Friday, August 4, 2017

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~


Cold blows the wind in the forest
And quietly drops the snow,
I never had but one lover,
And her grave lies here below
And her grave lies here below.

I'll sing of her death in the forest,
The loveliest of them all,
I'll howl and run in the quiet snow
Till they answer to my call
Till they answer to my call.

They can beat their drum in the thorny brake
They can blow their horn in the town,
My cry shall wake the very dead,
And I shall run them down
And I shall run them down.

Saddled and bridled and booted,
Came three hunters to the vale,
They caroused with the townsfolk merry,
And were told a painful tale
And were told a painful tale.

"There are wolves in our windy forest
There are wolves in our snow-bound plain,
Our sheep and our children are taken
And will ne'er come back again
And will ne'er come back again.

When the moon shines white in the forest,
You can hear them moan and cry,
They hunt by scent in our peaceful vale
And our children all will die
And our children all will die."

Then up rose the gallant hunters,
They took out gun and knife
They swore they would rid the snow-bound vale
Of the wolves who halted life
Of the wolves who halted life.

They came on horseback at midnight,
They came with knife and gun,
My love and I did howl and cry
And their nimble hounds did run
And their nimble hounds did run.

They came to a break in the forest,
They heard our guiltless cry,
The foremost of the company
Took aim against the sky
Took aim against the sky.

The hounds ran swiftly through the wood
My tender love to take,
And from the very hills and dales
An echo shrill did shake
An echo shrill did shake.

And now there came the panting hounds
And now there came the gun
The foremost levelled it at my love
As helpless we did run
As helpless we did run.

O he has killed my one true love!
O he has killed my dear!
Her blood is springing on the snow,
And I am stiff with fear
And I am stiff with fear.

Whose blood is this in the forest?
What moon shines clear in the sky?
Though I have to wait out seven years
The hunters will surely die
The hunters will surely die.

I've ravaged their sheep by night
I've slaughtered their children by day
O sweet shall I sing to see their blood
Which for that death shall pay
Which for that death shall pay.

The seventh year is upon me
Seven years from her final breath,
I'll howl and run in the silent snow
And lure them to their death
And lure them to their death.

I'll sing of her end in the forest,
The loveliest of them all,
I'll howl and run in the bloody snow
Till they answer to my call
Till they answer to my call.

You can rest, my love, in our forest,
You can sleep in our thorny brake,
For the hunters three today will die
And I their life shall take
And I their life shall take.

O when shall we meet, my dear one?
O when shall we meet again?
When the leaves are fallen from the bough
And the green and the spring are come
And the green and the spring are come.

– Fay Zwicky (1933-2017)
From Poems 1970-1992

Distinguished Australian poet Fay Zwicky died a month ago ('after a long illness', the obituaries say) the day after the publication of her Collected Poems and two days before her 84th birthday. Her publisher, Terri-ann White of UWA Press, tells us she was delighted to hold a copy of her new book in her hands the previous week.

Her poetry won major awards and prizes. She was also a short story writer, essayist, critic and academic, known for her powerful intellect. In 2004 she was declared a West Australian State Living Treasure (though she herself, reclusive by nature, thought the title ridiculous).

I met her only once, when she visited Melbourne for a big poetry event – nice woman and memorable reader, exuding inner strength – but she has been part of our national literary consciousness, it seems, forever.

She grew up in Melbourne and began publishing poetry as an undergraduate of the University of Melbourne, but went on to work as a musician, touring Europe for ten years as a solo pianist. After that she settled in Perth with her first husband and two children, and worked as a Senior Lecturer in American and Comparative Literature at the University of Western Australia until her retirement in 1987.

Those who know and love her work may be surprised or even disappointed by the poem I've chosen. It's not typical. She more often worked in free verse and dealt in socio-political themes. Wikipedia says:

Recurrent themes of Zwicky's were the relation between art and the artist, the exploration of the author's Jewish heritage and autobiographical experiences. 

Her entry in Australian Poetry Library says:

Many of her more recent poems have focused on such contemporary cultural and political concerns as the uses and abuses of power, the problems of refugees and violence, as well as continuing her probing of family and autobiographical themes. 

and notes that:

Zwicky also writes tellingly about the patriarchal silencing of the voices and experiences of women, as in the very funny 'Mrs Noah Speaks', part of the poetic sequence 'Ark Voices'.

