A review of Lines for Birds by Barry Hill and John Wolseley

Reviewed by Sue Bond

Lines for Birds
by Barry Hill and John Wolseley
2011, ISBN: 9781921401534, 223pp; AU$59.95 pb

‘Looking at the earth with a bird’s eye view’ – Lines for Birds by Hill and Wolseley

Lines for Birds by Barry Hill and John Wolseley is one of the most beautiful books I have ever seen. It is poetry and paintings: the poetry is rich with metaphor and imagery, the paintings extraordinary evocations of birds in their landscapes. The high standard of production by UWA Publishing does justice to the fine quality of the content.

In the introduction the creators explain that the idea for the book came about in 2001, when Barry Hill first saw John Wolseley’s painting, Olive-backed Oriole and Papaya Fruit (2000), in an exhibition of his called Tracing the Wallace Line. This painting and the poem, ‘Olive-backed Oriole Eating Pawpaw’, are included in the book. Hill’s poem begins:

It’s no wound
it is flame
of fruit, Capricornia sap.
Eat me, it says
to its ravenous arrival
Dig in, I’m yours. (94)

The painting shows a bright orange and red fruit and the hungry, enticed bird, exquisitely rendered in green, leaning in to its meal. The poem is described as celebrating ‘with Darwin in mind, the ünion of beauty and savagery’ (1), with a touch of humour that is suffused throughout the work.

Lines for Birds is constructed as a paperback book with a flap on the front cover, so when folded out, the illustration can be seen in full on both sides. After the introduction, there are six parts: Scrub Land; Wetlands and Shorelands; Forest; Marais and Maquis; Mountain and River; and Return. The areas of land and countries covered are Victoria in Australia, South-East Asia, France, and Japan. The artist and poet worked together in Australia and South-East Asia, , but Hill travelled separately to Japan and Wolseley to the south of France. They take care to note that the book is meant to convey joy, but that there is an inevitable mention of species vulnerability: ‘The more we value a living thing the more we are unavoidably anguished at the idea of its extinction’ (2).

Wolseley includes hand painted maps of the areas explored. His paintings are treated almost as parts of the landscape themselves, as seen in some of the photographs. An example is on page 192, which shows a work in progress called Large Murray Sunset Refugia with New Growth, Sunset Track (2007); it is on the ground, held down by various objects. He records dragging his paintings across burnt vegetation—‘the burnt carbon marks they made looked almost like the notations of a musical score’ (3)—and including sonograms of the birds he is depicting.

Rather than me making a feeble attempt to describe the paintings of John Wolseley, I suggest the reader visit the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery website to see past exhibitions. The birds depicted include the bush curlew, with its distinctive eyes and sloping shoulders, described by the poet as having ‘an Alice in Wonderland gaze’ (22). There are reproductions and details of large paintings, such as Wild Wings, Wild Cries of Wetland and Swamp (2010) (80–81). Wolseley explains in the Artist’s Notes section at the back that this was a ‘billboard oil painting commissioned by the Melbourne City Council in 2010—part of the project—Propositions for an Uncertain Future. Responses by five artists to a fountain without water’ (222), and that he depicted the waterbirds flying across the Gwydir Wetlands in New South Wales combined with cartographic and meterological diagrams showing cyclones and the El Niño effect.

The poems are responses to the paintings, sometimes cryptic, sometimes less so.

Hill begins the poetic voice in the Introduction, informing the reader that the birds have

Strings in throats
Perched on the deep keys
Chromatic the notes, all of a feather…
That’s what they are—
lines that arrive, phrases, feathers
A presence of song
Nothing titled—
Illuminations, poems (5)

While poetry may be worked and rewritten and sculpted, the ‘poems’ from birds are more spontaneous, ‘lines that arrive’, as the birds appear and disappear themselves, according to mating, food, seasons. They produce their own works of art in song, and in themselves, without the accoutrements of human production.

