Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick. Pitt Street Poetry 2013.
Both of our mouths
Can fit upon this flute I carry.
-Hafiz, ‘I Saw Two Birds’
In the notes, to Mark Tredinnick’s Bluewren Cantos, he remarks, ‘I’ve rarely written a poem into which a bird did not want to fly and there are equally few into which those dear to me did not want to wander.’
Birds fly into forty-five of the sixty-two poems in this collection of verse and there are twenty-nine personal dedications.
Reading Bluewren Cantos is a most rewarding challenge. Love, sexuality, spirituality and bucolic meditation twist a lovely braid. To seriously open this book is to take a hike in poetic Country with an enthusiastic and observant guide. Unexpectedly, Leonard Cohen, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, JS Bach and Seamus Heaney trek along beside you. The result is a good and colourful picnic, in true Hafiz style.
In one of the shorter poems, dedicated to his daughter, ‘Lucy and the Maple Leaf’, we get a glimpse of the creative bond and love of words between father and child:
…………………………………….It is late
Autumn, a Saturday, and the maple by the house
Has begun to drop its fiery leaves like hints (hot
Tips) at winter’s feet. She holds one out for me: a paw
Print in a child’s hand, a slightly death that stole a small girl’s heart.
Make it a poem, she says. But I take the leaf and draw instead
A shape for memory to fill, some lines for love to learn…
The music in the above poem is reminiscent of the sensibility in Elizabeth’s Bishop’s, ‘Sestina’. There is a lot of music in Bluewren Cantos. After all, birds have been known to sing. (I think they were the first.)
The term canto itself, while a measure of division in a long poem, can also refer to the highest part in choral music, the canto firmo, the melody line forming the basic of polyphonic music.
A quiet flutter of Emily Dickinson also floats through Tredinnick’s forest of a book. From her opening introductory epigraph: ‘I am…small like the Wren’, the tone of mindfulness is set for the journey. But the Emily that inspires these poems is much different that the one that Billy Collins poetically undresses in his poem, ‘Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes’:
The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.
Mr. Collins clearly has some untoward zoological intentions for our little wren. But in Bluewren Cantos, she alights on a different branch:
…that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself –
also whispering, into ‘The Thing With Feathers’, Hope:
…so that I mighty sit here in a frayed linen shirt and weathered
Jeans a foot above the tide and wonder how I’m meant to live…
In the massive 297 lines, and 18 sections of ‘The Wombat Vedas’, which won the Newcastle Poetry Prize, in 2011, a simple key to unlocking the poem lay in these brief confessional lines:
We fought, you and I, when I left. And I drove down here as if all the way back
Into some old autistic childhood. But now, my bags unpacked,
…………………………the fire burning, and a three-quarter moon
Edging out of the dark hills behind, loneliness grows slender and stretches out beside me,
……………..and the night is a sackful of stars.
His bags are unpacked, his loneliness has grown slender and for the next few hours we stretch out beside Tredinnick as he surrenders to the common praeternatural available to us all.
Many of the longer poems, in Bluewren Cantos, are pastoral mediations. They flow together like parts of one infinite extended work in which verses could well be interchangeable.
George Seferis once wrote about the poetry of CP Cavafy:
“…the work of Cavafy should be read and judged not as a series of separate poems, but as one and the same poem…. and we shall understand him more easily if we read him with the feeling of the continuous presence of his work as a whole.” (On the Greek Style)
One emerges from a sustained reading of Tredinnick’s Cantos with this continuous presence of his work as a whole.
In the epigraph to the Bluewren Cantos title poem, he quotes Jack Gilbert’s ‘Trying to Write Poetry’:
There is a wren sitting in the branches
Of my spirit, and it chooses not to sing.
It is listening to learn its song.
Has Emily’s little bird also flown into Gilbert’s tree? Tredinnick says later:
I learn slowly, but the birds teach me distance and delight,
The knack of being here and elsewhere at once. The more I dwell, the less I know for sure;
I live in a state of habitual confusion, like Berger, a man who’s lived in love
A long time now. In art, as in love and weather, one’s mind is (in) one’s body again.
One is, for a time, a place. Painted by bluewrens.
One is, for a time, a place. This line, for me, is the heart of Bluewren Cantos. And Tredinnick’s unique poetic vision.
JS Bach, my favorite composer, fugues along in the background in four poems, ‘Wombat Vedas’, ‘A Day at the Desk’, ‘Thing With Feathers’ – and in ‘Partita’:
…………………….Bach, you say, turned music
………………….into speech. He taught heaven how to walk, the gods
How to talk, on earth.
I’ve always viewed Bach as the fifth New Testament prophet – only arriving a millennium later. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – and Johann Sebastian. Not simply Christian, but a mystic of the highest order. How else to understand a devout Lutheran who also created a choral masterpiece for the Catholic Church (the B-Minor Mass) that was so flawed in liturgical structure (but O so magnificent in Spirit) that it was utter heresy for any Roman Catholic clergy to even consider presenting it in its time. Hence why it was never heard until one hundred years after Bach’s death.
