Fire has stormed the mountains of his sleep, and he wakes in ruins.
There is ash
on his workbench; the six stories of his bookcase have collapsed
Into one, which lies on the concrete floor, and from it splay the broken
bodies of poems, leak
the lexical souls of reference books. He is a fireground, after.
Nature, he thinks, is bipolar and worsening with age. Manic,
one day, she spikes high
into the forties and runs naked, blazing with ideas, through
The foothills. Down again, the next, she looks out from under her hair
at the wreck she’s made
and cannot think where to go from here. For days she weeps.
Is it possible, he wonders, to mourn like a forest? Like a house
that’s just a tin roof now?
For that is how he feels in the blue-black morning, but he hasn’t
Earned his sorrow. His is only risk fatigue—the shadow side
of beauty. Fire is the madness
in us all. And with it, periodically, he torches all his dreams
Of safety and starts over. When the future comes, if ever she comes,
she’ll speak, he knows,
a new species of language, in which one word for love will be fire,
And the other will be rain, and he will sleep like silence on the black terrain between.
For Major Jackson
If you want heaven, start in mud.
Where you’re stuck. Take your pilgrimage standing
Up to your ankles in sludge. And if the ground binds
and if your boots stick, and if you step
Out of them when you set off; if the odour
On a summer’s day, when the water ebbs, is noisome
where you begin, so much more pure
Your thoughts will be when they flower,
so much sweeter the garden’s scent when
You breathe it in, so much more like birdsong
Your voice when you begin at last to speak. Start underwater
if you want the sky. Start in the abject
Underworld, if you want the lighted Earth; start among
The throng of ears that cannot hear. Sink in detritus, seed in
the strife that your life, and every life,
Falls into now and then: Serenity
springs from squalor; love is only love if it
Can bear the badlands out. These wastes—good for nothing more substantial—
Bloom light and outshine day. The lotus pond,
a repurposed wetland well south of its days,
Is a perfect picture, empty, of the imperfection of your soul,
Helplessly in love with the vulgate particulars
of the secondhand world; in flower,
The pond is your Buddha self
at her ease; the Christ of St Thomas come down
From the cross. Freedom starts, but refuses to stay, in want;
Literature takes its first steps in slur and slurry.
Put down roots where no one
Else can, in the compost of loss, in the suspect terrain
Of the only life you may ever get to grow in.
Nothing is wrong for long
And hope cannot stay lost,
if beauty can walk from the wreck,
And the lotus can raise heaven
from the dreck and the dross.
- Christ of St Thomas: the Cross of St Thomas features a lotus
- well south of its days: “South of My Days,” Judith Wright
Last night I sat on the seawall and watched a woman in a purple bra,
slow black hair falling past her waist, dancing alone in a lighted window
two storeys up at midnight. She danced mostly with her arms, as if she
were climbing a rope, her body twisting behind her. There are things
I cannot turn from, and this was one, a study in muted abandon, probably
not meant for me. But hey. She was still dancing when I walked away
Like a thief. I live my life in curves, my love, and you live yours in fractals.
I hunger for form the way a martyr hopes for heaven. As if the shape
of things might fail if I don’t look on them and hold them close and write
them tenderly down. I long for the body of the world with a purity
that would shame a mystic. Sense is salvation. Men fall in love, they say,
through their eyes; women, through their ears. Which is lucky for me.
So, listen: it’s morning now and the sky’s as blue as it’ll ever get. Walk with me
around the point. Let’s see if we can piece the shapely world together again
out of its vivid geometry of chaos. Hear how the shalestones in the cliff wall
behind the beach want to teach you silence; see how the sea wants to preach
you wildness and fire. Beside the path between these two points of view, a
white moth flies from one yellow flower to the next, making up its slender
Mind. Below us, the rock shelf, a petrified map of several city blocks, is losing,
decorously and imperceptibly, its eternal argument with time. Out beyond
the whitewater, a hundred surfers, so many recumbent monks, bob their liturgy
of thanks for the first decent swell in ages, and two slick silvergulls play their
plangent voices out behind them down the break. Thirteen tankers wait out
the weekend along the horizon, and above, a small plane slopes insolently
South. The Bogey Hole looks like a Raymond Carver story waiting to happen
to three men staring down the implacable sea, and a blue cattle dog behind
them chasing a lime-green ball, and a brownhaired girl wavering at the edge
of her mismatched bikinis, her breasts escaping no one’s notice. But we turn
and leave them short of their denouement, the sun a klaxon in the catatonic
sky, a blaze in your flaxen hair. The tankers have drifted together now like a pod
Of whales, a convivial moeity of heavy industrial behemoths passing judgment
on the current account. Down on Wolfe Street, a violin walks a chromatic scale
upstairs from the basement of the redbrick terrace at the corner, and a rogue
tanker crosses the street below us at double time and a half—business that can’t
wait till Monday. But the world can wait till Tuesday, at least, to get its story straight
on us. At the docks, two cranes slowdance with midday, arms above their heads.
