INTERVIEW by by Katherine StansfieldNWR Issue 97
Mark TredinnickPhoto by Vicki Frerer
: Congratulations on winning the 2012 Cardiff International Poetry Prize with your poem 'Margaret River Sestets', a lyrical, travelling poem which explores an individual's physical and emotional connection with (and dislocation from) a markedly Australian landscape and its wildlife (published in NWR 97
). I'd like to start this conversation with that poem as it seems to embody one of the central tenets of your work: the connection between landscape and language. On your website you say that:
'Good writing and good country heal us. So we must conserve and listen to them well. We need words and country more than we seem to remember; our futures may depend now on how well we use and how healthy we keep them both. Because I believe this, and because I cannot help it, my work often wanders the syntax of places and it tries the ecology of sentences [...].'
In 'Margaret River Sestets' there's a real playfulness in the use of language which gives the poem self-reflexivity, drawing the reader's attention to the act of writing, of expressing the natural world through language. There's the reference to the speaker wanting to 'lie in the poem of your hand' in the first sestet, but I'm also thinking of the repetition, including 'But when I cross the road and find a log to sit on and log this stuff / on my phone, it takes a full ten seconds / For a troop of ants to storm my boots and find places under my jeans / my jeans are meant to keep unfound.' And also the heavy emphasis on sound in the poem. For instance, there's a long list of animals, birds, and amphibians, the names of which create the poem's own song: 'the jarrah and the marri, the black roos and the butcher birds, / the wattlebirds and the white-faced herons, the nasal mutter / of the honeyeaters, the Australian tripthongs of the frogs in the pond, nights, / the black ducks in their black thongs, the thongs of roadside lizards.' Here we have more repetition as well as alliteration, assonance and consonance, giving a very pronounced and self-conscious syntax to place through echoes and chimes. Do you feel the poem is giving voice to the land as it already exists, or actually writing the land into some sort of new existence through sound? Or is it somehow a combination of both?
: You know, I've thought and written a lot about how it is we might say that poetry (prose sometimes) can catch the lyric of a place on earth, how it can sometimes catch a place on earth being itself, and lead us into... not into the place itself, of course, but into what feels like the lifeworld of that piece of ground. Into the jazz it plays, making and remaking itself again, after a characteristic fashion, moment by moment. I did my doctoral work in this area, and I made of that study a book called The Land's Wild Music
. My landscape memoir, The Blue Plateau
(2009), is a landscape painting in lyric prose of a charismatic, sublime landscape, where I lived for seven years: the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. In it, I guess, I try, in lyric prose, to write a landscape, to tell the life story, and to join the long slow singing, of that ecstatic stretch of ground. In landscape-oriented writing of this kind — and I suppose, "Margaret River Sestets" is another small instance of it, though that's not all it is — there's something of (not merely aesthetic, but ethical, even political) importance going on; there's an ecological imagining, a throwing out of one's sense of what counts and of one's ethical responsibilities, even of one's sense of self, way out beyond one's social self and one's cultural realm, to include the more-than-merely-human realm. The land. There is the hope of some kind of reconciliation with the earth, a reawakening to the rest of creation, and a doing justice to it, beginning on the page, but not ending there. And it's good to be led by you back into thinking I did over many years about all this, to which I'm still dedicated, and which runs through my poetry.
As a quick aside, a few years ago, my friend Deborah Bird Rose got a few ecologically engaged artists, poets, activists and scholars together to see what we might begin to do through art to heal the rift between the human and the non-human worlds, between culture and nature, and to begin, if we can, to have poetry's voice heard, its way of seeing acknowledged, in the conversations, too often shrill, that are now being had about climate change and mass extinctions, the drying of the rivers and the diminution of wildness everywhere. We've called ourselves the Kangaloon Group, and apart from what we do together, we hope that each poem each of us makes (including "Margaret River Sestets", I guess) and each talk we give, each conversation we have, may be a small contribution to the larger remembering of the earth we all need to get on with about now; that we can participate quietly in a wider awakening to our larger selves, to the wider world. And it would be my hope that my work, and the work of my friends in the group, might demonstrate the disciplines of beauty and, indeed, the tough love, entailed in art, because those disciplines -what Basho called "the way of poetry" — will need to be part of whatever way we find "out of all this now too much for it" (as Frost turned it).
But to get back to your question: Sometimes literature can catch the lyric of a place and catch a reader up in it — not just describe it, but catch its rhythms, riff off them, join them, join us to them. Sometimes writing participates in country; dances with it. The places sing, I wrote in my book The Land's Wild Music
; sometimes some attentive writing, writing that listens and responds, can catch a place at its singing and join in.
I use "singing" here metaphorically, of course; in a poem "Eclogues", a friend and mentor ("GS") reminds me "The places don't sing; they just are." But the idea of a place on earth as a kind of music is more than a lyrical conceit, I think. The more we know of matter, the more like mind — or spirit or music — it becomes. (In my poem "The Floating World", my narrator comments "Even the ranges that hem the fleeting paddocks in are no more than a blue/ and timbered tendency to cohere.") A place (a place like the landscape I inhabit fleetingly in "Margaret River Sestets") — which seems at a glance like a lot of rock and birdsong and light and various species of weather and some people going about their place-adapted lives — might be understood, if you loosen your mind a bit, the way quantum physics encourages us to, as a pattern of interrelationships, of intervals, a play of forms and rhythms: a complex but coherent set of variations on a theme.
Physical reality, it turns out, as it congeals somewhere, is more like music than it is like a machine; it's rather more like mind than matter.
A place is a dance of energy, physics now tells us; what makes a place distinctive may be the way its dance goes: the tempi and the keys and the rhythms and the frequencies and pitches of the forms and forces at play there. "Each place, each moment," writes Ghalib, "sings its particular song of not-being and being." The place within the place, the one we call home, sometimes, or "here", and know with our whole body, is the music the whole assemblage makes — not so much out loud as in behind and in between: "the music that holds everything together but holds its own tongue" as I put it in a new poem, "Partita". This is my argument, anyhow, in The Land's Wild Music
, drawing on quantum physics and music theory, and following the lead of some geographers and philosophers of place, some fine physicists like Willigis Jager and Albert Einstein, and some fine writers like David James Duncan. Works — of poetry or prose — that catch a place playing its own song, as it were, seem to me to do it in their speech music — in how they sound and in the forms they take and the shapes they make (of thought and sound), in the structures of syntax and line and stanza and thought upon which they are strung, in the play of phrasing and ideation and implication that make poetry, and make it what it is, and set it apart from prose.
If a poem catches the lyric of a place, even becomes inseparable from place, it does it through the poem's own dance, and by joining the dance the place makes.
A poet can give a sort of impression of a place in itself — a complex structure of time and space, animal and vegetable, light and rock, memory and longing — in the lyric dimensions of other writing. Less by what she says about them, than by means of the more-than-merely-literal elements of the country of her writing.
The kind of landscape-witnessing writing I have in mind, perhaps the kind I practise in "Margaret River Sestets" and in much of my work, isn't a description of a place, then; it's a kind of participation in it, a dance with it. And I should say, to address your question again: it's plain to me that the places are doing very well at being themselves all on their own; they don't need me and my art to become themselves or to become real; country exists, I'm more than happy to believe, without human apprehension or artistic response. Good art can participate in the lifeworld of what a place is, though. It can't piece a place together, but it can be of a piece with a place. It can resemble -but it cannot reassemble — a landscape. A poem can adequate (to use Frances Ponge's term), even transfigure into acts of transcribed speech what a place is busy being, even perhaps singing, out there.
But in a poem like "Margaret River Sestets", I don't believe I'm making a place; I'm making a poem. Maybe, as I think David Malouf once said, I'm giving the place a second life in art. Don Paterson says that a poem stands in for a longing, replacing it but not being it; and maybe a poem like mine can, without resembling or imitating a place, stand like a metaphor, like a proxy, or an objective correlative, for a stretch of land dancing itself. But even that seems like more than I was aiming at, more even than is possible. My poem is simply the kind of response, the best kind of response, a place elicited from me. And I offer it up the way one offers a love song to — or for — a lover; the way one gives some thanks or makes a prayer — not to change anything but simply to return a gift.
