Zwicky, (Julia) Fay

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ZWICKY, (Julia) Fay

Nationality: Australian. Born: Julia Fay Rosefield, Melbourne, 4 July 1933. Education: University of Melbourne, 1950–54, B.A. (honors). Family: Married 1) Karl Zwicky in 1957 (divorced), one son and one daughter; 2) James Mackie in 1990 (divorced). Career: Concert pianist, 1950–65; senior lecturer in English, University of Western Australia, Perth, 1972–87. Member of literature board, Australia Council, Sydney, 1978–81; poetry editor, Westerly, Perth, 1974–83 and 1993–98, and Patterns, Fremantle, 1974–83; associate editor, since 1988, Overland, Melbourne, and since 1989, Southerly, Sydney. Awards: New South Wales Premier's award, 1982; Western Australian Literary award, for nonfiction, 1987; Western Australian Premier's award for poetry, 1991, 1999. Agent: Australian Literary Management, 2A Armstrong Street, Middle Park, Victoria 3206. Address: 30 Goldsmith Road, Claremont, Western Australia 6010, Australia.



Isaac Babel's Fiddle. Adelaide, Maximus, 1975.

Kaddish and Other Poems. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1982.

Ask Me. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1990.

A Touch of Ginger, with Dennis Haskell. Applecross, Folio, 1991.

Poems 1970–1992. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1993.

The Gatekeeper's Wife. Sydney, Brandl and Schlesinger, 1997.

Short Stories

Hostages. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1983.


The Lyre in the Pawnshop: Essays on Literature and Survival 1974–1984. Nedlands, University of Western Australia Press, 1986.

Editor, Quarry: A Selection of Western Australian Poetry. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1981.

Editor, Journeys: Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, Gwen Harwood, Dorothy Hewett. Melbourne, Sisters, 1982.

Editor, Procession: Youngstreet Poets Three. Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1987.


Critical Studies: "Finding a Voice in 'This Fiercely Fathered and Unmothered World': The Poetry of Fay Zwicky" by Joan Kirkby, in Poetry and Gender, edited by David Brooks and Brenda Walker, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1989; "Fay Zwicky: The Poet As Moralist" by Ivor Indyk, and "On the Shifting Sands of Our Experience: Fay Zwicky's Poetry" by Elsa Linguanti, both in Southerly (Sydney), 54(3), September 1994; in In Other Words: Interviews with Australian Poets, by Barbara Williams, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1998.

Fay Zwicky comments:

Certain themes run with obdurate consistency through the three collections spanning a period of twenty years or so. Chief among these is probably an affirmation of the human speaking voice, often discerned in opposition to the oppressive silence of an inarticulate culture.

Some poems in the first book, Isaac Babel's Fiddle, weave a densely textured mythic structure around the settlement in Australia of my Jewish ancestors in the middle of the nineteenth century. The sense of exile implicit in the migrant assimilation process is linked with an awareness of being bound to a diminishing past while remaining ambiguously ironic about the preservation of constraining traditions. Under masks and a variety of voices, the poems explore the lot of the traditionally silent female who is also a member of an ethnic minority group and thus doubly sentenced.

Finding a voice also informs the looser lines of poems in Kaddish and Other Poems. These have more breathing space, take more risks with form, and, as in the title poem with its four distinctively symphonic movements, take their shape from musical models. Several poems set up an argument either as internal monologue or as exploration of traditional mythological characters. In the "Ark Voices" sequence a capricious God is questioned about survival, its penalties and obligations. Other poems are concerned with identity in a contemporary context and the artist's ambiguous role in keeping faith with the history of human suffering in a heedless society.

The third collection, Ask Me, ranges further afield with poems written after visits to China, India, and America. Several deal with experiences as a hospice worker, and two long elegies provide a climax to the growing sense of life's fragility. The speaking voice has become less urgent, the irony less lacerating. Although there are fewer masks and "literary" allusions, a more colloquial emphasis, these poems continue to articulate the dimensions of a vision apparent in earlier work questioning the limits of speech and silence.

