Barry Hill and John Wolseley: Lines for Birds: Poems and Paintings

Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2011, 224pp.

As someone whose natural habitat is probably a room filled with the books of a personal library, a true homo textualis (if that’s acceptable Latin), I am usually virtually blind to the outside world. Though I can recite passages of loved verse and prose I’m probably unable to describe the birds and trees on my suburban block. I’m not completely ashamed of this and I can always recall Bruce Beaver’s poem where he says “I can barely name six kinds of bird / and seven kinds of flower”. But it does mean that I am a sucker for anything that even momentarily takes me into the natural world and makes it alive to me. It is one of the things that makes the work of such disparate poets as Ken Taylor, Robert Adamson and Anthony Lawrence (to name only a few) very resonant. And so it’s no accident that I should find John Wolseley and Barry Hill’s book of paintings and poems especially satisfying. It is, for a start, a very beautiful book-as-object and simply handling its heavy, high-gloss pages – reminiscent, if anything, of an art catalogue – is a first step away from the more abstract world of text into the solidity of the world of art objects. Literary folk are often inclined to be snobbish about books like this, perhaps for fear that their magical text will be reduced to nothing more than captions for verbally-dull, artistic types. But here there is a happy meeting of text and image, a complex, evolving and fluctuating relationship between them.

Although it is a highly organised book – its sections are structured according to locations: Scrub Land, Wetlands and Shorelands, Forest, Marais and Maquis (set in southern France, visited by the artist), Mountain and River (set in Japan, visited by the poet) and a section called Return – there is nothing consistent or exhaustive in its treatment of the birds. In this sense it represents a response to birds rather than a cataloguing or exhaustive describing of them. And it is a good book of poetry (the only component that I am at all qualified to judge) exactly because the responses are complex and convincing. The introduction prepares us at least partly for this:

When a bird arrives, quite literally, into our space, it constitutes a burning moment in time, one which instantly seems to possess a memorable vibration. Birds have a natural, real presence. It is unqualified. That is their power. At the same time, their presence is constantly mediated by our culture, which sets off other vibrations, including spiritual ones.

I like the suggestive yet precise possibilities of this description. Birds come to us from the natural world, they are items in the natural world but are meshed in its complex, ecological webs. But our seeing of them is a product of the various cultures we inhabit, or are sympathetic to and so we bring to them our skills as artists or as merchants of text. Thus these poems are perhaps a series of responses, often from slightly conflicting cultural positions (it is, after all, a long way from the Sufism of Attar to Eastern Buddhism) to birds, paintings, music and even books. The poems are especially sensitive to the idea of entering and an important image is contained in “Which Way to the Golden Dam?” which begins: “To get to the golden dam / go through the English gate”. The gate is an English gate because we always enter significant ground from the direction of our own cultural backgrounds.

At one end of this spectrum of possibility for poems about birds are what might be called “poems of capture” where poetry sets out to “get” a bird into verse. As I’ve said in other reviews this is a fraught ambition for poetry – something revealed by the metaphors it induces – but it is something frequently aimed at and it does make sense to say that certain poems represent animals or trees better than others, either because they make us see familiar ones afresh or because they convey distinctive features that we have never really seen. You can find plenty of this in Lines for Birds. In “Mollyhawk”, for example, we get a series of blunt comparisons:

Thickset, swaggerer, a bull
 dog on the beach. Squat as a mollusc.
And with that prow of a beak -
 blood-tipped . . .

and, in “Cormorants Day and Night”, a sharply accurate visual rendition:

When it’s relaxed
 it has a yin-yang
 egg in its neck
On take-off
 the neck is stretched
 egg gulped down
as it leaves
 its mates to be
 a torpedo over mackerel sea -
the wings rudders
 to a quick hull in the dusk
 the neck so straight
 a pike could slip into it.
 . . . . .

