I first encountered the poetry of Diane Fahey in 1997 when I read ‘Jorinda and Joringel’ in the Sydney journal, Heat. As a young adult I was a relative non-reader who was beginning to find a passion for poetry. My discovery of this poem, early in my journey, forever changed what I knew Australian poetry could do. ‘Jorinda and Joringel’ is a feminist narrative poem sequence that reimagines the Grimm Brothers tale of a witch who transforms stray girls into birds who are then kept in a castle, waiting for the male hero. This is ambitious, necessary poetry: expansive, vivid, and rich in juxtaposition and allusion. It led me to seek out Fahey’s Metamorphoses (1988) as I eagerly awaited the publication of The Sixth Swan (2001), a whole book of Jorindas and Joringels.
I have also long admired Fahey’s nature poetry: so richly lyrical and full of wonder. Mayflies in Amber (1993) is such a surprising celebration of the world of insects: moths, cockroaches, bedbugs, lice, fleas ... . And while Sea Wall and River Light (2006) and A House by the River (2016) might work a little more conventionally as personal responses to a moment spent in beautiful natural places, they are still fascinating in the way they use praise for the natural world to explore such human concerns as bereavement and old age. The subject of this review, however, is November Journal (2017). On the book’s back cover we are told by the South Australian poet, Jan Owen, that this is a ‘fine extension of Diane Fahey’s oeuvre: her jewel-like images, sparkling moments and salient surprises pack the austere tanka form with vibrant life’. I think Owen’s generous words certainly describe Fahey’s efforts in The Stone Garden (2013) where the tanka form is also used to respond to the natural environment, this time of County Clare in Ireland. ‘Sunset’ is an apt example:
A hawk cuts hilltop oaks from their shadow: starlings lift and whirl; unspool; billow in ghost shapes. Sky-wide sifts of jet veil coral-red.
‘Sunset’ is stunningly memorable in the way it expresses image and sound in such sparse and grammatically adventurous form. But, what of the tanka in November Journal?
Fahey, throughout her career, has rightly won numerous prizes and residencies. And so in 2009 she was awarded another residency, this time at Bundanon Artists’ Retreat, on the Shoalhaven River in NSW. November Journal is a record of this month-long sojourn, celebrating her view of fields, forest, plains, escarpments and the Shoalhaven River. The book reads with all the personal insights and compressed momentum – and unevenness – of a month-long diarising. The book’s first poem 'Arrivals' is a good example:
Galahs by the path to meet me; the spiked welcome of friarbirds in silky oaks circling the house. River, stone hills, bush, waiting.
There is a melodramatic anthropomorphism in these prosaic words. And the poem is not rescued by that comic brilliance of the friarbird’s ‘spiked welcome’.
November Journal is uneven in quality, but many of Fahey’s hymns of praise are superior to the example above. Fahey makes much of this tone of rhapsodising in moments spent with the natural world. In ‘Magpie group at sunset’ she observes:
Within a gold cone they step towards the river, pause, carol with beaks raised, walk, sing again. This seems, is, a ceremony of praise.This book is a ‘ceremony of praise’, and at times it is very fine, as in ‘Hillside sun’:
Its full glare finds you through the scatter of bloodwoods, ironbarks, lanterns their crowns. Starbursts of copper, new green, taupe, gleam from dead fronds.
But in the twenty-first century, when we have so much context and insight available to us from the ecological sciences, is it enough to praise alone? Just as we expect so much more from nature documentary than mere picture postcards and worship or admiration, shouldn’t we also anticipate more from nature poetry? Perhaps Fahey is aware of this problem, because we often see her reaching for a field guide, especially to identify birds, as in ‘White-eared honeyeater?’:
Busybody-swift it feeds, flirts and flits before I can search my book, name another enigma, stroke that soft, consoling green.While in ‘Reading The Secret Life of Wombats’ she references the work of a science journalist:
A boy charts tunnels, finds a mummified wombat then one with live eyes – who grunts. He grunts back, snakes fast in reverse through the tunnel.
However, in November Journal, Fahey rarely goes beyond these superficial attempts to locate her rhapsodies within the context of natural history, to see her cast of animals and plants as existing within ecological niches and systems. I think that twenty-first century nature poetry needs to be more than this single minded praise.
Diane Fahey, November Journal. North Melbourne: Whitmore Press Poetry, 2017. ISBN:9780987386694