Somewhere once I said "we are given the world; we give it back in poetry." In my work, if there's anything more to it than compulsion, than affection and addiction, I'd say I am always trying to return a gift — of and to a place; of and to a lover; of and to a child....
Increasingly, though, I see how some of my poetry keeps company with Ghalib and Hafiz and Rumi, those Sufi mystics and their descendants and equals in other traditions. I'm a secular mystic, a pantheist, and if there are gods, mine are in the land. Or if not gods, then the Beloved. That's her out there. "The world is no more than the Beloved's single face," writes Ghalib. Gregory Orr, the contemporary American lyric poet, uses the trope of the Beloved in the same sort of way, and in some of the poems in Fire Diary
- ("News of the World") and more recent work ("Partita", for instance) -so do I. I sense, have always done so, that there is what Canadian poet Jan Zwicky (invoking Pythagoras) calls a "a kind of music just outside our hearing... the proportion and the resonance of things...." I understand what physicist Rupert Sheldrake means when he describes "morphogenic fields" orchestrating the physical world; and I think I'd confess, like David James Duncan, that what the physicists and the poets and old Pythagoras mean — "that which enlivens all things" and which does it in distinctly different accents in each place, seems as holy as a pantheon of gods, as compelling as what Rumi and the mystics mean by the Beloved. And that is what I feel like I lean toward poetically in the land. Not that the Sufis theorised it thus, and not that I would, outside a poem, either: but speaking metaphorically, the rest (and best) of who I am ("the otherness in all of us", as I put it in "Forest Walk"), that which I love and which loves me and makes me whole — the Beloved — has left me and is lost, and is now scattered, somehow, in her ten thousand pieces in the places and the faces of the world and her people. She's what sings inside the places, distinctively, thrillingly, alluringly. She's what a poet like me longs to be joined with again, and poetry (sadly!) is the best way the poet knows to attempt that.
In a poem like "Margaret River Sestets", the lover from whom the poet seems estranged - in whose "poem", he jokes, he'd rather lie — the Beloved may not be just the woman he loves; she may, of course, stand in for the Sufis' Beloved: for the music of things here along the Margaret River, but also for the sexy holiness, the uncanny otherness, the gift of the whole given world. And, since this is a poem, dealing as poems do in metaphor, it's also possible that the frogs and ducks and whales and the light, everything elusive and beguiling, unique and dangerous and impossibly sure of itself in the place, stand in for the poet's estranged lover; perhaps also for the hidden aspects of the poet himself, the larger Self he knows he's part of, and from which he also feels, like all of us sometimes, exiled. The land may be a metaphor for the lover; the lover for the Beloved; the Beloved for the place. And none is separate or severable; and so a dance of energies is set up, a poor imitation of the dance of energy that is the place, that is also the love and the lover; and so a poem can suggest the multiplicity and interconnection of everything, the scale of the sacredness we're dealing with — "the holiness of the heart's affections" for place and person.
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Thinking about country and how one might respond to it in poetry (or even serve it) is part of me now, part of the ecology of self that my writing rises in. But I think none of it when I write a poem; and I thought none of it writing "Margaret River Sestets". When I write a poem, I'm not intending anything, essaying anything, putting any theories of place and representation; I'm just trying to do some kind of justice to how I feel where I am, to what strikes me, both inside my head and outside it, to the musical ecology I share - me and my Australian triphthongs, my iPhone and my teeming mind - with the marri and the jarrah, the black ducks in their black thongs, the lizards in their throngs, the ants in my pants, the frogs twanging the loose strings of their banjoes in the ponds.
You could say, though, that the poem makes a geography of speech - the poem becomes, or tries to become, in Franz Wright's sense, not a description of a place, but its own place, a "continent taut with distance" perhaps — a terrain of phrase and metaphor that alludes to a spiritual-emotional landscape: the poet's inscape (uncertainty of heart, sorrow, yearning, hope, desire, borderline despair: the usual suspects) there and then, and for some thoughts he was thinking. The poem, itself, however it relates to the landscape it stands in, is a country of embodied longing. Far more of my attention was concentrated on that inscape when I wrote the poem, as I recall, than it was on the place. The place shows up because places always show up in my writing. Maybe I remember the earth even when I'm trying not to.
After talking at such length here about doing poetic justice to the more-than-human world, I don't want to concede that I was merely using the landscape as a library of metaphor, enlisting the trees and the birds, the whale and the stars and the breeze, as a garrulous cluster of objective correlatives. No: as ever with me, birds and frogs and light insisted on themselves as soon as I surrendered to the kind of presence that the making of a poem brings on. But I think, like Don Paterson, that the architecture of utterance, the sculpture of voice that comprise a poem is a kind of proxy, an avatar, for the secret pain and desire and hope and fear the poem is trying to own up to but keep. And so everything in the poem, including especially the pieces of landscape, stand for themselves, but are also ways of not saying, or of saying in other words and other music and other ideas what the poet is trying to say.
You could also say that the country the poem tells is neither the place nor the poet, but the relationship they share: how the poet is, in part, because of the place; how the place receives the poet. The rest of the natural world in which we lead our lives, and break our hearts and heal them again, isn't just backdrop, of course. Our being in it makes it different; and its citizens, some of them anyway (the frogs in the pond, the parrots in the field, if not the humpback off the coast), respond to us. So the relationship one has with a place is in some sense reciprocal. Perhaps this is the territory the poem adequates.
Landscape and the Beloved aside, music matters to me — it's a love approaching an article of faith. In particular, I love and believe in the music of speech. Writing is, after all, an act of speech — it is talking tidied, heightened (if it is literature) by art, and transcribed. Literature is the art we make with voice (the way painting is art we make with a paint brush); it is a central part, a species of music—vernacular, semantic music, to be precise. Writing is talking on paper. Poetry is a sculpture of voice, and architecture of utterance. For me, writing that's light on voice and character, poetry that's tone deaf or music-free, is barely writing, is barely poetry at all. If a poem doesn't trade in music, it's going to need to compensate for that profound lack with a brilliancy of thought, a vividness of perception, an elegance of craft, with humour that very few poets manage. And even then... Charles Wright (a major influence on my work), speaking for clarity and "emotional resonance" in poetry, railing lyrically against the prevailing intellectual, ironical, unmusical modality of contemporary poetry, writes (in his introduction to Best American Poetry 2008
): "Cleverness is not what endures. Only pain endures. And the rhythm of pain". If by "pain" he means "emotional resonance", the high emotion Wordsworth felt poetry ought to recollect in tranquility, the inner life of vivid moments and places, grief and yearning, ecstasy, joy, despair, doubt and sustained stillness; and if his "rhythm" includes other musical dimensions of moments and of their rendering into poetry — then I'm with him. Rightness of rhythm; shapeliness of cadence; sensuality of sound and sound patterns; elegance and vivacity of voicing: all this, all the lyric dimensions of poetry, matter a lot to me. They characterize most of the poetry I love, most of the poetry, indeed, that has lasted and will last. Australian poet Judith Wright has said that in poetry the words are the story. She's right, I think; and the words (which don't just tell the story; they're what it's made of and what it's very largely about) have to sway like grasses and sing like wrens and dance like country, or the Beloved, perhaps, if the poem's going to stay written.
So, yes, you're right to notice the speech music in "Margaret River Sestets". There is a fair bit of it in all my work. The music's not there — not in this case nor in most of my poems — to sing up the landscape in any self-conscious way; it's not a thing I do to woo the Beloved. The music's there because that's how I make poems; it's how I trust that this is a poem I hear coming, and then work into the world through form. Music is a non-negotiable part of the poetic trade I ply. Sometimes, though (as in a couple of new sonnets, "Catching Fire" and "Skipping the Rope" and a small love poem, "Soft Bombs"), I pull the music right back toward silence. Then what I'm aiming at, I guess, is a kind of indirect music — a negative music, in the sense of "negative space". So I'm either, as in 'MRS', doing music and mindfully generating rhythms and near-rhymes and contrapuntal phrasings, or I am mindfully not making music — pulling the music right back to the least thing music can be and still be, or imply: the music of everyday speech.