A number of poems deal with this issue, especially “Nature Lovers” which, while sarcastically observing the troops of tourists with their Nikons and Hasselblads (“weaponry for capture”) also, in its epigraph, reminds us that earlier observers of the natural world like Wallace or Hudson, actually shot what they wanted to study. Poems like the two I have quoted above rely, of course, on metaphor and the poetic use of metaphor brings a lot of epistemological issues in its wake (to use a dead metaphor, not entirely inappropriate here!) since it could be said to compromise the absolute uniqueness of the subject. An interesting and important poem, “Like Nothing Else” takes up this issue by observing the subject, in this case a Gold-whiskered Barbet, emerging not only into visual definition from a fig tree but also from the nets of comparisons:

So innocent, so necessary, those leaves.
 So plump on green you can hardly say the word
 green. And the belly of the fig tree is Brahma’s
 its fruit legendary – ask anything flying past!
One leaf so content with itself it turns
 seems to fatten in its own compass
 it was bunched up like a rat
 (if there were such things as Leafrats)
When, really, it was just one of the Barbets.
 Leaf green in occupation of a spray
 its back a little hunched
 as it stretched its head like a rat.
. . . . .
Later on it gave its call. Cup Cup
 or more accurately the sound
 of empty cups being pulled, popped
 from the fat of someone’s back.
Further off Golden Throat did give its signal.
 More like castanets, someone said.
 But castanets with cup and pop in it-
 like nothing else, really, as fruit is fruit not a rat.

And this raises one of the most difficult representational issues for poets, artists and even camera-toting nature lovers: the fact that birdsong is one of the most significant features of any bird, as distinctive as its colouring or behaviour. Wolsely often acknowledges this fact by incorporating sonograms – which process the bird’s song into a graph – into his paintings. Hill is faced with the issue of processing them into words. Take “The Pied Butcher Bird’s Song for a Hammock”:

A phrase in the palm of the hand
           Notes delivered – there
           into a warm pocket of air
each note clean
           a reed sharp as the air -
           or a pool at a quiet billabong
the melody silky
           as smooth to the sky
           as the skin of a coolabah
the notes upholding and
           cradled by the morning’s heat
           Between them -
a rise, the
           throw of the next note
           It has the pause of a lasso
flicked out and then across -
           five notes
           sometimes six in a loop
 . . . . .

and so on. I don’t think the results are successful – this poem seems to have a very lame conclusion as though the effort of representing the song had exhausted it – but the aim is laudable. And there is, if not a model, at least a parallel case in Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux a deeply eccentric work of art that nevertheless can be said to be successful in what it attempts to do: to express by a solo piano individual birds and their contexts. The final poem of the Marais and Maquis section is an extended response by Hill (significantly, for any poem about birds, it has thirteen parts) to the Reed Warbler music of the extensive Book Seven of the Catalog d’oiseaux – “Tinklebell, tinklebell – / ice keys in a hedge / frost notes on a pond . . .” One of the ironies of my readings of Lines for Birds is that it sent me back to the Messiaen – which I had hitherto thought to be the most boring and ridiculous work in the whole of twentieth century music (where, even a devotee such as myself would have to admit, it has a lot of competitors) – to appreciate rather better what its aims and indisputable successes were. An odd response to a book which ought to have sent me outside looking at the local birdlife!

One of the most interesting poems about birdsound turns out to be the next poem in the book, though it is the first poem of the Mountain and River section. Here Hill writes about coming to grips with the song of the uguisu, the Japanese Bush-warbler. The focus is on the effect of the song on the observer, rather than on “capturing” it:

. . . . .
 I was looking and not seeing
 listening, feeling blind -
the uguisu’s presence was so strong -
 volcanic, terrifying in its own way
 you would have thought the melody
shot from a hot spring.
 Oh there was a beauty to it but
 beauty that was molten.
I peered – had to sit down,
 I failed to write it down (where was Messiaen?)
 My notes looked like the scratchings
of a rattled hen. The melody went on.
 The trill, like a machine gun, kept it alive.
 I was riddled with signs
I could not capture the song
 myself I could barely transcribe -
 implosions of mistranslation!
 . . . . .