The Birds of Qionghai
ACROSS the shallow waters of Qionghai,
The shorebirds of Xichang send out their shot
Silk cries, bittersweet falsetto lines cast
In borrowed time and sung in tongues as wise
As other worlds, as plangent as the plaints
Among spent lotus leaves, the mist
Sleeps late. Upon the pier, night heron bows
Her head as if the morning were a wake.
I punt still waters with my love, my friends.
We slice a silence ages deep, and calm
Descends, and mist relents and gives the sea,
Captive here among tall hills, back to all
The freedom of the skies.
In the middle
Kingdom of my years, like bamboo I bend
And—like the bird-belled silence—do not break.
On winter limbs six or seven shags rest
Like children spent from swimming all fall long,
Waterlogged as afternoons sluiced by squalls
And sad that holidays, like all things, end.
All things but the silence of the heavens
And the earth, given second birth in song
Across the shallow waters of Qionghai.
But Did You Ever Feel
But did you ever feel
more like a species
Of happiness, an inhabitant of tides, an oystercatcher among oysters,
Than you did late that day standing in the undertow,
lifting your small daughter high—
her cries an ekphrastic kind of weather
Pealing all the way out and all the way back—flying her high over sun-drunk waves
that came like laughter and would not stop?
And no two syllables of that rising tide connoted anything like the same sea
Twice; each wave a child of the moment’s mind, each swelling
a telling of your whole life—and of the child’s life—
a joke at death’s unceasing
West of the divide smells like
sadness and eternity,
smells like ancient history
and forgiveness. Smells like red
gravel and white spinifex.
I take the plane’s rear stairs out
into the aftermath of
rain down onto slick tarmac.
A good sheep station ruined.
Not far west, but far enough.
West of the divide, the land
smells like itself, not the sea.
It smells like country, old, old
rain, like cattle and granite.
Inland the air has the tone
of sheoak and cockatoo,
dry creek and geology—
a dry peneplain of doubt.
Wherever you are, the smell
of rain coming or just gone
is the smell of the same rain
locally inflected. Here
it’s limestone and politics,
paddocks and poplars and grief.
West of the divide smells of
lichen and salt and dryness
itself, bore water and wheat
silos, crows’ cries and distance.
A continent of long time.
West of the divide smells like
where you’d want to come from if
you knew who you really were.
—Canberra, November 2005
Part of a world
Nobody seemed able to explain
But that had to be
Put up with.”
—Seamus Heaney, “A Herbal”
Splitting wood, I think of my enemy.
It seems to me a useful kind of striking
Back, feeding, as it does, fire with a better
Kind of fire: it’s an upcycling of lost limbs, a judo
Of redemptive violence, and it leaves no one
Very much the worse
for wear. I raise the splitter
High and swing it low, baffled by the poverty
Of my enemy’s soul, so very like my own,
Sorry to have been the cause of such banality
Of thought and word, but very, very certain
Of my aim: not at the log,
But through it. And when this afternoon—
Thinking of the head, in particular, of the one
Who’s chosen me as his work, and libel
As his play—when this afternoon
I brought my splitter
Down, and brought it down hard, on what
I’d thought would be the toughest round
Of all, it split like a pumpkin and spilled a million
Termite larvae, pale unheavened angels, across
The rainy and all-hallowed end of day.
MARK TREDINNICK—whose many books include Almost Everything I Know, Egret in a Ploughed Field, Bluewren Cantos, Fire Diary, The Blue Plateau, and The Little Red Writing Book—is a celebrated poet, essayist, and writing teacher. “One of our great poets of place,” Judy Beveridge has called him. His honours include the Montreal and Cardiff Poetry Prizes, The Blake and Newcastle Poetry Prizes, the ACU and Ron Pretty Poetry Prizes, two Premiers’ Literature Awards, and the Calibre Essay Prize. The Blue Plateau, his landscape memoir, shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Prize. He travels and teaches widely, in schools and at festivals, through Australia and in the US and UK, and he works with the corporate sector to explore the truths and graces poetry gives access to.
The Italian translation of these poems appeared in La Macchina Sognante N. 14. A special thanks to Lucia Cupertino for introducing us to this very thoughtful poet.
Article cover image: painting by Carolyn Miller, Missouri Woods – Spring N. 3.