by Mark Tredinnick
The bluewren is back. 6:27 this morning, she woke me, her knocking as deft as needlepoint. Wake, she spelled. And I did (if not for long).
The birds have this way with me of telling me they’re here and who they are, before they’re here, before they are. She woke me (the pocket beloved) from a dream of Montreal (hello, Asa); she woke Lucy (my young girl) from a dream—a dream as intricate and endless as a life—of Peter Rabbit, Timmy Tiptoes, the whole Potter crew, bouncing on the bed. The rabbits Mrs. McGregor had put in the pie had come back alive, she told me, and Mr. McGregor had sworn off rabbits and turned vegetarian.
Lucy is writing the dream down even now. I’m drinking coffee and keying this and helping her recast the spell.
(If I told you the cat (Midnight—a found feline) brought a spotted pardalote to the door in her mouth just now it might break the spell Lucy and the bird have cast, as quickly as they cast it. So I won’t tell you. And I won’t add how perfect that small bird looked, the chestnut rump, the small cream dots like buttonholes on her head), when Midnight laid her down on the mat, a painter’s dream of a bird, a cat’s dream of breakfast, the sort of strange gift the world sometimes trades in.)
Just any old Sunday morning, then: a return (as if from the dead), a vivid waking, a beautiful death, a resurrection. Unfortunately (for the pardalote), not in quite the right order. But when was it ever?
Moments like this morning—the bird at the window again, the bird in the cat’s mouth, the child’s dream (in which even the dog I grew up with and the dog Maree grew up with, everything everyone the girl knows had loved and lost, came back to life)—are instances, perhaps, of everyday immanence; and that lovely phrase is the theme-song of the ACU Prize for Literature, offered for the first time this year, and announced this evening in Fitzroy. The prize, judged by the great Australian poet Kevin Hart, one of our elders, is being given for poetry this year; in years to come it may be awarded for work in other forms.
Like Hart, I have a notion it is the heart of the enterprise of poetry (and perhaps of all literature) to witness such small worlds (of love, of loss, of sunlight, of birdsong, of waking and walking and dying…) and to know in them the eternities they imply. Poetry, as Blake knew, sees a World in a grain of sand; it finds eternity in an hour. The poetry I love best says Look! It says Listen! It says Yes! It says Thanks! It says Fuck! It says Forgive me! We are given the world; we give it back in poetry. The poetry I most love returns to the world a gift—a form, not just an thought; a body, not just a notion—that does justice to the gift the world is, in all its unfair, uneven, unjust, exquisite self, each moment—especially such numinous moments as my Sunday morning.
Poetry divines the everyday. It makes small myths out of enormous moments (Francis Webb’s phrase); it sings up the mystery out of the material; it (gently, or less gently, depending) busts the ghost, or perhaps it’s a goddess, out of the machine. A poem finds the myth in the moth and makes it fly through all time.
Each poem is a place made empty by song. A poem is a carriage for the “dearest freshness deep down things” (as Hopkins put it), for the anima mundi, the soul of the world—the same way the body is a carriage, in Mystic traditions I’m susceptible to, for the self (one’s soul). The real beauty of the body is how well, sometimes, when we let it, or life lets it, the body articulates one’s own dearest freshness deep down. Its beauty is how faithfully it carries you through the world of forms and light and sound and scent. In our body we meet and know the world; we know love and loss and all the rest of it. The body is a miracle, without which consciousness and being have no (rental) home and haven’t a hope in hell; and we pay for it, this miracle we inhabit, with our lives.
And just possibly it is the miracle of its body, its gift of hover and flight in song, the wonder of its body in the improbable world, that the bluewren keeps coming back to reflect upon in my window, while it still can. And it’s an episode of world, a piece of ongoing (re)creation that deserves and demands, among other things, a witness and a poem. Some embodied response.
A poem that works has a body—a body that touches one’s own, and pulls one’s mind back inside the carriage of one’s self, back into the actual world again. A poem, in its profound but quiet embodiment, has the power to lead our embodied selves back inside the body of the world again, a little bit wider awake.