Among the various puns here, especially about rifle fire (“riddled”, “rattled”), is the crucial word, “notes”. One could use this to go on to talk at greater length about the human, the cultural, the textual world and its engagement with the natural world but what strikes me here is the fact that this section of the book – Hill’s travels in Japan – is really part notebook, part letter and part imitation Japanese poetry (with interspersed prose sections). It reminds one of the great division between the poetry which aspires to be judged as a stand-alone construction of words and that which is really-worked over (or “-up”) journal entries. This latter poetry seeks to be judged by its success or otherwise in representing the natural world, of showing that its writer has, in the words of Rilke, learnt to see. The two different sorts of poems may sometimes be very similar but I think they are fundamentally different objects and demand to be judged in different ways. Like many of these poets, Hill is obviously a remorseless keeper of journals, not to record his own life but to record more of the impressions that result from that life’s interaction with the natural world than most of us register. He has also include some of his own drawings and quick sketches, which, together with the quickly jotted words, are an attempt to record, to fix impressions.

The religious element of the book seems to be, rather than doctrinaire, a comfortableness with any faith that responds to the natural world and to the “fullness” of that world. This means that Hill’s sensibility is generally Eastern, perhaps far-Eastern, finding sympathetic vibrations in Sufism, Shinto and Zen rather than in the European and Levantine religions of transcendental creator-gods. In the description of the way jacanas skip across lotus pads in “Sutra” he says, “It’s silly, the way we are surprised”, and in the next poem, “Truth”, based on Attar’s Conference of Birds, he speaks of the way in which the “silly” look of the hoopoe is “a form of wisdom”. But the best of these sorts of poems – ie those dealing with birds and their arrival as in some way religious events – is, I think, “Secular Streak”. Its subject is the Sacred Ibis, a bird with a resonant name but which most Australians know only as a scavenger and inhabitant of rubbish dumps. And that contrast is a significant part of the poem which describes its various arrivals. It certainly doesn’t come trailing clouds of glory although, after Shaw Neilson, the arrival of water birds is a kind of topos in Australian poetry. The poet shuts the door to prevent it scavenging inside: “Virtuous we were then / with nothing to give the bird – / both species hopeless”, but the best part of the poem is the deliciously equivocal conclusion arguing, as I read it, that there is a numinous but it is often hard to recognise, may well be rather scruffy, and certainly doesn’t simply declare itself:

The Sacred Ibis never says die.
 But it will pretend not to know you.
Next I saw it down the street
 by the side of the road
 outside the lolly shop.
It had the air of a former mayor
 going to buy the paper.
 The cars went slowly around it.
Any minute, I thought
 it’s going to step up on the footpath
 steal the tourists’ ice creams.
I walked towards the estuary.
 Follow me follow me, unbeliever -
 come down while the tide’s in.

The final and inevitable issue about poetry, painting and the natural world is the question of change. Birds are, obviously, not static, or even stable, markers of nature. They are subject to human stupidity and greed and to environmental changes. As the authors say eloquently in their introduction:

“We did not set out to compose a politically urgent book. But the shadow that falls upon the lives of many birds has, to some extent, made it so. The more we value a living thing the more we are unavoidably anguished at the idea of its extinction.”

And although the poems celebrate and explore, there is, undoubtedly, a shadow that falls over them and it can be seen or felt, at various places, emerging in the poems. One of the most prevalent is in the word “conference”. Attar’s great poem appears at many places throughout the book. It is a “conference” of birds in which the hoopoe (a bird that really does look silly, like Woody Woodpecker on steroids, but which bears a religious symbol on its crest) leads other birds in search of the mythical bird, the Simurgh, only for the birds to discover that, since they number thirty, they are thirty birds (in Persian, si-murgh) that is, God himself. But “conference” also, in Lines for Birds, refers to the failure of the protocols proposed at the Copenhagen Conference. A good example of one word resonantly expressing the best and the worst that the natural world can expect at the hands of its dominant species.