The musicality of my poetry, as you've noticed, isn't strict or formal: I don't go in for much end-stopped rhyme; I don't employ strict metrical rhythms. The speech music I like doesn't dress in ball gowns, and it doesn't waltz or foxtrot. I like a looser kind of song and dance (the same kind of loose musicality I fall for in my places, in fact). "Margaret River Sestets" contains a lot more than usual of the kind of speech music I'm given to, this loose-tongued, vernacular lyricism.
Octavio Paz writes in The Double Flame
that poetry "is language making love", and love includes play, and play in poetry is nine parts lyricism. It leads me to phrasing like this: "This is landscape that wants you for lunch"; the quieter music of "I eat around the bruises in a peach"; the joking riot of "the nasal mutter/ of the honeyeaters, the Australian triphthongs of the frogs in the pond, nights,/ the black ducks in their black thongs, the throngs of roadside lizards." I found myself in this particular poem more than ever captured by the actual soundscape of things: the thrumming grasses, the wired field, the triphthongs, the banjo frogs twanging their strings in the pond. It's a striking part of the world — not only in its frog songs and wired fields, but in its birds and light and geology. Still, I couldn't say why exactly, I found myself called to witness so fully the soundscapes of the Margaret River and to respond to them in my own speech music. Perhaps the unsung singing was louder here than normal. Perhaps the Beloved was in strong shrill voice. But I can tell you I had no such ideas in mind. I heard the poem coming, and over three or four days I got it down.
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: If we are indeed able to hear the land's song, 'the jazz it plays' as you so marvelously put it, then, as you say, poetry is the form perhaps closest to its tunes, able to share in that 'complex but coherent set of variations on a theme' that is place. On reading 'MRS', I was thinking of the ode and the word's meaning: 'to sing'. Modern poets tend to use the ode as a shaping form - shaping subject by mood and tone rather than metrical or structural constraints - using it as a loose praise poem form. In 'MRS' this sense of praise, of the lover giving a gift through song, is tempered by the presence of military imagery in the first third of the poem: 'a squadron of spitfires', 'seed cases fat as artillery shells', a 'troop' of ants storms the speaker's boots, and there are other examples too. These terms introduce a sense of menace to the poem and its environment, which seems to ease when the speaker sits down on a log, getting closer to the natural environment, joining it more fully. I read the terminology of war here as the corruption of place, of evidence of 'the rift between the human and the non-human worlds, between culture and nature', as you say above. What does man's betrayal of the natural world do to the 'long slow singing' of place? Is there a different song, and does the music of poetry have to change its beat in response?
: If a place is the music of Here (an endless and changing improvisation on itself), then its music includes everything in it and everything that's happened in and to it. Not just the view. Places are essays in impermanence. They are always becoming, and always falling apart, and what we call the place is no more than the way it seems now and the general tendency of the component pieces to cohere. Places erode; they are in drought; they burn; they flood; they are mined or farmed; they are forested; they are over-cleared and, in consequence, their water-tables rise, and the land salts up; they persist through all this, becoming, in part by persisting and in part (especially since industrial farming and mining and broad-acre suburban sprawl colonized them) by unbecoming, by exploitation and over-development and disregard. And there are few places on earth more put-upon, more dispossessed from themselves, and from their stewards, the First Peoples, than the southwest corner of my continent, where I wrote this poem.
So if in the speech music and imagery, in the turns of phrase, in my "ode"—which I'm more than happy for you to call my poem in the old true sense in which you use the word, although more of this in a moment—there are intimations, of war and rape and pillage, of ordnance and rough-handed heavy industrial "justice", of the defacement of place, of colonization and dispossession, of the alienation of the human from the natural—then maybe I heard more than just the happy notes in the local chords. All of it—if it's part of what a place is, if it's part of who I am in it—is singing (to purloin the phrase with which Linda Gregg names her All of it Singing: New & Selected Poems
(2008). And if I caught a bit of the music, the black notes as well as the white, then I'm glad. Maybe I was listening and being led into the dance more fully than I realized.
Because I have to tell you (I guess I already have) I wasn't thinking very hard about how well I was paying lyric attention, how much of the betrayal of the place I was overhearing—with the exception, I suppose, of the big bad ideas with which the place had been busy clouding its mind—the gargantuan and design-free mansions I looked out onto from my study, and walked past with my peach. For days they'd been clouding MY mind and crowding my view of the bay. But the rest of my voicings—the seed cases as big as artillery shells (though big enough to shelter in...), the spitfire thrum of the field, those paratactic paratroopers the ants, the grass-trees cast as armed thugs—were my best effort, recorded first on my iPhone, to transcribe the world as it reached me, in the mood, in the kind of emotional and ontological trouble, I was in.
But one can, even in one's self-absorption, be played by a place. Living, even if just for a moment, lyrically, the "I" becomes the string of the lyre; what gets set down in the poem is how that string of self vibrates with presence—not just with itself, but with the frequencies of the place, at its music, and how the poet vibrates with them, how he or she is struck (plucked, I guess) by them. And the place, that day, was probably playing me. More than I knew. There's no way, for instance, there is not a complex awareness (not top of mind for me, but unavoidable, if one listened) of violent dispossession, of the banal and yet powerful modalities of Colonization caught in my "mobsters in grass skirts", the trees, with their long spears, we're not allowed to call blackboys anymore (and never should have been, I guess), for whom "it's still the same old bad old days". The mobster metaphor, my mordant but gentle mockery, were how it came to mind to paint the trees, busy being nothing but themselves, persisting indifferently, and resisting all political and linguistic claims on them.
You've picked it up, I think, but there's a fair bit of play, admittedly not especially light of heart, going on in the lines you refer to. I find it's those moments where I let myself sound most like myself, turning language back on itself, punning and overstating in understated diction, that much more than merely me shows up. I am, as Rumi says, plural, perhaps, in those moments. And my plurality includes the place and snatches of its natural and political history. Play with language is one of the ways this self is "played" by place, I guess.
The seed cases, by the way, are indeed huge and round and beautiful. (I've only really just thought of this now, but perhaps in the poem they counterpoint to the massive but homely and discordant houses the new colonists are making.) They (the seed cases) belong to the marri, I think, a species of local eucalypt. Lying beneath their mother trees, they looked to me both homely and deadly at once.
John Kinsella has spoken of the anti-pastoral—I think that's his term—and he's suggested that there can be no pastorals, of the kind "ode" implies, in Australian poetry now. It's too late for them. I agree with him, and it always was. I prefer to talk of "post-pastorals", and I've used that term in some essays I've written on the topic, and it looks as if I had the idea in my back pocket as I walked that day, because there, among the military imagery and the bad old boys along the fence, I found the "purple-hooded parrot at its post-pastoral repose". The land abuse and the dispossession my poem seems to include, must be part of any ode we make, of the love and prayer we make for country, now. So must the trenchantly arid and eroded, sclerophyll style most of our antipodean landscapes have pretty much always adopted. The nature of the landscapes here—spare, lean, arid, on the whole, and undernourished—suited neither the pastoral agriculture (the landclearing and overstocking) we subjected them to, nor the wafty Anglophone pastoral art we practised on them, hoping, I guess, to inhabit an Eden more like Wordsworth's than could ever be the case on a very old peneplain becalmed in these dry-as-a-bone, horse latitudes. Pastoral written in diction and rhythms better suited to it has been a way of NOT coming to belong here, of wishing home otherwise; and it has been a way of doing to the land in our imaginations what pastoral practices did to it on the ground. Ironically, the erosion, the scouring that European land use has visited on many landscapes, including the country around the Margaret River, is beginning to force us European poets to erode our poetic responses, to leach our imaginative possession—to let the salt rise in our syntax. Post-pastoral landscapes are teaching us a post-pastoral aesthetic, in which the land as it is altered and as it was before the sheep, can be overheard being itself. The land as we have eroded it is helping us, some of us, find in our poetry the minor keys and the atonalities that bad pastoral practice has underscored in the landscape, itself.
A few years ago I wrote an essay on the Australian post-pastoral and the poetry of Robert Gray (" Under the Mountains and Beside a Creek: Robert Gray and the Shepherding of Antipodean Being"). It's been published in a book, which is hard to come by, so let me quote a bit of it here, to elaborate a little more what I mean by the Australian post-pastoral, of which, I guess "Margaret River Sestets" may be an instance.
