Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Diane Fahey’s November Journal is a sequence of one hundred tanka offering glimpses of the glorious beauty of the landscape around Bundanon in New South Wales. Far from meditative, the lively sequence belies any notion that the bush is quiet and serene: all is activity, bustle, and business as usual for the furred, feathered, and scaled inhabitants of the area. Thus, she describes a vibrant landscape in “Clouds” as a “scene of growth, pulse” (47). These are painterly poems appealing primarily to the sense of sight but they are also consonant with the sounds of the countryside. Fahey has a rare gift for musicality as well as imagery.
The main technique Fahey employs is personification. Here, personification is not a symptom of anthropocentrism but, rather, an expression of appreciation for all that creatures give to humankind while we offer so little in return. Of course, animals provide nourishment and clothing for us but also, as Fahey observes in “Heron in high flight,” a bird bestows “gifts to life: dignity, / grace without cease, quietude” (6). Indeed, Fahey’s use of personification seems both right and somehow profound. The heron has “The mindful slowness / of an artist, a lover / as wingtips stroke air” (6). Surely birds must enjoy the sensation of flight as much as the artist relishes flexing their skills or the lover delights in caressing their beloved. Fahey’s use of personification is not ironic but sincere and coloured by the conviction that we can gain rich knowledge and experience from appreciating the bird world even as we can give so little in return.
More personification is to be found in “Blackbird” when the speaker is held in “thrall” by the bird’s “songs with their quicksilver / chanciness, their truth” (44) and in “Blackbird in a silky oak” when the speaker endows the bird with the human emotion of desire, referring to his song as “A canticle of / longing” (44). And yet it is she who longs to become part of nature as she says: “I’d fly down and perch nearby; / I’d give him a good hearing” (44). Speaker and subject merge. Who is to say that the birdsong does not articulate desire, both the bird’s and the speaker’s own? Perhaps this is the “truth” of the blackbird’s song. Of course we cannot connect with the avian realm on its terms and we cannot escape our anthropocentric world view. So it seems that an aware, enlightened expression of personification is a legitimate way of perceiving and portraying nature.
Yes, these poems are centred on the self but it is an empathic self. The speaker of “7 a.m.” remarks, “whipbird to wake me, / bellbird to charm me into / hope” (2) but we would be mistaken to see egotism in these lines or any misguided notion that the birds exist purely for her edification. Rather than envisage a cartoon princess dancing and singing with biddable birdlife, the reader might note that the effect is more like the chanting of ingredients for a conjuring spell as “the raven’s rasp adds edge” (2). The “edge” comes from the speaker’s understanding that any idea that the natural world exists only for us is illusory.
Although there is no overt expression of environmentalism here, this sequence is clearly charged with the consciousness that humans continue to destroy habitats. Yet Fahey has found a form of ecopoetry that listens to the birds rather than raging at the people. Her decision to write her poetry in the tanka form is astute for two reasons. First, there is the economy of the form, which reflects the brief glimpses of wildlife gained by a person encountering the bushland. Second, a tanka traditionally employs a volta, or a pivotal image, marking the transition from the image contemplated to the speaker’s response. The tanka is, therefore, a solipsistic form, focussed on the self as much as the scenery. Clearly, merging the confessional with the imagistic is Fahey’s forte.
Bowerbird-like, Fahey has an eye for beauty as she collects snippets of experience from her time spent exploring a rural property. Each snippet works together tonally to create a splendid vision of exuberant delight in the sights, sounds, and scents encountered by the speaker. This sequence is delicately poised on the point that marks the intersection of the lines in the Venn diagram between the human and the animal. November Journalis a welcome addition to the pantheon of tanka penned in the English language.