Anne Elvey reviews Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick
By Mark Tredinnick
Reviewed by ANNE ELVEY
When Bluewren Cantos opens ‘With Emily in the Garden’, the reader hears a beguiling voice. In shorter lines than is often the case with his work, Mark Tredinnick weaves the tropes of attentiveness to the other, mortality and finitude, together with his wry humour, to tell a
loving engagement with place, human persons and otherkind. This is poetry as blessing. It is a poetics of witness where observation is astute and singular:
In the lower branches a rufous fantail turns
And demurs, displaying his tail the way a cardsharp
Shows his hand—giving nothing but grace away.
(‘With Emily in the Garden’, p. 2)
There is a gentle mix of the sublime and the mundane, so that we are invited to let such dualisms be undone in us:
Came to vacuum the last stubs of daylight
From under the feet of the eastern greys,
Mobbing the riveroaks and downing last
Drinks along the river.
Until later, Bach kicked
The door in and sat with you on the couch,
And you knew you’d never spend
A better day alive again on Earth.
(‘A Day at Your Desk All Along the Shoalhaven’, pp. 6-7)
Emily Dickinson and JS Bach inhabit these poems. They are joined from time to time by Mozart, the Buddha, Hindu gods and even sometimes the memories of a Protestant Christian old time religion. Charles Wright wanders through in the shape of many of the poems but despite the similarities in line length, form and a sometime irreverent sacrality, Tredinnick’s voice is distinct from Wright’s. With Vedas and Eclogues, Partitas and Cantos, Nocturnes, Sestets and even a deconstructed sonnet, Tredinnick writes both with an ear to older traditions of sacred and poetic writing and with a feel for the way form and music work on and in the body.
In the title poem, ‘Bluewren Cantos’, it is as if the writer’s body is itself the site of writing, and the writer “becomes for a time, a place. Painted by blue wrens.” The poet is an instrument of place, writing and being written by it. In ‘Margaret River Sestets’, for which Tredinnick won the Cardiff Poetry Prize, the poet develops this theme of relationship to place, as a kind of addiction or falling in love, around which there is some ambivalence: “My whole life an addiction to country, falling forever for places/that were never going to be any good for me.”
The language of love and eros that Tredinnick uses to express this dance of relationship with place and otherkind often employs the feminine in ways that reinforce problematic identifications of women and nature, such as can function to devalue both. Ecofeminist philosophers describe this problem. The late Val Plumwood’s approach is highly nuanced: while the “backgrounding and instrumentalisation of nature and that of women run closely parallel”, and this backgrounding involves a “denial of dependence on biospheric processes”, women [and men] need to “consciously position themselves with nature” (Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, p. 20). I doubt stereotyping of either women or what we sometimes simplistically call “nature” is Tredinnick’s intent as he makes explicit, and unsettles, a poetic or ecopoetic vocation—for example in ‘The Wombat Vedas’, for which he won the Newcastle Poetry Prize, where we read: “I’m writing a kind of confessional ecology here,/and you mustn’t believe a word” (p. 11). The poet is witness, a participant observer who exercises an ethical self-suspicion, reminiscent of Judith Wright, who says in her poem ‘Two Dreamtimes’ addressed to Oodgeroo Noonuccal, “Trust none—not even poets” (Collected Poems, p. 318).
Tredinnick wants to “tell it slant”, as he suspects the world does: “The world works best when it misses/Its mark”, and sometimes a poem works best when it surprises with a twist on the known: “still the river is a habit that can’t quite shake me”.
The poems of Bluewren Cantos are something like blues, a lingering music with a bit of a swagger and a bit of philosophy thrown in for good measure. At times they are breathtaking:
Winter is the slowness in us all,
the world at prayer. Winter
is a picture of how one remembers
And gets on with it, anyway: a peaceable kind of
Resistance, a protest performed
by surrender to the exquisite
Blind etiquettes of the actual world.
(‘Resistance’, p. 115)
While I wonder at ‘blind’ (and in another poem at the use of ‘spastic’ as an adjective), the word fits the flow of the line and much can be forgiven for the articulation of such a con-cept—”the exquisite … etiquettes of the actual world”—and the suggestion that the poet might surrender to these etiquettes.
Bluewren Cantos rewards reading and re-reading. Among my favourite poems there is ‘Cro-cuses’, a three part immersion in a day of heavy rain, on which the first crocuses of the season appear. As Phillip Gross says on the cover, in some senses every one of Tredinnick’s poems is a love poem. Among the many poems of love and family in this collection, I was particularly taken by the dream of a staid grandfather preacher rapping and dancing at the pulpit. The col-lection ends fittingly with an epilogue entitled ‘The Trees’ and its one poem ‘It Matters How We Go’. The poem remembers the late Seamus Heaney. Here ‘walking/Is a prayer the trees seem disposed to answer sometimes’.
In conclusion, Tredinnick’s ‘Lyre Lyre’ encapsulates much that is distinctive of his work. The feminine reference, surprising because it is the male lyrebird that has the more diverse repertoire, is strong, working to effect a layering of Beloved as partner/lover, bird, place, perhaps also a/the divine. The repeated lyre of the title suggests that the poet is not only riffing on the bird as performer, but inviting the reader to attend to his (the poet’s) lyric performance. In this poem, as in so many others, there is a gentle but wry interweaving of attention to an other and a kind of love that spills between human relationships and other than human ones, celebrating kinship and mourning loss, so that all love is more than human. In ‘Lyre, Lyre’, as in Bluewren Cantos as a whole, Tredinnick strives to capture an ecotone in language, to write us into an environmental culture, into the habit of ecological ensoulment.
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge, 1993.
Wright, Judith. Collected Poems 1942-1985. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1994
ANNE ELVEY is author of Kin (Five Islands Press, 2014) and managing editor of Plumwood Mountain: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics. She holds honorary appointments at Monash University and University of Divinity, Melbourne.