"In a powerful essay, “Getting off the Sheep’s Back: Farewell to Arcady” (Seddon 2003), George Seddon has argued that just as the pastoral attitude in farming practice has impoverished Australian landscapes, subjected them to erosion, and effaced the land’s older histories, so in literature, the dominance of a pastoral attitude to landscape has diminished Australian places in Australian imaginations. Like Terry Gifford, Seddon argues that we need on the land and in our writing a new kind of engagement with country, something more than merely pastoral, more aware of how the land really works and the kind of care it needs. Pastoral itself has been eroded in Australian conditions so that it is no longer sustainable. Arcadia doesn’t work here. You just can’t run that many sheep on pastures that green on soils like ours, under dry skies like ours—and if your writing pretends you can, it rings false.
But I’d like to suggest that an eroded—a sclerophyll, a drought- and fire-adapted—pastoral is precisely what Australia needs in order to see and serve and save the land. And that’s the kind of pastoral—or post pastoral—Robert Gray is now writing; and that’s what the land has done to him. It’s eroded his sense of place until it is this contingent, unsettled, uncertain, enduring love. What this erosion yields in literature is what it has yielded in his writing: landscapes given back to themselves, to their pasts and futures, and a practice of pastoral care that wants to write and serve the land as it has been since the beginning, not just the way it’s been since white men cleared and fenced it and tidied it of its indigenes."
All of this is to speak of what you neatly, heartbreakingly, call "man's betrayal of nature" does to the the long slow singing that is the place, and to the singing one attempts in response. Some of the wreckage of the place plays in my singing of it. But. Although we have wrecked the places for ourselves—or, as in Australia's southwest, damaged them so that they refuse to yield what we'd like them to yield; and though climate change, another terrible by-product of pastoral occupation, has dried some of the places out suddenly and radically, especially around the Margaret River—the places persist. Their old music plays on. They will outlast us all, diminished, trashed, trammeled, but still implacably themselves (in part, but only in part, because we and our worst are part of what those places are). And the post-pastoral music ought to try to catch that music, too: the places as they are in themselves, as they evolved to this state we find them poised, perilously, in. The Margaret River is down, but it is not out. And what it was, how it came to be, how it was before we colonists ran wild in it, and how it is in itself notwithstanding how we've betrayed it (its light and its timbre, and its forms and its accents) should play in the odes we write of it. Our singing should, I think, include both love and grief, both delight and anger, both acceptance and resistance. Dying is part of what places do and of the song they sing; and it's part of what they teach. Damage occurs, mischief, vandalism—but also erosion, geomorphology, fire, drought. Mortality, as I wrote once in a poem, is the price we (all embodied things) pay for form. So our poems, especially our post-pastorals, should aptly mourn and warn and laud. Tough love songs is what we need to write: "my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun", that sort of thing. Seeing things for what they are, but cursing the evil and loving the beautiful and wishing it would all go on forever— all these seem to me to be elements of poetic witness, aspects of our singing. They'll show up, as they probably show up in my poem, not just in the thoughts we shape and the points we score, but in the rhythms and musics and turnings of phrase.
Thinking about it now, the dualities I've listed—the living and the dying, the integrity and the damage in the place, echoed in the minor and major chords and in the mourning rage and the crazy love of the poem—are what "Margaret River Sestets" trades in from the start: I mean the way the martial stuff you've noted is unsettled, if you like, by the "repose" (thought there's doubleness in that word) of the parrot, the untroubled mare, the prayerful eucalypts; and the way the artillery shell is also a haven or an anchorage (if not a home), and the peach is still a peach, even though it's bruised.
But the poem scores the inner life of a man in a place at a moment in time, as much as (if not more than) it catches the broken music of the place in a broken-hearted kind of love song to a stretch of ground.
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: I'd like to pursue the idea you end on, that 'MRS' 'scores the inner life of a man in a place at a moment in time', as well as something you mentioned above, that 'places are essays in impermanence', which could suggest a contradiction with emphasis on 'the moment' as well as the sense of change, though contradiction is often what our experience of place is, of course, and we bring contradiction with us, asking the land to perform a function which is against its natural purpose, as you suggest is the case in Australia. The song of place 'MRS' is singing is focused on a named locale. Place names ground the perhaps more universal aspects of what's happening in this area, the presence of flora and fauna and the intrusion of violence: Sheoak Drive, Cape Naturaliste, Smith's Beach, Yallingup Ridge, and the Margaret River herself. Was it important to you to name the location in this way, to map the ideas of the poem onto a known, recognisable landscape?
: I guess "moment" is a stretch, but then stretching moments is what poetry's good for.
"Live your life in place, not time," I enjoin in one of my poems ("Eclogues," I think), a thing I was failing to do again along the Margaret River. Nothing lasts; everything ends; one kind of affair bleeds into another. In a place as in a life. Some transitions matter more, last longer, hurt more. And I was in a long moment of longing and coming apart and coming back together, maybe, again at that long moment, and that story, configured as the poet's, is the secret the poem keeps. And keeps and keeps, shared with the place, of course, transcribed into a song the place seems to sing.
"Poetry writes the enormous moment", said Australian poet Francis Webb. It has been said often that poetry seems to arrest time. It can hold and hold a chord, or perhaps it's a rest that it holds, an interval between moments. A poem is a sculpture of voice, a yogic pose held and held until time and pain stop counting (for everything). A poem is, almost, a frozen music: this, too, has been said. Maybe by Rilke. It's how a good poem can feel, anyway. Frost is always stopped by woods; Dickinson's night is always wild; Hopkins's windhover is always always about to plunge again; Mary Oliver is always just beginning to set out on the journey of a life, notwithstanding the clamour of her loved ones and memories... Making a country of voice, a poem just about manages what a place never can, nor a life, not that either would aspire to. It slows the song of becoming to a silence; it transubstantiates time into place.
But you ask a good question about naming. I name birds and animals, weather, rivers, beaches, whales, trees quite often in my work, possibly too much. There's a music, as well as a whole complex ecology of human imagination, possession, belonging and dispossession, that speaks in local words for local things. And I like to borrow it for my poems. Even in the words and phrases you quote, hear that intriguing and distinctively local clangour of French and English and anglicized Indigenous speech (Yallingup, as well as marri and jarra). I have a sense that the way people speak in a place—their idiom, the place's idiom—is one of the ways the place speaks, and quoting from that idiom is one way a poet can catch the place at its song. Each local word is also a synecdoche for complicated and contradictory human histories—the backstories each word hints at and stands in for. Those contradictions battle it out in the soundscape of the poem: Yallingup Ridge and Smiths Beach and Sheoak Drive and Cape Naturaliste; the Wardandl people and the early English settlers and in time the timbergetters and before all that the Enlightened early French explorers, who looked and left it all alone—and all these people, like the poet, I suppose, took possession, probably thinking their names would outlast time, of the same place.
And because local names hint at histories and longings and imaginings, a chorus of naming freights a poem with many more stories, out-takes from stories, I suppose, than it can possibly tell; it makes the poem feel much larger and much more like a place, than it is.
But again I wouldn't want to suggest that I sat and intended much, if any, of that, when I sat to write the poem. I guess the poem practices, though, what I have elsewhere preached.
Naming is also for me a way, though not the only one, of doing justice in a poem to the Here the poem responds to or arises in. Poems, all writing, works best when it has a place and when it has a voice—when it's spoken by someONE, someWHERE. It doesn't matter which one (as long as there is a voice that seems to have a body) nor does it matter which "where," as long as a poem's feet are set down on the earth, somewhere. Poetry's good for just about all things, but it's best for the intimate and the universal, and it works best of all when it writes the universal through the particular—everyone, through the one voice and life; everywhere, through this place, here. The poetry I love best works this space: near at hand and universal at once; physical and metaphysical; intimate and cosmological; personal and yet much larger and more inclusive than the merely private realm.
Patrick Kavanagh wrote that a poem is properly a parochial thing (meaning, "of the parish", not merely self-concerned or inward-looking); and only if it is, Kavanagh thought, can a poem reach readers in their local places and selves. (Kavanagh felt that poetry was out of place, had no part to play, in that abstract realm, "the nation" or even "society". I'm with him there. Poetry works big and small, preferably both at once. But it dies in the middle ground.
Without a place a poem is nowhere and takes us nowhere; without a place it is abstract and unconvincing.