*  *  *

Fay Zwicky's poetry might well take as its epigraph the line from fellow musician-poet Gwen Harwood that asserts, "a firetalented tongue will choose its truth." It will also choose its mode of telling, and Zwicky's sometimes fierce truths are diversely told—confrontationally, obliquely, passionately, wittily, astringently, compassionately. Ask Me, the title of her 1990 collection, characteristically challenges the indifferent shrug of "Don't ask me," declaring an allegiance to engagement, a preparedness to answer. As shown in "In Memory of Vincent Buckley," Zwicky's humanist commitment to communication informs the value that she places on poetry's power to celebrate

those blessed moments of the ordinary,
rarer than ornaments of beaten gold and twice as rare
to those intransigent for truth amid imposture.

The commitment to communication has also informed Zwicky's important critical writings. "Language," she has argued, "is the product of a deep-rooted web of potential for empathy between people, a shared structure." The disintegration of language and of the social fabric go together, leaving those unwilling or unable to resist with "the despair and frustration of being unable to communicate or to love, the impotence of refusing responsibility for the word." Writers must "put in a word for life," the speaker in "Lot's Wife (Take 18)" declares, while the entire volume of Kaddish has as its basis that idea that to fail to speak is to fail to love. Kaddish opens with a ritual prayer for Zwicky's dead father in which the poet finally voices and memorializes a contentious love, and it closes with a ritualized plea to be forgiven for the poems that have died "under each inert hour of my silence … the many I have frozen with irony."

To place a negative value on irony is to challenge the contemporary critical wisdom of Zwicky's academic education, but then much of her work has challenged assumptions prevalent in the discursive constructions of both Australian and female identity. "Speeches and Silences," her 1983 Quadrant essay, begins by questioning in general the valorization of silence as reaching beyond words to "ineffable purity of vision" before proceeding to argue that the exaltation of strong, silent stoicism puts Australians at particular at risk of being left "wordless / In a dumb landscape." This, she argues, is particularly oppressive for women, because stoic silence is construed as a masculine virtue, "leaving the female to flounder without the longed-for verbal signposts needed for the articulation of feeling."

Like many contemporary women poets, Zwicky has raided the world of patriarchal myth in order to provide a voice for the silent or to question the distribution of power. Probably her greatest achievement in the mythic mode lies in the wonderfully sensuous, pragmatic, and exuberant pathos of the voices with which Mrs. Noah and the animals address God in "Ark Voices." Yet in her very articulation of what it means to be "speechless and unspoken to," her refusal to reciprocate the language of tyranny, and her insistence on compassion, Mrs. Noah achieves a speaking presence capable of being translated into the joyful enumerator of names in "Southern Spell." Certainly Zwicky herself has managed to find words for a long-term, and by no means simple, engagement with her personal and cultural heritage, with the love she can deny neither her Jewish father nor the patriarchs of Western thought and religion, and through this engagement she has come to the kind of crone's wisdom that illuminates The Gatekeeper's Wife. For if the ego demands speech, the communicative life demands that we be able to listen, and having listened, the poet has obligations to the kind of commemorative contract ("Remember me" … "I do / I will") that Zwicky accepts as the conclusion of her elegy "For Jim."

Less formal in mode than Kaddish, Zwicky's later elegies are vulnerable to the weight of time. It is not only the lost lover who was her first husband who is remembered in "Akibat" but also the lost self-as-bride, the lost time and (Indonesian) place of love's beginning. But if loss is something that cannot be denied by one "intransigent for truth," it is also something not merely balanced against, but inextricably intermingled with, happiness, with the "earth's sweet mulch" that is celebrated in "Learning," the autobiographical poem at the heart of The Gatekeeper's Wife. It is not nostalgia that rules as this "teacher" looks to learn afresh

Without adjectives to reckon how
verbs to work out why
nouns to know what
learning the new heart's tenses,
surprises concordances, and how O
how not to fear the fatherless dark.

—Jennifer Strauss