by Mark Tredinnick
It’s true I don’t wake in my own bed as often as I might; I have been elsewhere, this past fortnight, as much as I’ve been here.
But every morning at seven, since August began, a bluewren has come to the window and rapped it like a stenographer on a contraband Remington. A couple of deft swoops each visit, bill drilling the pane, a memo about some urgent thing or another, tapped out in rapid arpeggio. There’s no explaining this. All one can do is witness—which may be most of the work we’re here for. But it touches me, this inexplicable, finely calibrated performance; and, if I’m here, it wakes me.
Like a poem, this visitation, this embodied everyday mystery, means nothing but itself; but manifestly it is something. It is, perhaps, the Beloved. The way that Greg Orr configures her in his wonderful poems, most recently, The River Inside the River. And it says way more than it knows.
The whole troubled world is enchanted, of course; we try to forget it, but it is. Each day, the whole damned thing is a mystery again, as I put in an old poem, occluded every other moment by “reality”. The world, even yet, is made of music; and sometimes a poem, and sometimes music itself, and sometimes an act of love, and sometimes a child, and sometimes a bird at any old window, can catch the world at it—at the music of being itself, and all our selves—can join again, and momentarily put us back inside this sweet and bitter incantation of the real.
And so it was this morning at 6:56. There’s the bird again, called Daniel. And an epiphanic kind of sunrise down the back, I noticed, as I sat up and took down the bluewren’s dictation, and started looking lively.
Among the things I listed in my blog last week, I forgot to mention I’d been reading submissions for the Society of Women Writers’ national poetry prize, and among the ten poems I shortlisted was one that addressed this line to the Muse: “convince me I’m alive”. I liked the line and took it down in my journal. And got thinking about it. As that day went on, something that may become a poem later began in my head, and I wrote some of it down later, sparked by that small good line. This is how it often is for me and for many poets, I think: reading gives rise to writing. Reading poetry leads you back into the place all poetry starts, that threshold, that hermitage beside your life; it recharges the well sucked empty by the scheme of things, and sometimes a poem is the only proper way to respond. What I wrote later still looks like this in my journal:
I mow all morning long and after/ noon I split the afternoon in two (and three and four…)/ to fuel the winter count of coming night. I chase my dog’s delight all day,/ while winter steeps everything in everything/ else and holds all of it dear;/ I swim the tide of light out and I swim it back in;/ and then what can a father do, I think,/ but throw all his hope wide like a net/ beneath the pear tree, into whose high crown a daughter climbs/ at dusk to pull the whole night down./ The world returns, from nowhere, thus,/ to convince me I’m alive; but life is nowhere near enough./ Being alive won’t do it. It’s a kind of dying/ I need, to start to recollect my self./ To be of any use to anyone. There’s an second life/ deep without—and all around—my days; there are clothes that used to fit./ They lay me out and try me on and make me try again./ They pick up my pen and invite eternity in; they write (on you) the world less thin./ They come like bowerbirds, like rose robins and Facebook posts and children fast asleep; they settle like gratitude and solitude, and a good slow fire.
All this is true, if not yet a poem. (A poor man’s rich day, and a wealthy kind of night.)
A poem, says Jane Kenyon, practises in language what meditation practises in silence, and I’m sure she’s right. And each, though it’s hard (a kind of dying to the everyday; a kind of sitting still), can conjure that ringing emptiness that is not happiness but something more importance, the connectedness with everything and everyone else we are. Sometimes, though, most of the peace a poem makes, it doesn’t make for the poet; if poetry is for soul-making (as Keats thought), it is the reader’s soul more than the poet’s that gets made. Poetry does not always save the poet from himself (herself). Poetry (induced by a winter day, brought on by reading poetry, and by failing at the writing of one, oneself) can lead us from self to Self.
A note lands in my in-box—bird on the sill. It’s from Pema Chodron, a Canadian Roshi I like. And she wants to tell me this today: “but if you really want to live fully, if you want to enter into life, enter into genuine relationships with other people, with animals, with the world situation, you’re going to have the experience of feeling provoked, of getting hooked, of shenpa. You’re not just going to feel bliss… When those feelings emerge, this is not a failure. This is the chance to cultivate maitri, unconditional friendliness toward your perfect and imperfect self.”