Touching on the forms and names and sounds and habits of the local incarnations somewhere pay a place the respect it deserves and also seem to render it much more real in the poem. Doing this invites a reader to inhabit a piece of country with you—there, with you, to enter deeply into the landscape of their own self, and the country of the Self, as the Hindus term it.
Naming animals and trees and stretches of ground is a habit with me in poetry. And these, I guess, are the purposes this addiction serves. So, I'd say you're right, Kath, that the incantation of the local world ground the ideas the poem has on its mind, as if they, too, were inhabitants of a place. But there's a delightful paradox here, I think: only if one earths one's thinking can one's thinking fly free.
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: There's one name in particular that I came across very often in your collection Fire Diary
and in your poetry pamphlet The Lyrebird
, and that's bluewren. There are many birds flitting about in your poems - hens, ducks, rosellas, ravens, magpies, butcher birds, snowgums, herons, wattlebirds, to name only a few - but bluewren seems to me to have a more personal relationship with the speakers of the poems in which he or she appears, acting as a kind of touchstone for goodness and beauty, reminding a speaker of the joy just beyond the window. For instance in 'Fortune' in Fire Diary
the speaker of the poem is spent in many ways, telling us they are 'scattered like the children's toys'. There's a sense of tiredness in the poem that is more creative fatigue than physical exhaustion, a breaking apart of wholeness; the speaker says 'someone / has borrowed my soul again'. But there's a change in the weather in the penultimate stanza when the speaker reminds themselves, through addressing an external listener, that they are 'a lucky man' with 'a fortune', which is then shown to be the bluewren which 'flies to my window and hovers / and taps a memo on the glass'. In 'Wingecarribee Eclogues' 'the bluewrens / in their overalls piece the hedge together again. / Now they're at my door, telling me the same shapely thing I miss each morning.' As well as giving the music of a specific place through their own specificity as bluewrens, as you mention above, does the bluewren have more of a personal significance or symbolic value for you in your writing?
: You won't believe this, Kath, but as I opened my laptop and your email downloaded, asking me this next bright question, I looked out the window at the one bird bold enough to brave the wind this morning: and it was the bluewren.
And then when I looked up again there was the whitefaced heron, tiptoeing past my shed: not a rare bird, but uncommonly graceful and, as a wader, an infrequent visitor to my dry acre. As ever, both these visitations, though I know they are perfectly quotidian, felt charged to me, numinous. Whatever else, these avian encounters were, they also felt, as they always do, like epiphanies, moments of connection (perhaps it's reconnection) with the more than merely human world, heart-starters, instants of delight, small doses of the flighty affection of the Beloved.
The birds—some of them, sometimes at least—are both uncanny and canny, if that's possible: mysterious, wise in the old music, tuned in to frequencies we can't hear; but also worldly and tricky, coquettish. The more (and the better) I look, the more the birds show up. They choose their moment and they choose their man or woman. But most of the time, like me, they also just get about their lives. They do that, though, with a kind of grace and un-self-consciousness that I'd have to spend twenty years at yoga to even approximate.
I write the birds because they're there; and because I love them. Increasingly. I love them for being themselves, for being there notwithstanding the mess we make of their patch, and because they pray, as I put it in a recent poem, so beautifully and only ever for the way things are. I'll say some more about it—yes, they are an addiction; yes, they probably do time in my writing as indicator species of the wider holiness and wild order I'm reaching for; yes, they are what I talk about instead of talking about love—but I write the birds the same way Morandi endlessly painted the pots and jugs and jars, the same way Van Gogh and other painters often paint themselves—because whenever I look the birds are there. Like the pots; like one's own self. In that sense, of course, I'm not really, or never merely, writing about the birds when I write the birds. There they are, and they catch my heart and call my voice, and my poetic attention falls on them, and a poem is made, or a poem turns in a new direction, but what the poem says and means only begins with the bird(s).
I hadn't realized, till you mentioned it, how often I write the bluewren, though. The bird is properly called the superb fairy-wren, but what sort of a name is that? Too many syllables for a poem and kind of pompous and soft at the same time. Check a bird book, and you'll see why I write it so often: a stunning and quirky small bird with a tail as long as its body. The male wears a vivid Dresden-blue and black balaclava, and his tail fans out a slightly deeper blue. He hangs with his harem and feeds on the ground. Where I live, and even in the suburbs of Sydney, it's not a rare bird. But self-possessed and trim and beautiful—just a little more beautiful, in fact, than is strictly necessary. What Keats would have been happy to call, I'm sure, "a thing of beauty"—but common, vernacular beauty. A small good thing.
Blue, also, is my favourite colour. It's also a colour associated in some traditions—Hinduism, for one—with holiness. Vishnu, the preserver, who keeps watch over creation, the sacred order of things, who moves on earth as fire, in the sky as lightning, in the heavens as the sun, the animateur of everything, is normally depicted with blue skin. So, too, Krishna, the flautist and herdsman, embodiment of love, enflamer of delight, enforcer of right and courageous living, the incarnation of Vishnu. And all of Vishnu's many avatars. The bluewren is not, as far as I know, another embodiment of the divine organising principle—but he may as well be: his blue face and his flute-like song, and his harem of wannabe Gopi girls. I can't tell you, in all honesty, I cast bluewren in my poems as the antipodean embodiment of Vishnu and the lads. And yet, there's no doubt that the bird performs Krishna's work on me (that's what those visitations are about in "Wingecarribee Eclogues" and "Fortune"), and certainly I hope the bird performs the same kind of work—re-enchantment, encouragement—on readers of my poems. The bluewren is always a small outbreak of holiness—a little small arms fire—in my day, and in my poetry. But if that's too much for a reader to take, the bird can just stand for itself, which has always seemed like more than enough to me.
Prose, said Octavio Paz, is language making sense; poetry is language making love. And maybe that's what bluewren, that small god, that god impersonator, comes to say to me again each day.
Australian poet Robert Adamson, who seems to be farther gone on birds even than I am and writes them even more often, has said birds are as close as a contemporary poet can (and maybe should) get, these secular days, to angels. I've not spent much time thinking about, or talking with, angels: the Methodism of my childhood didn't have much truck with them. But I have, as you see, no trouble thinking of birds as embodiments of the divine; and then there is the matter of the wings, of course, and the work performed with them, by both the angels in the scriptures, and of the birds in my poems, of running cryptic messages from the great elsewhere to one's daily self—angelic work, I suppose. In another recent poem of mine ("With Emily in the Garden of Solitude"), the speaker talks of the birds (in that case another kind of wren and the rufuous fantail) as "harbingers of themselves, of all/ Our selves, peeled pieces of eternity's paint,/ Flown home to touch up the weather." I never did believe in angels; nor, except as metaphors and archetypes, do I believe in the gods. But I do believe in birds; they evoke a sense of the larger scheme of things, the long, long story of becoming that each of us is part of for a while. And like angels they jolt me out of my secular self.
My children have noticed my affection for the birds. It's hard to miss, I guess. I'm glad they get to see a man, their father, who attributes value to birds, the way he does to poems and books and chamber music and trees and weather: who has no use for the birds he follows except to let them be themselves and to be himself with them; who doesn't want to shoot them, just to have them near and know their names and natures; who doesn't want to possess them, except imaginatively. I don't need the kids to share my passion, but I like it that they get a chance to think about what such a passion, such a practice, might mean. It's one of the ways I lead a spiritual life; it's a way I practice love. I think they get that, even if they don't have the words for it yet. They get to see that love can extend beyond one's family, beyond the social realm.
So the other day, my son Henry, who likes to get things listed and ranked, asked me, "Dad, what's your favourite bird?". Well, he got a long answer. I can't remember it, except that I'd have argued with the premise of favouritism, for more a more inclusive, democracy of birds, a conference of birds. But I do remember I gave him a list in the end, and the bluewren was on it. But so were more charismatic, glamorous birds: whitefaced heron, sacred kingfisher, azure kingfisher, grey butcherbird, gang-gangs, Eastern rosella, wagtail, yellow-tailed black cockatoo (now, there's a name), firetail finch, lyrebird, boobook (owl), and wedge-tailed eagle. All those birds (and more) have flown my prose and poetry, too. But maybe it's the everyday brilliance, the smartly-dressed modesty of the bluewren I go for (and, of course, the holiness of his blue face—I say "his", by the way, because it's only the male that's blue; but his blueness is, I think, his Shakti). And then there's the fact that the bluewren just keeps on finding me.