Bach lifted the Word to a place beyond Words. Even beyond Prayer. Christian scripture might arguably one day become as much top-shelf myth as befell the fate of the Greek and Roman gospels but the musical Testament of JS Bach will continue to remain vital and alive for as long as human birds sing.
And Bach, as mystic, is completely comfortable in Tredinnick’s country beside his other mystical poet Friend, Rumi.
So why did Mark Tredinnick title this particular collection of poetry Bluewren Cantos? As he says, ‘You don’t find the birds, they find you.’
Let’s step into the Grand Aviary of Poetry for a brief moment.
The Bird has replaced The Rose, star of ye olde Romantic times, as the most accessible metaphor in modern poetry. Charles Bukowski had a sensitive ‘Bluebird’ that he kept hidden away during the day. The bird wanted to get out but Charlie poured whisky on its head and blew cigarette smoke into its beak. He only opened the cage door when people were asleep because, as he admonished it, ‘You want to screw up the works? You want to blow my book sales in Europe?’
The bluebirds in Bluewren Cantos don’t drink or blow smoke rings and they don’t shuffle on perches. If they can be said to be metaphors, they are free-range metaphors. They soar, swoop and hunt – and sometimes simply sit still and ignore image-hungry poets until the poets tire and go home.
Fowl have been flying in poetry for a very long time. In classic Chinese, you find: Screech owls moan in the yellowing Mulberry trees, and A single wild goose climbs into the void, in the work of Tu Fu. A crowing cock wakes me like a blow, in Lu Yu, and the oriole is not to blame for the broken dream of a Bygone Spring, in Chu Shu Chen.
Wallace Stevens wrote about the (lucky) thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. And the blinding dazzle of his gold-feathered bird, singing in the palm at the end of the mind whose …fire-fangled feathers dangle down, seems a natural soulmate for Tredinnick’s lightning-strike kingfisher:
‘Catching Fire; or, The Art of Sitting’
……………………..for Judith Beveridge
………………………….As kingfishers catch fire,
………………………… .dragonflies draw flame.
……………………………………….– Gerard Manley Hopkins
Mid-afternoon, I look up from my desk to see
A kingfisher alight in the water poplar.
For ten blue minutes she sits wrapped in
Her sacerdotal self, murder on her mind,
And I watch her steal her own silent show, doing
Nothing, immaculately, among the silver leaves.
Until, as if my eyes had pinned her, the instant
They drop, she flies: the stillest bird
In Christendom reaches escape velocity faster
Than I can find a pen. And I’d like to learn
To sit so still and to disappear so well, my body
Become a famished thought, my mind become a world.
I think Tredinnick’s understanding of stillness, and its relationship to action, is the focused and coiled spring of a Shaolin White Crane master.
WB Yeats imagined not a natural bird, but one of ‘hammered gold and gold enameling… to sing to the lords and ladies of Byzantium’. I wonder if Yeats’ wind-up bird also was intended sing for the poor and disenfranchised, who probably weren’t allowed anywhere near Byzantium? (Except, that is, via the back street dens of Coleridge’s laudanum-laced pleasure domes.)
Robert Adamson, the most bird-watching poet in Australia, in his book, The Golden Bird, clearly nods his beak to Yeats’ but pessimistically, in the way he writes about the poet in the title poem:
……………When his heart
stopped, did he believe
it would transcend him:
gold-foil wings hovering
over the void…
Now as far as I can figure, Yeats’ budgie was fashioned of ‘hammered gold and gold enameling’, not ‘gold-foil wings’. More significantly, it certainly did transcend him, or else we wouldn’t be talking about it now.
Will Adamson’s own metaphoric fowls follow Icarus’s fate down or continue to enchant in two hundred years? (i.e. if a mechanical bird perches in a tree and there is no one there to wind it, does it still sing?)
Xenophanes originated the word anthropomorphism to describe the perception of a divine being in human form. Anthropomorphism is present in all religious teaching and mythology.
But one of the inherent dangers of over-projecting human characteristics or psychological states into birds and other animals – known as abstract anthropomorphism – is its reverse state – dehumanization – the tendency in times of extreme crisis or desperation to view humans as nonhuman objects or animals. What that renowned ornithologist, Jung, might have called the Shadow-wren.
I remember once pulling a cuddly doe-eyed possum by its tail from the eave of a bush house and watch it transform from a cute Disney child’s toy into the Bride of Chucky in five seconds, whipping around and carving four long gashes in my forearm. And it pissed on me as well. I think the same possum must have visited Tredinnick, in ‘Tough Love: a Deconstructed Sonnet’:
It’s so much easier to show kindness, I find, to a possum
Around lunchtime the next day. . .
It’s so much easier then than it was at three am when the possum pulled,
For the fourteenth time – like a lover exchanged and all the locks changed –
At the wire you’d nailed over the only way into the home it had mistaken,
These past five months, for its own: your ceiling.
Deities can also be persistent territorial predators, and even Muses get horny and peckish.
‘Rainforest Bird; or, on Looking Over Someone’s Shoulder at the Photograph of a Hindu Carving in an Inflight Magazine’
Love is an abject goddess.
