A Poetry Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Diane Fahey, A House by the River, Puncher and Wattmann, Glebe (NSW), 2016
Diane Fahey takes the reader on a privileged journey, into the semi-reclusive life of her dying mother. This takes place in a small, century-old weatherboard house (transformed lovingly by a husband who predeceased his wife) and its revived garden, along the Barwon River. It’s a ceremonial journey, marked by calm and watchfulness, and an immersion in passing seasons and their visitants. It is a collection full of luminous moments.
I’ve read Diane’s poetry for decades, and am in awe of the integrity and the variety of her verse. Each collection has a firm focus, is a project that demands total absorption, and melds the poetic style to its subject. Here, death is personal and close, but it’s not only that that catches her attention. Sometimes she will tackle it from the vantage point of the entire cosmos, as in ‘Night Sky’ where contemplation of the stars leads to the following insight:
Stars give the usual unreadable clues
as to their provenance, their pathways.
If they, with the sky, composed a garment
you could wrap yourself in, a state
you could become, you would no longer,
perhaps, want life.
………………………..That page of brilliant dust
on almost dry ink is, suffice to say,
a way of knowing this place,
and of knowing this place as infinitely
otherwise than we know it.
The ruptured line between the final two stanzas works to make dramatic the philosophical stance she adopts here, and to give a sense of the incomprehension and openness of this attentive mind. The way she has turned the night sky into a canvas or filled-in page is also suggestive that there are larger forces at work in the round of death and life. And it is life in its myriad quotidian forms that she celebrates in this volume – the seasonal round, the drought/drenching rain cycle, the birds that create the clamour of the dawn, walking the dog, burying it, the winning back of a garden from dereliction, doing crosswords (with increasing feyness as brain fugue takes over), the strange affinity between the visiting dolphin that adores people (the one that entranced visitors to Barwon River some three years ago) and attempts to lure chosen humans into its world in the final section. Her ‘slow motion anticipation of death’ becomes just part of this, and is signalled in subtle ways over and over again, in Parts I and II, functioning as a gentle invitation to contemplate it as homely, a simple part in the diurnal round.
What keeps her tethered at a personal level is the attempt to ‘record/with an engraver’s care, truths / harsh or consoling’. Her poet’s craft which can work its magic, with input from other (women) poets – Emily Dickinson, Eavan Boland, Mary Oliver. There is an engaging vision of her, awake at 3 a.m, reading the poets just named and
Then I start this [poem], bolstered high so the pen
won’t falter, but sliding slowly under
the counterpane of poems
as words come fast. (‘3 a.m. Waking’)
The literal and the metaphoric are so gently fused here, in a poem with a distinctly female sensibility. A day of service to her mother, ‘numbed with fatigue’ but uncomplaining, has not whetted the desire to write, and there’s a certain comedy in the idea of being drawn in under the weight of the covers / poems. The notion of ‘establish[ing her] life’s domain‘, with which ‘3 a.m. Waking’ ends, is a clarion call, announcing her poet’s commitment to an exacting discipline. One thinks of Sylvia Plath doing shifts with Ted Hughes in order to care for their young children, Sylvia getting the (less desirable) pre-dawn one and hungrily making the most of it, and producing Ariel. No ivory tower for this poet, just immersion in the ordinary tasks of being an essential part of her mother’s needs-provision. Over and over again, she marvels and we marvel at how landscapes get transformed in much the same way as pages get written upon:
After a day of writing, the journey home
under a sky crowded with gloomy thoughts
but allowing winged dreams, lanterns
of sunset pink.
The bus swings towards the sea.
Low clouds form a second line of hills
inset with gold leaf, then with ivory.
All colour gone, the sky’s a glowing page. (‘At Winter’s Turning’)
The poems about her mother are eloquent with understated grief:
You’ve reached the age of unexplained bruises:
mulberry stains on calf and forearm –
as if air itself could pressure such frail skin.
And what point now, in remembering
life’s actual bumps and knocks? I massage
your swollen legs – or you do, preferring
the thick lavender creme, a second skin.
After days of deathly fatigue you walk outside –
the sun on your cheeks, an old friend;
keen eyes glean the garden’s news, its tides
of renewal. Your raised hand points at
‘The Happy Wanderer’, profligate
on its trellis: ‘See those red filaments?
That’s where they’ll appear, the new blooms.’ (‘Old Age’)
The pathos of the mother’s responsiveness to the world created lovingly by the daughter constitutes not only a tragic irony, but a full-hearted tribute to the mother’s ways of handling her imminent demise, ‘lucidly / patient’ (‘In Care’), contemplating ‘time’s mercy’ (‘This Life’). This is the kind of work that might well become very meaningful in the hands of those facing the challenges of knowing of impending death, and not just poetry aficionados. It is like being invited into the best kind of meditative space, an inducement to enter the ‘present moment’. It gives much insight into the simple satisfactions of those who tend the ill:
On occasion, proud as a parent, I’ve found you –
feet up, music playing, biscuits and cheese –
your life going blithely on without me. (‘These Days’)
The ultimate satisfaction is the Mother’s pronouncement on the day before she died: ‘I’m lucky‘ (‘A Life’). The daughter’s grief is tempered by the knowledge that this sense of well-being, so hard won as the mother was hyper-anxious, was carefully crafted, and the demise as gentle and pleasurable as the slowly changing seasons. She images it some time after the death, typically obliquely, in an expressive metaphor:
It’s summer now. I pluck and hold an apricot
warm as a human face, against my cheek. (‘A Life’)
This volume takes a long time to get to its real subject, the mother and her dying, but is is worth the wait. The set-up of the place and domestic arrangements she makes are meticulous, ceremonial, and integral to the meaning created in the bigger picture. When the mother is shyly introduced, in Part III, the reader arrives at an affectionate portrait of a simple woman. More even than the her achievement as a poet, Fahey modestly, and I have no doubt, with utter sincerity (the hallmark of her many volumes of poetry), pronounces:
…. But I’d claim as my best work
those six years spent with you in my care –
a small return for your undaunted love. (‘So it Goes’)
With a heart-scalding candour, she reflects on how silence was the dominant motif in the household, a condition I think of (at the risk of promulgating a stereotype) as very Irish. The reasons for the tension between mother and daughter are economically sketched and harrowing (‘Mother and Daughter’) – the unspeakable rage arising from the loss of a brother and a mother’s inadequate response, the ‘animus of early teenage years’, the illness of the daughter. This changed during the six years she nursed her mother at the end of her life. Much of what passes between them in the final phase of the mother’s life is based in wordless mutual understanding which the poems meticulously document.
This collection is so different from her earlier volumes of poetry, each of which I’ve enjoyed immoderately for many decades for their own sake, and therein lies the special gifts of this poet. She has radically reworked her style with each new turn in her life.
I warmly commend this book not only to readers of poetry. It is luminous with loving memories, simple and quotidian, and wise understandings about grief and mourning the living as they die. There’s a hint of religion, but it’s not pressed, and what appeals to me most is its nature-based sense of the sacredness of life in its myriad forms. I will be giving it to many of my friends who have been there, or are walking down the same fraught path. The production values by Puncher and Wattmann are high, and the cover image, a Clarice Beckett painting, is superb.
Frances has taught Literature for over 40 years, and is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.