“We are here to be curious,” Jim Harrison writes somewhere, “not consoled. The gift of the gods is consciousness.” We are here to die more and more beautifully to illusion, delusion, banality, sentiment, cant and superficiality; we are here to make our lives worthy of our suffering (and others’ suffering; and poetry can help us do it. A poem is a practice as well as a thing, a practice first for the poet and then for the reader, in attention. In witness, in growing wise. Wisdom is not the same thing as understanding or mastery or expertise. It is a looser arrangement and deeper. And it is a process; it is a way.
We are not called upon merely to understand. Part of the dying entailed in living more curiously, more vividly and well, is a growing ease with mystery, complexity, paradox. Less judgment; more perception. And poetry is a better way than most for practising intimacy with otherness, with counterpoint and the death inside the life, especially the otherness so near at hand: in the wild flower, the grain of sand, the palm of one’s hand, the bird at the window, the marriage, the lives lost at sea.
No, we are not called upon merely to understand, but (among many other things) to be more closely with the world where we find ourselves (in our confusion and sorrow that it all must end). Not to understand, but to stand under the weight of things—and to feel it (and them). To stand in and under the light and know how it falls and how much like and yet unlike our own minds it is.
No bluewren at the window, but plenty the late winter weather Robert Gray’s early poems are bright with, like china plates on a dresser. Only Bach and Joshua Bell and breakfast and toothache to wake me.
I drive, I teach, I write, I catch a bus to the city to buy a football jersey against my better judgment for my child, I write, I teach again, I drive, and I sit late by a fire, my dog beside me asleep on the floor, and I reread Ovid and I listen to Ted Hughes’s translation of Ovid’s telling of the myth of Echo and Narcissus, and I wonder if there isn’t a kinder, wiser reading of that story, in which Narcissus teaches us, in his misery and death, to enjoy the beauty even of our feet, which carry us through the world of things, while we are can; in which Echo’s biography is in fact a fable that explains the immanence, the numinous one finds, if one opens to it, in the natural world—the trees and stones sound and resound and speak back; they seem to know you and almost to love you, and to want you back—and if they do, if there’s a dearest freshness deep down in them, and if you can recognize something of yourself in them, it’s because there’s love in them, the undead and scattered Echo, her love undying to the end and way beyond. Late night thoughts, admittedly, but maybe the world is a love you were too stuck on yourself to return, and it is turned now to stone, and it gives you back to yourself, whether you like it or not, in the end; it will tell you, if you care to listen, what you knew all along, that love is very large and everywhere, and you are in it; and it will add, as Jan Zwicky puts it:
Until you find the self
You cannot give the self away.
Search hard that you might follow me,
Beloved: I am gone.
All you ever have to do is give up hope: the bluewren’s back.
Two minutes late, but here she is, giving her self away again—more like Echo than Narcissus, I think, falling all over again and again for the love she declares, to no one in particular. And she makes up fast for lost time, playing the pane with tonguing as virtuosic as Wynton Marsalis at the cornet, riffing Paganini a minute later when the radio comes on.
As if one needed it now. The bluewren’s percussive cantos are enough to wake even the dead.
A friend texts from a bus crossing the Harbour Bridge to say the waning moon is a shell listening to the sea, an ear listening sweetly to nothing much at all. Like so much that counts most, I’ll have to take my friend, and the moon, on faith, for my horizons here in Bowral are close, and, though the moon must be just about ready to roll over and call it a day, I’m still sitting here in pajamas and house-boots, like Orpheus at a sleepover. 8:30, and the morning is clear and warming fast. The sky (I see, when I chase the children off to school) is articulate with high-minded silence, and wearing its learning lightly; heaven is a mob of brumbies on the run. Lower down, the finches, ablaze with themselves (with most of our selves), are in a light-hearted frenzy among the plums.
The flaxen-haired girl, transcribed for clarinet, is almost unrecognisable, walking my way across blond boards from the CD-player. Although I know at once, in my chest as much as in my ears, the quality (let’s call it beauty; let’s call it wisdom; let’s call it the numinous) some pieces, some moments, some poems, some people have of achieving themselves almost to perfection, it takes me most of her three and a bit minutes to recall a tune I’ve loved—half joy, half sadness—by a composer I’ve worshipped all my life. Debussy’s one of the elders, one of the dead, along with Emily Dickinson and Henri Matisse and Rumi and Beethoven, I write to thank and, if I can, to please.
[all photos courtesy of M Tredinnick and Wikipedia]