"I like the wren, too," said Henry. "And my others are the eagle and the sparrow and the magpie and the kingfisher. I think that's it."
Years ago, I wrote a story on Graham Pizzey, author of many books on birds, including our finest bird book, The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia
. I remember that Pizzey described birds to me, when we spoke, as "talented and accomplished beings". His participles, his restrained awe, struck me. They fly, for a start. They sing, sometimes (but not admittedly) very beautifully. They tend to be trim and nimble, elegant and acrobatic. They make nests, some of such refinement and complexity it's hard to resist the idea of the birds as artists—sculptors, poets, architects. At the very least, skilled builders. The birds are gifted in form, in voice, in colour, in dexterity and trajectory and vision. Here is the wild world come to town, performing art right outside your window, articulating lyrical and sophisticated acts of "speech", flying the catwalk in to-die-for fashions, surviving the weather, pulling off feats of athleticism that would shame an Olympic gymnast, getting on with what they're here for with aplomb and verve.
If they are not the angels, birds are the artists, they are the poets, of the natural world. They are the prophets. Not of what's to come, but of what already IS—all of it, way beyond what one apprehends. This is what I mean, I think, by "the same shapely thing I miss each morning." The birds, like good poets, speak in oracles and metaphors.
I can't see a bird (a grey butcherbird's just come by) without being reminded of the scale and intricacy and improbability of the gift that is the world we get to live in. In part, in my poems, I am saying thanks for all this. I'm falling into what I love and offering some words in response.
"The birds are here to give you a second chance," I write in one of the stanzas of "The Wombat Vedas". "Second chance" meant two things (at least). The first is a sense, meaningful in that poem's implicit narrative, of forgiveness, and salvation, welcome back into the more than merely human world. But I also had in mind the way it often seems a bird, like a trickster, like the (mythic and incarnate) Beloved, will offer up a sound or a sight of themselves at first, almost to tease, or perhaps to test. Is he watching; does he care; is he worth bothering with? And then, if you've tried and failed to catch the bird in the act of being itself, and if you remain attentive, avid, they will give you another more definitive look. The next day, the next week, in their own good time. I'd had that experience—not with the bluewrens, who seem beyond this kind of frivolity, but with birds who were new to me—at the retreat where I wrote that long poem; I've had it many times elsewhere, too. I'd be hard-pressed to explain that phenomenon scientifically; more than likely it's wishful thinking. But I've often had a sense not just of watching the birds, but of a relationship forming between us—a relationship with an element of play about it. Of eros. Indigenous cultures in Australia share this sense of the agency and sometimes holy trickery of birds; at very least, as with many traditional cultures across the world, Indigenous cultures advise us to pay attention to the birds. Some, like the wagtail, in some parts of the country, are thought to bring particular messages; some are simply kin; some are elders or troublemakers.
I'm not an Indigenous man, and I live, because history turned out my way, on stolen land. Maybe that's what the birds, the bluewren, in particular, are coming to remind me of. But it feels like more than that. Something much more than merely human, in fact. An act of insistence and resistance by the natural world; an invitation to a deeper participation in the world outside my window, and deep down inside my own more than merely human life.
Three more thoughts about the birds. It occurs to me that what I love about the birds is what I admire, when I find it, and it's what I aspire to, in poetry: an accomplished, perfected, unaffected naturalness; musicality of voice and motion; technical prowess, quietly practised; elegance and grace and brilliancy. And the effect of all that honed down, artful naturalness is a kind of magic: the supernatural, almost.
Second, the birds in their capacity for flight, in their short hops and long migrations, connect Here with There, Near with Far, Local with Foreign, Small with Large, Earth with Heaven. They embody and articulate both distance and presence. They incarnate Elsewhere. They make the big world small again; they bring it home, though they leave it undiminished. They stitch the broken world, the far-flung world, together. And from broken bits and pieces they make nests. And all this is poetry's work, too, as John Berger and many others remind us: reconnecting us to each other and to our larger lives (outside family, marketplace, society and nation); reconnecting our social selves to our sacred selves; singing the pattern in things; flying the gap between self and other, between self and Self, between the personal and the profoundly human; belonging (in voice and reference and application) here and in a thousand other places at once; speaking one life, while speaking somehow every life, as well. Poetry, as John Berger puts it, "defies the space that separates". And each poem is a nest, made from pieces of many other lives and times, lovely forms, held together with love and technique, housing emptiness, that nursery of becoming.
And finally. The whitefaced heron (another blue bird, despite its name; a bird I call "slender blue trappist" in my poem "Syllables") walking past my window yesterday seemed like an embodiment of freedom to me; all the birds do—the bluewren in an especially flashy, carefree kind of way. As I write, the band Pussy Riot (a name to make you laugh with delight; a fate to make you weep with anger) has been imprisoned in Russia for singing against a president and the patriarchy; and in London, Julian Assange, probably a zealot, certainly a fool, but also a champion of free speech, has taken refuge from the world's democratic superpowers, who seem rabid for his demise. Freedom is a deal never quite clinched in human society anywhere. Poetry seems a hopelessly inept kind of protest against tyrannies of all kinds, a toothless kind of tiger—a riot, indeed, of pussies; an outbreak of birds. An act of love, admittedly tough, performed in the face of bigots and mercenaries. But poetry, like love, enacts freedom and it critiques fundamentalism and conformity, by what it is, and by virtue of the fact that it is, rather than by anything it says, or even who hears. It refuses, and in the process refutes, the very language (and the presumptions beneath them) in which political power is exercised over us. It refuses cliche; it belies banality. In its integrity, in its organic form and freedom from prescribed modes of thought and speech, poetry is free. If it keeps being made, it says that freedom lives, that freedom is possible. And that tyranny has limits.
And the birds? As well as holiness—unless holiness is another name for freedom—the birds seem to me to embody freedom, to affirm and perpetuate (like Vishnu) a wild order way beyond, but including, the human realm; way WAY beyond the wildest imaginings and the reach of tyrants and pedants. The birds remind us what freedom looks like and how it sounds. They remind us that freedom lives on, no matter how shrilly dictators and patriarchs insist otherwise, no matter how desperate one feels, how hopeless; the birds strutting their stuff past your window, remind you that there is in all of us the fire—that in Hindu mythology blue-faced Vishnu tends—of life itself that we share with the birds and the trees and the rest of the physical world. There is something in oneself that no regime or system or person or fear can ever own. The birds remind me to live big life, way out beyond my self—the distant places they belong to even as they strut here. The birds remind me that in time soft prevails over hard. They encourage me to make work, if I can, that embodies what they embody: cool fire; a "finite infinity" to use Emily Dickinson's phrase. Poetry tells the big story small; so do the birds.
Only recently I've come across Rabindranath Tagore's book of poetic aphorisms, Stray Birds
. "Stray birds of summer come to my window to sing and fly away," he begins. "O troupe of little vagrants of the world, leave your footprints in my words." For Tagore, it seems, as for me, the birds come and refuse lyrically to say (and then fly away laughing) everything the poet hopes his or her work—and life—will say.
In my case, it is, as you noticed, the bluewren, that leaves its footprints most commonly in my lines.
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: It's interesting that you mention that the bluewren is a presence in both your current home in Wingecaribee, which I gather is quite a rural area, and in the suburbs in Sydney, where I believe you lived for a time. I wanted to ask you about your experiences of living in urban areas vs rural landscapes, and whether you've come across places that inhibit your writing and your ability to sing the song of that place through your work. I'm thinking of the line in 'Margaret River Sestets' that reads 'My whole life is an addiction to country, falling forever for places / that were never going to be any good for me.'
: I guess that line in the poem is the speaker's self-deprecatory confession—mine, but not merely mine—of a propensity, maybe a need, to fall in love with places. To fall in love more generally, with the world in many of its manifestations: human, avian, botanical, geological, meteorological. I fall endlessly for the form of things—and the spirit, if those two dimensions are really separate, but first of all with the form and force of things. "Never was a man more faithful," I say in a recent poem, "to so many jealous and fractious affections," striking a similar note in a different key. And in a different place, as it happens.