This is good news. Because it feels like I’m either out of touch with everyone dear and with the world, or I’m hooked on them, and aching with it, and missing them, and feeling a fool for loving them so badly. Holding everything dear is what love entails, I guess, but it feels so often like a toothache. I will try to be friendly; but poets, I notice, are not always the friendliest people, especially to themselves. I suspect it’s the creative’s curse to be out of keeping, and out of key most of the time with most of it—almost as if one’s exile from everything and everyone and everywhere you’d rather be and everything you should be doing is an ache that only the making of a poem, or some other kind of love, will ease. “I live in a state of almost perpetual confusion,” John Berger writes (in Bento’s Sketchbook), and he’s been at it a long time now. Only now and then, on a motorcycle, at writing, at a drawing, he comes back into time and key, back into keeping, with the world, with himself, with the Self—which is the music of everything. And this is why every good poem is expensive, and feels it; it cost a lot, and it feels like it did. It matters because it mattered; it makes a soul because it saved one. But the almost untellable truth it tells, the unnsayable world it translates, is the truth of any human heart in any time or place. If all it seems to tell is the poet’s truth, it’s probably a tweet. It’s a boast; it’s a post. Some local species of oversharing.
What the bluewren told the window this morning was my truth, not hers. All our truths, the mystery of the universe, and what it feels like to be alive, with the music turned up loud inside, and one’s head full of confusion. Her Morse on the pane was how she keeps her secrets, and in keeping them just so, it’s how she tells us all our own.
Splitting wood again on Saturday afternoon, I began to notice how the distance looks like all the past lives I forgot to lead—or just plain forgot. And I noticed how, dismembering timber, I remember friends, loves, especially those I’m split from now, by time or distance. Why this targeted dismembering—with its soft and rhythmic, hit and miss violence—should be so good for remembering loved ones, I can’t say. It troubles me. But so it is. It also attracts the rose robin—another mystery, another contradiction I’m glad of. I notice, too, as James Salter observes near the end of his beautiful novel Last Light (a book very “lovely in limbs”), that when you split a log, the “halves” never fall apart evenly. Though you aim at the middle, you rarely hit it. And even if you do, the wood has a mind of its own. Something there must be in timber, and in the wild world, that does not love balance. Equilibrium is stasis, I guess. Imbalance, on the other hand, rocks; inequity provokes. Poetry, like love maybe, is that “blessed rage for order”, arising from the disorder, the imbalance of things, the disconnection one feels, and one’s hunger, one’s desperate ache, to put it right. To be whole, to be complete, to be at peace.
If things were not dismembered, if they did not fall unfairly and unevenly apart, they would not have to be, they could never be, like the broken and scattered limbs of the Beloved, remembered; there would not be the ache of attachment, the shenpa, the longing that sometimes the poem transfigures and forgives.
But I said I’d speak of love, unless that’s what I’ve been all along.
It’s a week now since I was down in Melbourne at the Carmelite Centre in Middle Park, launching, with David Tacey and Donna Ward (the publisher) and six fine poets, and Sandy Cull the book’s designer (the world’s best book designer, actually), Australian Love Poems 2013, a beautiful book whose editor I am. The book launches a press, Inkerman & Blunt, and it hopes to spread a love of poetry (and other fine writing) far and wide, by spreading the poetry of love. I included no poems of my own in the book. I was love’s midwife and, to mix my loving metaphors, love’s curator. My love poem in the book IS the book. The choosing of the poems and the way I put them together. One of the poets in the book (Anne Walsh) noticed that: the poem that is the contents page of ALP13, which sculpts the books (its parts, its unequal and beautiful pieces, its lovely limbs) into ten movements (gestures, moments, phrases, phases, faces), each named with a line from one the poems in it:
. Unruly days
. It can’t work, but nothing does
. It’s time to take off our clothes
. You and I sitting out the world
. A betrothing rain
. But I have known you in the winter, too
. You are gone again
. I’ve been drunk with you for millennia
. We outgrow love like other things
. There is another universe in which our song is not yet finished.
But this would not be a love poem of a book, without the love poems in the book. The 200 I finally chose from the1500 submitted. Which are of a remarkable range of forms and voices and of a remarkable calibre.
At the launch, when—after David Tacey’s wonderful speech; after some words from Donna Ward, an exploration of her design principles (for this is a book of great physical, as well as metaphysical beauty); after readings from Greg Day, Lisa Jacobson, Bronwyn Lovell, Jordie Albiston, Paul Hetherington, Alicia Sometimes—I spoke, I remember wishing someone were taping it. It came out better than it sometimes does. And I’d have been able to transcribe it instead of remembering it, as I have done here, for this blog. Forgive me if I borrow from what I laboured to write more trimly in the book’s introduction than I put things (no matter how well they may have seemed to come out) on the night.
