Mark Tredinnick: Bluewren Cantos

Sydney: Pitt St Poetry, 2013, 137pp.

This is Mark Tredinninck’s second book of poetry: he is probably better known for his superb memoir, The Blue Plateau, detailing the geology, history, ecology and people of parts of the Blue Mountains. Bluewren Cantos is in the same intense and engaging mode as his first book of poetry, Fire Diary (2010) and can make a claim to be the kind of poetry which might redefine a reader’s interest in the natural world and the way human beings relate to it. It’s a poetry which is simultaneously rhapsodic and highly intelligent and one of its impressive features is the way in which it balances a long-lined rhapsodic tone – the natural world is routinely described, sufi-fashion, as “the Beloved” – with a registering of reality which, if not exactly gritty, still has a wry perspective on the self and its predicaments.

A short poem from Fire Diary, “What I Fear”, is a good doorway through which to step into the Tredinnick world:

Is that I’ll die with the world unread
on my bedside table and you
                                                    a mystery beside me in my bed
and my own intended life an item too far down the list
                                                                                                 ever to have got done.

But today I wake at the moment of dawn and hear the world
catch her breath and see the crimson sun
                                                                         undone in the yawning elm,
and I feel my child’s sleeping breath,
                                                                  and I stop.

The drive behind this poem is the drive to understand: the fear is just that this might never happen. Understanding, for which almost all the poems strive, is a complex epistemological relationship between the self and others and the self and nature and in this poem the metaphor used is one of reading. It’s a metaphor shared by another, more complex Fire Diary poem, “Reading the Entrails” where, on election day – and political issues as well as broadacre social ones hover in the background of a number of poems – two hens are killed by a fox. Is this an “unhappy augury”?

. . . . . 
Well, it turns out the fox just got lucky
                                                                        and the chooks were just dead
and none of this was a metaphor for anything. It turns out
we didn’t put the fox back in charge of the chookhouse.
. . . . . 
It turns out this is just the way
                                                          the syntax of the real world runs,
implying one thing, meaning at once another. Meaning everything
ends, the good with the bad. The whole world, it turns out, is a metaphor,
and nature is a blind god’s prophecy. The hens were innocents; they were also
the regime and they were our better selves.
                                                         The last thing we have to lose.

This is a poetry, in other words, whose task is to work out both the general desirable relationship between humans and the world (a kind of ecological/ethical perspective) and the specifically intellectual relationship between the two. Poems – metaphorised as many things in these two books – are vehicles of this understanding. Metaphor has the function of relating the world to the self (the world is like a lover, a dream etc) and the self to the world (my self is like a landscape, a tree etc) but it also has the capacity to continuously shift the terms and produce, over an entire book, an ever-changing, kaleidoscopic view of the issues involved in understanding the world and what it means – if it can be said to “mean”. It’s this metaphor-induced instability of the sides of the relationship that leaves one with one of the distinctive impressions of Tredinnick’s poetry: that it is full of eloquent assertions on these issues but that none represents a finally arrived-at understanding – the search is a continuous one.

Bluewren Cantos is very much a book of birds – so much so that it might be thought of as “Tredinnick’s Book of Birds” – and the functions they play in the shifting relationship between the human and the natural world. Although the third section, “Stray Birds”, is ostensibly devoted to them, they play a crucial role in the other parts of the book as well: so much so that it might be handy to have a field guide to Australian birds alongside you as you read it! Often the descriptions are wonderfully accurate. Sandhill Cranes (a non-native bird encountered in North America), for example, “carry their legs / Behind them like music stands they never learned / To fold” and there are some acute observations of the mysterious stillnesses of kingfishers:

Nothing sits so still so long as
The bluest bird in the world. In pairs
They work their lives alone, one
On each bank of the same matrimonial
Stream . . .

Birds can act as “messengers of the gods” trafficking information between the two worlds as they do in an early poem, “A Day at Your Desk All Along the Shoalhaven” (“All day birdsong / Went off like stars going out or emails / Coming in, some of it spam, all of it pressing”). They can be visitants from the sacred as they are in the book’s first poem where they are described, rather wonderfully, as “harbingers of themselves, of all / Our selves, peeled pieces of eternity’s paint” or as they are in a later one, “Faith” where “Two gang gangs fly over, / Closing behind them the gate / I hadn’t heard them open between the worlds”. They can be incarnations of the gods in a sequence like “The Wombat Vedas” which, as its title suggests, rather playfully lets Hindu mythology and cosmology set the tone of the piece.

No matter what the theme of a poem, it’s likely that birds are going to appear in some symbolic form or other. In “Resistance”, a poem about how humans and the natural world resist the depredations of “dictators / and outcomes-oriented cabalists” by taking back the moment from “everyone who cannot begin to know / the beauty it bestows; / to return it to everyone who just might” we are told “this is why the gang gangs are up there, / Even now, running repairs on reality, / as if it were an old gramophone”. In “Sulphur-crested Sonnet” the tendency of cockatoos to fly theatrically towards their human observer before veering away sets the stage for the idea that “The world works best when it misses // Its mark” and in a fine, comparatively “stand-alone” poem, “Frogmouth on the Wire”, that mysterious bird, revealed by her silence and stillness amidst “a bedlam of possum / Croak and corella backchat” becomes the bearer of the absolutely other, the inexpressible:

She looks like that thing for which
There never was one name – love,
Truth, emptiness, grace – only
Form and metaphor.
                                 She burns
With her self. Half hunger, half
Ease; as ready for sleep as
For death. She is everything
The night is not; everything
It is . . .

