora and fauna as part of her homage to the new landscape and as a way of inhabiting it – one is reminded of Joseph Furphy’s injunctions around being able to know and name subtle differences in foliage as a test of the privilege of belonging. So, the fusing of bird and flower in the first line is especially dynamic. The notion that the sky is its own temple takes us close to ancient Irish nature lyrics:
From its lush covert
a dove flies through stone lips, whirrs
upward, its plumage
bearing the karst’s earthern grey
into an aureoled sun.
This is poetry written out of a sense of the wonder of the natural world, not only birds and flowers, but also skies and weather, and the closeness of these phenomena to God.
Difference between Australian birds and Irish ones are important – they plot new geometries in this unfamiliar landscape, and work within a much older man-made culture with which they are totally harmonious. Indeed the birds are more enduring than the stone ruins in ‘St Caimin’s Church’. In, for example, ‘Tower’, a tanka from the Lough Derg sequence, the birds dominate the landscape:
Heaped in each window
of the monastery’s round tower
a welter of sticks
like mad wicker-work: ravens
have the best view in Ireland.
In a suite of 15 tanka called ‘Encounters’, Diane Fahey demonstrates the same naturalist’s acuteness of observation as she had applied to the natural landscape, and simultaneously shows how flexible the form can be applied to human beings. It can be slyly ironic in detailing the fall-out from Post-Celtic-Tiger Ireland:
Money comes; it goes.
Consequences. The bereft,
the bitter. Yet life
remains a crafted story;
wit waits on the glide of words.
It is good to think that words might protect still. The New Ireland with its guest-workers and tourists from around the world is sharply observed – ‘the Polish girl wiping / glass with her unhappiness’; the internet cafes with Chileans and Moroccans ‘maintaining the connections’. The anthropologist gives us the B&B proprietor who is inured to being suspicious but capable of change; the curious bakery shop assistant who ‘knows everything’ by dint of ‘blunt questions’ that are not without feeling; the charity shop worker ‘who lives / to fill cold, needy spaces’. It is a knowing but compassionate eye, and a generous spirit, that turns these evanescent experiences into poetry, and Ireland a place one would want to be.
Serendipity is the keynote of this collection and the wonder of being caught by surprise and joy.
Thank goodness for publishers like Clouds of Magellan. Poetry publishing is indeed endangered, and the world is much richer for collections like this one that builds such warm and considered connections between nations.