This makes for a rich life and for conflict and awkwardness, and even a certain kind of homelessness. ("My heart is a harem; my head is a courtroom drama", I say in that same new poem ("Faith".) I am very often unsettled. Displaced.
My Cornish name, "Tredinnick", I have been told, means something like "a semi-fortified encampment". My name, in other words, is a caravan, and it turns out I am a gypsy by nature. A fair bit of my prose has been about home, and belonging. Not because I have often felt it profoundly or for long, but because I seek it perpetually. And then, when I find it, I am prone to undermine my belonging, not long after, by finding another place that calls me. So I take the blocks from under the wheels in my name and move on.
The line you quote from "Margaret River Sestets" plays, in a bittersweet kind of way, in that space. It wonders about my wandering about. My soul's wandering, anyway. But I may, like a more discrete Walt Whitman, be advocating a generosity of affection for the places of the world. Take a risk, the poet seems to enjoin: love the earth largely, and love it not wisely, but well. For itself, not just for one's self. Spread your love for country around a bit. Love home but leave it quite often. Find it elsewhere. Have many homes. Love them all. Ed Abbey, that great curmudgeon of American nature writing, opens one of his books thus: "This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places." I write my line in 'MRS', and I do much of my writing and lead much of my life, when I can, in that spirit.
My spirit, and my poetry, seem to prosper, though, where horses prosper. (I say this in part because I love horse so much.) Fortunately for me, horses do well in many places in many parts of the world, and many of them I love, either from experience or from reading: Wyoming, the Hunter Valley (New South Wales), the French Alps, Patagonia, Mongolia, the floodplain out my cowshed window. Open country, somewhat austere, even arid, with mountains making the horizon.
And of course I love it best where there are birds. But there are birds nearly everywhere. Not so much those ubiquitous colonisers (like us, indeed), the sparrows and pigeons and Indian Mynahs, much though I admire their pluck. I love it best where the birds that evolved somewhere on earth, and whichwhich therefore, express it, are still there and doing well. And of course I love it where there are bluewrens, blue birds of any kind.
Speaking again to the way places call me, laughing at my profligate addiction to country, and playing with the metaphor of the beloved, I write in one of the stanzas of "The Wombat Vedas": "The landscape's stalking me again./ Every time I look out there, she's out there./ It's never over with her. Aways some old intimacy to workshop,/ some new wound to open up."
Wherever I am.
I suppose a disproportionate amount of my work deals with rural and wild landscapes. The places where we humans have not gotten completely out of our boxes have some particular things to teach us: about integrity, modesty, continuity and time, for instance. And I suppose—as a poet of the physical and the metaphysical, as a poet who's not especially preoccupied with the social, but rather with the deeply human—the world beyond the town or city absorbs me more than the city. But actually, I love cities. Cities are places, too; they are country, to use that word which, in Australia, Indigenous people use, and now non-Indigenous people, learning from them, use too, not for "countryside", but for the geography of one's belonging, including one's social and other obligations and ties. I engage with it in some of my poems. And I have been moved quite often to write about cities, built environments. And I am quite often IN cities, Sydney most often, writing about whatever it is that I am moved to write, or on deadline or commission to write. I have written in aeroplanes quite often: something about the impossibility of that space—its godliness, its birdness, its being somehow taken outside time and space and place—brings on meditation in me.
Sometimes, to go to your question, Kath, I have been unable to write about anything in one of the many most beautiful places on earth. In my shed, for instance. On retreat in Alaska. In Manhattan. Other times in places that I find myself out of love with, fighting with, I have written without being able to stop. I wrote "Walking Underwater", which went on to win the Montreal Prize, in Portland, Oregon; now, Portland is a sophisticated and lovely place, but its light was so perpetually low and its rainfall unceasing, and it was out of wondering why I found that so dispiriting that I wrote a poem and then another. And another.
I find many places lovely or fascinating. If I find a place that doesn't feed me, I try to remember not to blame the place, but to goad myself into a more adequate kind of presence in it, into a better sort of attention. My writing is the best and slowest way I know of paying that kind of attention, and of coming into country, even if only for a short time. There is always something to be found; there is always a song to be overheard singing itself. The poet's job is to listen. And listen again better.
John Berger says we paint to orient ourselves in the world. To ask questions and to find our way. I think I write, I think deep down maybe all of us write, for the same reason. We are lonely for where we are, writes the Canadian poet Tim Lilburn. Poetry helps us cope. There is, I know, in my poetry, no matter what it's about, a simultaneous longing for intimate connection with everything else than me, specifically, quite often, with a stretch of county, AND a kind of ache for solitude, a homesickness for sufficiency, for standing alone and wise and competent in the wilderness of things.
I find the land (places in themselves, so far as I can intuit that) consoling. When things are wrong in my heart or my head, going to the land is like making prayer. But there have been times of deep trouble in my life, as there are for all of us, when I've been unable to see the world. I've been unable to escape the carapace of self. Maybe such times are also necessary—a part of the healing, maybe. But I feel much smaller and less like myself when I can't see country, when I can't even bring myself to listen. But in the end the weather insists, the sky insists, the birds insist, the trees, the children, the people on the street, the body of the world. And I get over myself and become some, at least, of the rest of who I am. Almost wherever I am.
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: We've talked quite a bit about voice, the poet's and the land's, and I wanted to ask you about the other voices that inhabit your work, and your life too I would guess. Many of the poems in your collection Fire Diary respond to, question, and chat to other writers, often other poets but not always, and there are some really helpful notes at the back of the collection which give the sources you're engaging with in each poem. Do you view poetry - and writing in general, I guess - as a conversation with other writers? Is it dialogue or monologue?
: When I write poetry, I enter an imperfect silence and solitude, but somehow it is also a long and very old conversation I enter, too. Jane Hirshfield says that poetry is language awake to its connections. Among the many connections (to incantation, to the jazz of the poet's own inscape, to the weather, to the mood of the poet and of the words she chooses) a poet's language has and is awake to, are links of kinship to the rhythms of voice and thought of the many poets—and other writers—whose work is the greater part of the acoustic, spiritual and intellectual habitat the poet also inhabits.
I'm pretty sure that each poem, consciously and unconsciously, responds to, argues with, riffs off, chimes with the work of poets I have read and whose work my body remembers even if my memory forgets. This is part of the way I try to write truthfully and originally. My own true voice is freighted with the voices that have spoken to me. That have spoken me. In a recent poem, I write "Something there is—an implacable sort of surrender—that does not love/ the kind of wall a window makes between/ what one sees and what one gets." I'm using some of Frost's famous phrasing, and I'm complicating it. The poem contains a note about that: it's only right to source one's quotations and samples. In this case, the phrasing came to me because Frost is one of the poets whose voice comes to me from time to time; in this case, not only my language, but I, myself, was wide awake to the connection between my phrasing and Frost's. But there are more interesting ways, I think, in which one's voicings echo and bend the ideas and voicings of poets from the library of one's soul. Some people hear Walt Whitman in my poetry, but I've only once ("Song of (Someone Like) My Self") had him consciously in mind. Other poets who help me choose my words: Rumi, Charles Wright, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Keats, G M Hopkins, Anne Sexton, Mary Oliver, James Wright, T S Eliot, W C Williams, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosc, W S Merwin, Virgil, Dante, Ovid, Elizabeth Bishop, Sappho, Horace, Goethe, John Donne, William Shakespeare, Theodore Roethke, Mark Strand, Jane Kenyon, Judith Beveridge, Robert Gray, Emily Dickinson, Hafiz, Matsuo Basho, Gregory Orr ... And that leaves out most of them.
There are trace elements of prose writers in my lines, too—Boris Pasternak, Michael Ondaatje, Joan Didion, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, David Malouf, Cormac McCarthy—and there are musicians—Bach, Debussy, Jarrett, Ravel, Cohen. But mostly there are lyric poets.