The others in that sequence are the voices of various creatures, all dealing with the experience of being on the ark, and/or addressing God (as 'sir'), often humorous in tone even while saying serious things. Wolf-Song is from that sequence too, but is obviously very different from the others – non-typical even of the poems it's grouped with.

It's not that I don't admire the work Zwicky is best known for. It's just that, when I was looking for something to use, I came across this one which I had not known before, and fell in love with it. It captured my imagination.

I love the old ballads (Sir Patrick Spens, Thomas the Rhymer, The Unquiet Grave, etc. etc.) which this imitates so beautifully, even using old language such as 'thorny brake'. And I love that it is told from the wolf's point of view.

We don't have wolves in Australia, but articles I have read recently suggest that they may have been much maligned and are not usually so big a threat to humans as they have been portrayed in fairy stories and folk tales – that they hunt to eat but are not otherwise so aggressive as we've been led to believe. I'd like to think so. But the poem – in which the wolf describes himself and his mate as 'guiltless', yet boasts of ravaging sheep and slaughtering children – works for me in any case. (One could perhaps take it as allegorical, e.g. of the way revenge escalates warlike situations, but I don't think we need push that interpretation too far.) 

I hope you enjoy the poem, and that you might like to investigate Zwicky's other work too, via the 259 poems collected online at Australian Poetry Library.

She also has an Amazon page where you'll find her books.

An obituary written for the book trade makes this point:

Lucy Dougan, co-editor of Collected Poems, noted that Zwicky "is attuned to the musicality of the human voice, and that's increasingly what her work moves towards. As she ages as an artist, she wants a line that is fluid and expressive but perhaps a little less freighted, a little more natural. There is this beautiful line in her journal: 'Plain speech, like playing Mozart, is the hardest to come by. Sometimes I think I am getting there.' It's quite late in her life that she says this." 

Although I say the wolf ballad is atypical, she did at times play with other poetic personae and their styles. If you click on the above link to read the whole article, you'll find that it includes more instances of this.

There are several glowing obituaries. I particularly like the affectionate tone of the one in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright)


  1. Oh, I am so glad you chose this poem, Rosemary, it pulled me deeply in. I love the rhythm and metre and, of course, the subject matter. I could feel the terror of the wolves, and the sorrow of the surviving mate. Humans have become to wolves what wolves have wrongly been in the minds of humans. They are not a vicious species, they hunt only to eat, and the idea of hunting children makes for good stories and poems but never happens. This was a fabulous read this morning, and i am pleased to be introduced to such a talented poet. Thank you.

  2. I, too, fell in love with the haunting measure and pain of this ballad. I will look up Zwicky's other work. Her name is familiar, maybe from your column? Revenge is not a theme I love, but I am feeling it in the air more and more lately as we heat up and melt. So for me this poem dips into consequences more than revenge, and I feel the warm blood of this broken-hearted voice. Here's a tearful thank you.

    1. I don't believe I've mentioned her here before, Susan, but I think her most famous work, 'Kaddish' is known internationally – and has been around a long time, the widespread admiration for it never diminishing. You may have heard of her in that context.

  3. We all know by now I can never stray far from rhyme. Therefore, this poem, with its delightful cadence, totally captured my fancy, and begs to be read aloud. I'll be looking for her ark series and wanting to read more of her work. Thank you for sharing, Rosemary!

  4. I really love this poem-share, Rosemary; love the rhyme, rhythm, and just over all flow. I am glad that you introduced us to yet another Australian poet. I will seek out more of her poems.

  5. Another brilliant share, Rosemary. This poem is haunting but beautiful. I can imagine the flow of rhythm, when read aloud. Thank you so much for the introduction, she is an inspiration and her words will live forever.

  6. Thank you, Rosemary, for your efforts for our enjoyment.

  7. Another interesting post, Rosemary. I can see why you chose the poem that you did. I found it haunting - mesmerizing, really, filled with a series of poetic punches. A terrific piece.

  8. Thanks for the introducing this talented poet to us Rosemary. This particular poem could well be sung.


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