……………………..She’s a sculpture of beatific hunger,
All one’s wanting petrified, quickened by chisel, and left out to think about it
In the rain. Love is a wretched beauty, and her round breasts trine
……………………..her second mouth, and moss grows
Between her fingers. Her demeanour is serene, but soon
Her proverbial arms are all over you,
………………and her green tongue flashes
Like a rainforest bird across your breast, again and again and again.
Surfacing in some of Mark Tredinnick’s work is a tendency toward what a close friend of mine, an English teacher from McGill University, once admonished me for doing myself – always looking for an Absolute. A definitive experience from which one might, finally, be able to say: That’s it. Full stop.
Harvesting absolutes is a signature of the endearment of Tredinnick’s style but also tends to be somewhat predictable at times.
In the brilliant and well-deserved Montreal International Poetry Prize 2011 winning poem, ‘Walking Underwater’, he writes:
…moss deckles the edges of the oaks and firs,
Which hold out stoically inside the sweetest excuse for day-
Light I’ve ever seen.
In the Bluewren Cantos, he kingfishes the Absolute in ‘A Day At Your Desk All Along the Shoalhaven’:
…And you knew you’d never spend
A better day alive again on Earth.
The white bird high in the crown of the elm is a better idea
Than any you’ve had all day…
and ‘Half Moon in Late September’:
…there’s a half moon like half
An answer, as much of the truth as anyone can hope to catch.
I am reminded of the adage: do not question too much the Meaning of life; but Live one’s life so that it has meaning.
Thankfully, these poems do both. They are continually asking: what am I here for? But in the asking, they answer the question: the creating of the beautiful verse that is the core part of the kind of Living that gives his life meaning. Bluewren Cantos is a sparkling journal of ecdysis for Tredinnick – and anyone else who wants it.
It is possible to imagine
Love that ends as beautifully as it began.
– Mark Tredinnick, ‘It is Possible to Imagine.’
Tredinnick often summons the Beloved – an intoxicating image I first discovered in the poems of St John of the Cross:
I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved.
Christ was the Beloved of St John’s poems, the true source of his Bride’s longing.
Martin Luther King Jr spoke of peace on earth as ‘the Beloved Community’.
The real Beloved is your Beginning and your End.
When you find that One,
you’ll no longer expect anything else.
Early Persians believed that poetry was a subtler vehicle than prose for approaching the ineffable mystery that was beyond words. The Orientalist scholar, Dr. W.M. Thackston, noted that Sufi poet, Hafiz, ‘sang a rare blend of human and mystic love so balanced that it was impossible to separate one from the other.’ (Hafiz also, unfortunately, in contemporary usage, means ‘memoriser’ – someone who knows the Koran by heart – something he was apparently able to do.)
There was another practical purpose in the Middle Ages for veiling God with the cloth of Beloved, Lover or Friend. It made it difficult to censor poetry for unusual mystical ideas that often fell outside of the traditional constricts of Islamic Canon.
In ‘Hell and Back (Again)’, Tredinnick introduces another brief confessional key to unlock the invigoration in ordinary miracles:
After a weekend low, under which I wandered, hardly able
To decide where, I made a poem, as if it were a decision
That made me.
……..And now, of course, the weather has turned
Out for the best, and love is a garden in the city, fashioning
Flowers out of light.
……..I am the fish in the Beloved’s stream again.
Returning to the mundane, however, can often take its toll. In ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, while lost in the contemplation of the flight of one flock, he almost annihilates another:
By spreading their wings and falling into
Their lives. Each flight a book of common
Prayer. And at dusk I got another chance
To try my hand at grace. Driving, it must be said,
A little too fast, thinking a little too hard,
I almost took out a family of ducks, crossing
The road from the suburbs to the swamp,
One parent ahead and one parent after,
Six little ones strung in dactyls between. And
Even song would not have saved them, had my foot
Not pedalled then such a sudden and purposive prayer.
Insightful, very funny – and a memorable parable.
In his notes at the end of the Bluewren Cantos, he offers the complete lovely Emily Dickinson quote, a fragment of which first opened the book:
Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote to Emily Dickinson in 1892 asking for a picture. She replied, ‘ Could you believe me without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves. Would this do just as well?’
If we were to ask for a portrait of Mark Tredinnick from Bluewren Cantos, one that we too could believe, perhaps we could say ‘vast like the Beloved, with eyes, like moonlight left on the water, after a low flight, singing up poetic Country.’
Would this do just as well?
Joe Dolce was born in Painesville, Ohio, USA in 1947 and moved to Australia, 1979. His poetry has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2014, was shortlisted for both the Newcastle Poetry Prize 2014 and the Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize 2014 and he won the 25th Launceston Poetry Cup. He has poetry, essays, song-lyrics and photographs have been published in Monthly, Southerly, Canberra Times, PEN MELBOURNE, Quadrant, Australian Love Poems, Meanjin, Etchings, Overland, Cordite, Little Raven, Contrappasso, Voltage (US), Not Shut Up (UK), Tupelo Quarterly (US) and Antipodes (US).
Bluewren Cantos is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/mark-tredinnick/