Poetry is good for love—for its articulation—because, like love, it has a body. A story means, but a poem is. Love—an entanglement of two bodies and minds, a mutual ferocious custodianship of another’s life and person, and the consequent arrangement and rearrangement of limbs—calls us out of our heads, out of our minds, down into our bodies, our bodies (and minds and hearts) into relationship with the Other in another and in the world. Poetry, too, calls us out of our head(s); it gives thought voice; it gives voice body and breath; it makes gestures, sculptures out of embodied voice. Love is the poetry of body and mind; poetry is language at love’s work—each poem, an act of love for language, and in language. Poetry and love are made for each other. Love is poetry’s natural habitat (one of them, chief among them, maybe); and poetry is the heart’s discourse. Each articulates a small universe of mysteries and connections way beyond the grasp of the bodies and minds involved in the making of the love, the making of the poem. Each—poetry and love—has a power to stay said and to change the way one is, and sees.
“Love is apart from all things,” wrote Jack Gilbert. Love, as I say in the book, is not (or not always) shelter; it is enchantment and metamorphosis and plunge (sometimes sustained). One enters love like the underworld, or the future. Love stops the clocks; it is eternity in an hour. It is a kind of dying that saves your life, and poetry is its idiom.
And something about love seduced some memorable poetry—some poetry apart—from Australia’s poets. For even if this were not my book, I’d have to say there are some radically good poems in it, in an astonishing variety of modes. 200 fine poems, in fact; and I could easily have included another 200 without any falling off in standard. You didn’t hear this from me, but I reckon some somewhat cerebral, heady poets have written their best poems in a long time, as if love, and Donna Ward’s invitation to it, had called them back down into their larger, imperfect, longing, less-than-normally knowing, embodied selves.
At the Perth Writers’ Festival in 2010, Greg Day said to me: “who’s writing the love” in Australian poetry? Not many of us, and not especially well, we decided. Now that Dorothy Porter isn’t with us anymore, we meant. Well, we were wrong. Or if we weren’t wrong then—for there has been a good deal more head than heart in Australian poetry for a while, more wit than wisdom, more mind than body—we are wrong now. For here they are in the book: 170 odd poets, writing love as if they’ve been writing it or wanting to forever. I have a feeling it was the genius of Donna Ward’s idea and the generosity, intelligence and beauty of the whole project that drew these fine, hard-won poems from the poets; that licensed them to dig out or turn out work they hadn’t been convinced there was a place for in Australian letters.
The Melbourne launch was the second the book has had: we launched it the first time at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival. By the time we’ve launched it again in Adelaide in early September, in Perth and Margaret River, and then in Sydney in October, we’ll be getting good at it. And with luck, love will have sold just about through its first run. In Melbourne, David Tacey emphasized the erotic (embodied, ecstatic) dimension of love and the erotic dimension of spiritual practice. Love can be at once the most carnal and spiritual of human experiences. Among my favourite poems are the love songs to god, the sometimes impossibly sensual invocations of the Beloved of the mystics—Rumi, Hafiz, Khabir, Ghalib, Hildegaard of Bingen, Mirabai, Blake, Dickinson, Whitman, Hopkins, Lawrence, and more latterly Orr, and the writer of the Song of Songs. In these poems, the sacredness of human love, in all its disembodied and full-bodied manifestations, stands as a metaphor that which is divine on earth and for our relationship with it; and the lover and the Beloved are delightfully conflated. This tradition is not strong in Australian letters, and so I was thrilled to find enough instances of it among the submissions to ALP13 to give them a room of their own—the best in the house: “I’ve been drunk with you for millennia”. Who knew the Beloved lived in Middle Park, in Newcastle, in outer Western Sydney? Love in Australia turns out to be a wilder, more godly, more courtly and incendiary affair than anyone had reckoned. Nicely caught (but never captured) in Sandy Cull’s bronze on matt black arabesque of a cover.
It’s night now, and dinner’s up; I’d better draw a line, and call this done. Two days have passed since I began, one of them spent teaching, and this morning the bird did not show. Her absence drew the truest, bluest picture of herself she has drawn yet. And I missed her. The day dawned cold and stayed cold, the kind of weather in which, if this were a movie, love would leave, and maybe this is why the bluewren stayed away. And maybe she’ll be back tomorrow; who can say? But there I go wanting again. Holding on. Wanting the log to split even and burn long. Feeling abandoned, when I should be feeling blessed. Living my life in time again, instead of living it in place. In love.