And sometimes, though rarely, just as cigars are sometimes only cigars, so the birds are only birds.

Birds are only one component of an attempt to correctly read the world but they are the most memorable component. But, as “What I Fear” suggests, other people and our love for them is something that needs to be read correctly too. Though Bluewren Cantos reveals a self that communes with the natural world best in solitude (the book’s first section, “A River at Dusk” arises from a solitary spell at Bundanon on the Shoalhaven) there is a good deal about individual loved ones. In fact the strength of these poems about children, partners, parents and grandparent may lie not so much in their individual excellence but in the way in which they are so firmly grounded in actual people and thus provide something of a counterbalance to a style which often runs the risk of a certain rhapsodic cloudiness. One of the things about the prose work, The Blue Plateau, that makes it so successful is the way in which the larger perspectives of geology and history and the individual meditations about self, country and place are grounded by the actual speech patterns of the author’s local acquaintances. This isn’t available in poetry – I can’t imagine the stories of the Maxwells and the Commens being worked up into an Alan Wearne-like narrative, or even, for that matter, into a Les Murray-like verse narrative though the characters might find a friendly welcome in that poetic – and the ability of such poems as the portrait of the author’s grandfather, a hardline protestant minister discovering the pleasures (and horrors) of American-style jive preaching make a valuable counterweight. There is a fine poem about the birth of a daughter – alluding to Yeats’s great poem – and a particularly moving poem about the nature of fatherhood, dedicated to the author’s father on his eightieth birthday:

In the teeming and intimate foreground families are,
Fathers are for silence and distance, and there’s a lot
Of both to keep.
                        If a father does not sit to dinner, say,
His mind elsewhere, where will a child learn that love
Is a far-flung cosmos, growing farther by the second; that
There’s a whole universe of elsewhere, none of which
Lies closer than the father at your side?
                                                                 Fathers are for carrying
You beyond the present tense and moment. They are to family
What weather is to country – in it, not of it.
. . . . . 
Like most children, for whom what’s real is as young as they are,
I paid my father’s past too little attention until it was too late,
So that the life that made him, and made me, is a silence 
That’s going to have to keep.
. . . . . 
                                                                    A father’s job 
Is to keep his secrets, and in keeping them, tell you
Your own . . . 

It’s an eloquent and moving poem built out of generalities but based firmly on an individual (and, of course, based also on that “father/farther” homophonic pun).

The poems of Bluewren Cantos also have a lot to say about the poet’s own self and its growth – and, by extension, about all our selves. It is one of the things Tredinnick does particularly well and it’s part of the interaction between the natural world and the human worlds that the former should induce change and development in the latter. At one point, “The Burning House”, this has Buddhist colourings – “And let all you thought sheltered you fall to the ground. / Who you are, and always were, is what’s left of whoever walks out of there” – but at others, such as “Encrypted Sculpture”, they are simply well-observed aspects of how we live.

And finally – though it doesn’t figure as one of the fears in “What I Fear” there is the issue of death. Its significance in this book is highlighted by the fact that the first poem, “With Emily in the Garden”, is built around the news of a friend’s death and the final poem, “It Matters How We Go”, which includes a reference to the death of Seamus Heaney, is not only about how we walk the earth and how we might conceive of ourselves as it is about how we leave the world. And “how we leave the world” itself has, of course, the double meaning of the state it is in when we go and the way in which we die.

Bluewren Cantos is a most affecting book although it is not going to affect everybody. As I began by saying, it is one of those books which can make us experience the world more intensely simply by the recurring ways in which its poems celebrate our existence within the natural world. It’s that effect which helps to stave off potential problems. If parts can, when quoted out of context, occasionally sound like excerpts from a self-help book this is balanced by the sophistication of the poems which are always tense and alive as poems. My profoundest reservations – which are probably more specific to me than they would be to most readers – involve the cultural references which range from the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, to Rumi, to the Buddha, to Japanese poets and so on – all the usual suspects, as they say. These aren’t vague or trivial references – I’m happy to believe that Tredinnick is deeply well read in all these works and that he might well want to mount the argument that there has been a religious response to the natural world which is probably coterminous with the human race itself and that he wants to tap into this response wherever possible. It’s just that they are so entirely conventional that they look like a cliché and references to them more like gestures than intellectual engagements. As I say, this might be a jaundiced response peculiar to me. Wordsworth – whose project wasn’t entirely dissimilar – made do without any such references and other poets (for example, Olson among his imaginary Mayans, Pound with his obscure medieval exemplars of good economic behaviour) have chosen specific, non-clichéd cultures to draw sustenance from. A poem from Fire Diary contains a scene in which the poet’s daughter sitting in a yogic posture says to her brother,

Look at me, I’m praying, No
he says, having none of this
new age cant; you’re doing Kung-Fu.

I’m on the side of the boy here, and it’s comforting that Tredinnick knows how much the vague gestural cant of the new age needs to be avoided.