A Leaf That Tells a Tree: Two New Essays on Poetry, Landscape, and the Beloved

Published : Tuesday, December 04, 2012 | Label:

It feels like I’ve been on deadline since June. In a year when I was meant to be finishing my book Reading Slowly at the End of Time, I’ve been much preoccupied of late with other, smaller pieces of commissioned prose. I’m very glad to have had the chance to write them, and some of what I say in these essays will show up in the reading book when at last I finish it—with luck, early next year.

(I’ve posted a separate note about essays I wrote as forewords for two new anthologies of creative writing.) Here, I want to mention new essays, one just out, the other imminent.

1. The Gospel of Mark. Bronwyn Lovell, whose lovely poem “Tsunami” shortlisted for the Montreal Prize, came along to a poetry masterclass I led here in my cowshed in September; she asked me, that weekend, if I would write something for a poetry edition of The Victorian Writer, the magazine of Writers Victoria, which Bronwyn helps edit. “The Gospel of Mark: What I Believe and How I Work” is what I wrote for her; it’s in the December issue, which has just landed on my doorstep, steeped in cerise. Why I called it that, these couple of pars explain—but if you want the whole gospel, you’ll need to find TVW, which shouldn’t be too hard if you’re a Victorian Writer, or else, I guess, you could go to writersvictoria.org.au:

“Once in a pub in Newcastle I was asked by a Christian missionary what it was, if not his God, I believed in. Beauty, I said; poetry, the shape of things, landscape, birds, music, children, reading.

“I have a spiritual life that never believed in anyone’s gods or ointments or offices. If there is a god, she is the weather and the complex and damnable divinity in each of us; god is the kind of holy but impious trick a poem or a piece of music or a line of hills or the shape of a breast plays on ordinary reality now and then. But as it happens, I live next door to a Catholic novitiate, and sometimes the poets who workshop with me in my cowshed stay there. Last time, there was some trouble at breakfast with the Trappists; the poets wanted to talk. One of the sisters was overheard whispering in exasperation about “the Mark group”. Turns out there was another group staying that weekend studying the Gospel of Mark; I wasn’t the “Mark” they had in mind. But I might as well have been, my fine students told me, such is my passion for the poem.

“In that spirit, here are some notes toward a personal gospel of poetry: what I believe and how I work. You’d have found them on my whiteboard that weekend, short sutras, dropped leaves.”

In the essay, I was reprising a speech I gave in September to the Society of Women Writers and rehearsing the beginning of the last chapter of Reading Slowly: “Losing the Plot”. What I’m talking about in the essay is why I believe in poetry, and what it is about poetry (some poetry) I believe in, specifically. Most likely my essay won’t show you how to write a poem. But it may help you understand why we need poetry so much. It may also let you see how it is that I write, and why.

“A poem is a hint that nails a thesis to a door,” I write there.“Poetry is the one-night stand that lasts ten thousand nights.” And“Poetry recasts life’s exquisite spell.” So there.

2. Nature & Me. Another small essay I’ve just finished is “Nature & Me”, for the Scottish Poetry Library’s journal. I’ll be in Scotland, at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh, in early April 2013, running a workshop on poetry and place, and reading with Emily Ballou. My visit to Edinburgh is the last leg of a reading, lecturing tour I’m making that also takes in Wales, England (Oxford), and Northern Ireland, through late March and early April 2013. Colin Waters, editor of the SPL journal asked me very sweetly if I could write a piece for the journal on the theme of my own, and my poetry’s, relationship with landscape; he thought this might help prepare the way for my visit up north in April.

Ecology is the theme for the Scottish Poetry Library’s program next year, as I understand it. And it’s the story of my life—and it’s the story I can’t help telling through most of my work. As I say in the essay:

“It is when I make poems that I am most nearly at ease with the natural world, the everything else I’m not. Especially when I make poems with landscape in them—which is most of the time—but even when I don’t. I seem unable not to remember the earth—the form of things, the voices of birds, the colour of rain, the bend of river, the extinction of species, the tipping points, the oceans of plastic—even when I try. I write a love song, no trees in sight, they call me a nature poet; I cry out in grief, I write a sonnet for my skipping child, they call me a poet of place. No one likes a label. But I’ll wear this one. Nature’s the story, I keep saying, and we’re in it; Live your life in place, not time, I wrote (in “Eclogues”), so I guess I asked for it.”

If the essay caused me some grief at first, it was only because I’ve spoken and written so much and so often about all this—the country of my writing, and my hope that literature can lead us back into a more elegant and (mutually) replenishing entanglement with nature; and I soon got over my grief, anyway. This is such an important issue: it matters deeply to me, and it matters more than we seem to realize to all of us. In the end, I was grateful to Colin: his request led me to some better ways than I have yet found to speak to all this, and pay my debts to others, such as Charles Wright, who inspire me in my calling to give back to the world in poetry, the world’s gift to all of us of itself.

The journal comes out later this month (December 2012), I believe. I’ll let you know. Or you could chase it here: http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/

Here’s a little more of what I wrote in the essay:

“One of the elders, American poet Charles Wright, a man whose work has been influential on my own (though you mustn’t blame him for it; he had no choice in the matter), writes near the end of the long poem “Disjecta Membra” that closes his 1997 collection Black Zodiac:

I think of landscape incessantly,
mountains and rivers, lost lakes
Where sunsets festoon and override,
The scald of summer wheat fields, light-licked and poppy-

“And so do I. Different landscapes, most of them, to his, and not all the time. I think of children and women and men, too. (Women, especially.) The bodies and the minds of things. Music, words, phrases, morals, stories, justice, love, loss. Global warming. Violence and tenderness. Kingfishers. Poetry and pottery and botany and pleasure and pain. And so does he…

“…But most of all, I believe in landscape. I believe in the world, and I want my work to serve it and be worthy of it, if it can.”

My only regret is that I had to cut from the essay, for reasons of space (this is the other story of my life), a full half of what I wanted to say about nature and me—specifically, a reflection on the concept of “Xing” in Chinese poetics, a very old and sophisticated—though new to me—understanding of the reciprocal relationship that plays, though we in the west have been slow to notice, between the human and more than merely human worlds; between the text and the world; between the scene and the feeling in a poem. But I will have a chance to speak of all that in Edinburgh, and, no doubt, I’ll write about it elsewhere. (In fact, I write about it briefly in the last section of my “Gospel”, “A poem is a window.”


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