Very often, too, a poem of mine starts in someone else's poem, a poem I am reading, the way a river that becomes its very own self starts as a trickle in someone else's field. I am often given back to my poetic self by reading someone else's poem. I am led back to the slowness, the place of language that seems as alive as a forest or a river or a fire, used by someone else and asked for from me. I may have nothing to say in nothing like the form of the poem I happen to be reading, but my reading calls forth a poetic response and I make one, as if it were what I had to say next in a conversation. No one would ever pick the poem where mine rose. Other times the conversation goes differently. I'm thinking of a poem I wrote two weekends ago ("Hell and Back (Again)") I walked to my studio almost rattling with poems, and I knew for once, which one wanted me most and how I thought it had to start, and how it had to feel, if nothing much else about it. At my desk I absent-mindedly flicked through a few pages of a collection of Rumi's poems I'd been rereading a week before, and suddenly there was an epigraph and a key phrase and an image to borrow—almost as if they were a melody and a key and a tempo, and so my poem began. The same kind of thing happened with a poem that'll be in my next collection, "With Emily in the Garden of Solitude". I had the ideas and images and mood of the poem for days, but it was riffling through Emily Dickinson for a class I was prepping that led me to some lines of hers that showed my how to make my own poem.
More loosely, no poem of mine gets going until I hear a compelling phrase. And though I end up writing it and usually it is no one else (not literally) who utters it, it seems to me that I hear it. And it works like a question to which the poem is an answer. Well, no poem is an answer, not in the sense of being a thesis proven. But the poem I write is what I say in response to a prompt.
Several poems in Fire Diary
, as you say, enlist other poems, converse with them, in more obvious ways. "Hell", for example is about reading Dante. Basho gets a walk-on part in the middle of "Eclogues". Rumi feeds me some lines in "It's a Little Early, But Let's Call it Quits". I'm carrying two books of poems, I forget which, to a cafe in "Brisbane River Blues." "Red Tulips" reads a few books and quotes a couple of conversations. My conversant is right there in the title in "Autumn Sestet, Written Under the Influence of Some Anonymous Japanese Sages", "Reading Charles Wright at Thirty Thousand Feet", and "Song of (Someone Like) My Self"; other times, there are quotations or samplings or riffings off other poet's lines—"Poem with No Beginning" and "Stopped by the Road at the End of the World" do this. I'm still at it, I see: "Mecca" in my chapbook pi:The Lyrebird] quotes from The Bhagavad Gita
, and in "Shiva at Midlife", in the same chapbook, Buddha's fallen asleep along [bookdep: 9780141027562::The Book of Longing
] (Leonard Cohen's collection of poems and sketches).
But I'm not the only poet, surely, carrying on a conversation with my book shelves. Poetry has always been, among other things, a kind of lyric scholarship—and books, texts of many sorts, are chief among the sources the lyric scholar studies. Every poet knows that if you're going to write, you're going to have to read—it's not a thing one even thinks about as a chore or a choice; reading in calls forth writing from someone who's going to be a writer; and someone who's a writer has a tendency to read. Writing, said John Updike, is only reading turned inside out. Poets know, too, that what we write has been written before, if never in one's own particular voice and way; we know that poetry is an ancient tradition to which we add a note or two, if we're lucky, so that it would be good to have read around a bit in that tradition—those multiple traditions.
I'm glad you like the notes, though. It can seem somewhat pedantic annotating one's poems, but it feels respectful, to me—respectful of one's readers as well as one's sources. It's also a lapsed historian's habit, I guess. And I don't want anyone thinking I'm taking liberties.
Again, Kath, you've picked up a habit—poetry as eccentric reading, turned inside out—I didn't know I had so bad. I'm kind of pleased you've pointed it out: not because I'm at risk of easing up, but because it resuscitates my brand. Not just a nature boy; a poet who reads.
Books surround me, poems in particular, as they do nearly all of us who write; reading is one of the ways I lead my life and try to make sense of it and everything else. Reading is one of my places; books and music and lines of verse are species of the hereness I often write.
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: I think this will have to be the last question and I'm afraid it's a rather cliched end to what I feel has been a truly fascinating conversation about your work. So, here it is... It seems appropriate that in talking about the importance of other writers when one is a writer you quote one, using Updike's view that writing is reading turned inside out. I know one of your next projects is a memoir about reading, particularly slow reading, and I was hoping you could give us an outline of that, and your website also mentions a novel. Can you talk about that a little or is it still too early in the writing process?
: The last question, about reading in order to write, and writing poems that read other poems, about writing poetry as a conversation, about reading as a way of living, connects very closely to our final question, Kath. Reading Slowly at the End of Time is about all that. Though I call it a memoir, I'm not in it much, except as a witness to my own thoughts and my own reading life. But it is a lyric kind of rant, and therefore partial and inflected with attitude in the manner of a memoir: a rant, specifically, for the kind of range and reach, the kind of robust meditation and inwardness, the kind of reaching down deeper than one's social self into all our selves (into the Self), that reading gives us practice in. The question lodged in my title is: do we have time for books, for the wise slowness a reading life entails and schools, if the poles are melting, if the sea temperatures are rising, if the weather is turning against us, if the crops are going to fail? Not to mention the oil. And the water. Is there time for reading, in other words, in an age of ecological crisis? Answer, yes: because the ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis, a failure of imagination and empathy and (tough) love, and reading can put that right. No, too big a claim. But reading can stand as a metaphor for the way each of us and all of us need to find, back out of the catastrophe of consumer culture, back into our hearts and into each other's hearts. And back into a right rhythm with the rest of the living world.
The book began with midlife (I won't say crisis); it began in grief and gloom: about the climate of the planet and the climate of the times, in which the more information we have and the faster we have it the less wise we seem to become. But I can't seem to keep myself too despairing for long—that Wesleyan, hymning, democratising, proselytising spirit kicks in. The book I'm writing is a wallowing in the novels and poems I have loved. It is a love song for books and the reading life. I've shaped it as if it were a self-help book, but the titles of the chapters upset the expectations that sets up, thereby demonstrating, I hope, the role literature plays in the lives of readers—not necessarily making them happy, but offering the deeper consolation of wisdom, laced with paradoxes. Literature, I argue, practices and teaches a kind of wise amorality; it tests and upsets settled social norms; it tries conventional wisdoms and finds them wanting, if not guilty. And so my chapters go like this: "How to Love Two Women at Once" (the difficulties of love); "Dying, and How to Survive It" (grief etc); "How to Be Lonely" (solitude, self-reliance); "How to Lose Your Self—and Find the World" (an investigation of ecological imagination, getting over our merely social and cultural selves...); "What to Do When the World Comes to An End" (Cormac McCarthy, apocalypse, and how to keep hope alive when things, especially climates, are falling apart); "How to Lose the Plot" (an argument for poetry and what Basho called, the Way of Poetry)... And in each chapter, which I'm trying, and failing, to keep short, I reread two or three books I've loved. Love, for example, is Doctor Zhivago
and The English Patient
(and a thousand poems).
The book is meant to be finished at the end of September, but it won't be. More like the end of the year. New South (the new name my publishers, UNSW Press, has adopted) has been waiting a long time for it. I keep writing poems and everything else that seems to entail. But all going well, the book will appear next year in Australia. There's quite a bit of interest in it, they tell me, in the UK and the US. But they always tell writers stuff like that, don't they?
It's been a joy to return to books that have mattered to me—and converse with them; verbal them, even. But it's been so hard in the midst of family and poetry and teaching—the usual suspects—to give myself to the reading and to make time for the writing. And what a delightful hypocrisy that is: a book about reading well and living slowly, that I am going too fast to sit down and write...
As for the novel, I'm afraid I keep burgling all my ideas and turning them into poems. But I have, in fact, a couple of ideas for novels waiting me out: one based loosely on the life of my grandfather (Wesley, the Methodist Minister); the other's about music and landscape and love, and that's all I can say.
But if I only make poems from here till the end, I'll be content. Poetry feels like the work I'm called to. It's not only my art; it's my practice; it's how I seem to think and live. I feel I have so much yet to learn about what a poem is and how my voice(s) sound; and there is so much else, in so many different forms, I feel I need to write.
And next year there will be another volume of poems, Body Copy
. Though (as well as Fire Diary
) I have a collection of spoken word poems on CD (The Road South, 2008), and a chapbook, The Lyrebird
—the new book will be only my second collection. My twelfth book, but only my second full collection of poems. And "Margaret River Sestets" will be in there—if we can find a book size wide enough to carry it.
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