The first poem in the first part, ‘Scrub Land’, is ‘Eagerly We Burn’:

From the war-zone of burnt goodbyes
charcoaled bodies on the moor
long shadows under warming skies
with a cold southerly whipping the nape
we create. (12)

The image arises not only of the burnt landscape but the regeneration that follows—‘amber growth from tubers/frisky ginger everywhere/tiger tufts from earth’ (13)—and includes the artist, too, the ‘Harlequin/unfurling himself as paper/Harlequin in Pierrot guise, prince of frottage and the breeze/touching and rubbing and almost free/as a breeze, if randomness is free’ (14). In art, frottage is the process of making rubbings from rough surfaces; Wolseley uses several different techniques like this to create his works. Is there some sexual reference here, too, some link to the return of fertility to the burnt land, perhaps? Maybe my imagination is expanding a little too far, but this book encourages the imagination.

In my reading for this review, I came across an interview with the poetry critic Martin Duwell (who has also reviewed this title), and was struck in particular by his openness to admit in reviews when he doesn’t understand something written by the poet. It is ‘good intellectual practice’ he states to ‘outline the questions you can’t answer’, which afforded me enormous relief because I cannot interpret the meaning of all of the poems within Lines for Birds. ‘Rousseau’ (144–145), for example, perplexed me on first readings. Was the title referring to the naïve artist or the philosopher? My schoolgirl French was hopeless, but after a few re-readings I came to enjoy the tripping over the tongue sounds, and the obvious fun the poet is having:

But le Grand Corbeau
eclipses Raven unless
you like to
think of Merlot as plonk. (145)

But there is more than just fun here, as the poet seems to show the reader the importance of names, and their sounds, as the song of the birds is important to them, and to us, and to all of nature.

The thought sounds
better in the French—
a sexier proposal but
belied by the names
that still sing the book
with their luscious
that wrap one around
back into love
and give the birds
all the sky
the earth
that they need.
Say these two:
Rock Swallow.
Hirondelle de rochers.
Which one sings of the immortal wish? (145)

A familiarity to the work of Olivier Messaien will help with the reading of ‘Messaien’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux’ and ‘Messaien’s Music for the Reed Warbler (Mainly), in the Sologne Marshes at Night’, but there is readily apparent music in lines like ‘he hurls the crystal decanter over the cliff’ (151) and ‘frost notes on a pond’ (157). But once again, I read these with a feeling that something lies beyond my grasp. This presents a challenge to the reader, as in order to fully appreciate the poetry, a wider knowledge of the cultural references is necessary, and although this can be rectified up to a point (Google it!), and has the potential to make it an even richer experience, it could also be daunting. Does the reader need to be an experienced reader of poetry before tackling this book? Perhaps.

In contrast, ‘Sorrowful Arrival’ clearly tells the story of the spoonbill alighting on a dead tree’s branch:

With its bill
the bird leaned
on the hollow branch—
callisthenics for its champion
white neck and shadow of wing:
smoothness on
the once sappy limb.
A dreaming of Giacometti. (59)

The two images on the double spread, positioned either side of the text, show the spoonbill tucking ‘the long flat paddle into its neck’ as it preens, the shadows and shading, the play of light. The reference to Giacometti could reflect the long, twisted shape of the dead tree’s limbs, like one of the artist’s sculptural figures.

In ‘Snipe’, Hill writes that the bird is

as shy as Lady Murasaki
if a little less melodic
having flown further for love. (68)

There is reference to the twelfth century Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar’s ‘The Conference of the Birds’, both in the Introduction and in the poetry. Hill muses that ‘Every now and then in the course of creating this book I felt that we were assembling our own conference of birds—for pleasure’s sake as well as the instruction which might be implicit in it’ (3). Attar’s long poem is an allegory about sufism, and involves the birds gathering to find their king. The wisest of them is the hoopoe, who instructs the group that they must find their leader by travelling a great distance (some of them drop out of the journey because of their inherent faults) to a mythical land, but when they get there all they find is a lake with their own reflections.

The instructional aspect of Lines for Birds that stands out most clearly for me is the environmental one. In ‘Nature Lovers’, for example, the quotation preceding the poem is from Alfred Russell Wallace and involves him shooting a bird in order to study it, admiring it in the process for its beauty. ‘Some birds will be left to see’ (117), the poet calmly states in the poem, as the new ‘hunters’ and appreciators of birds carry cameras rather than guns. The prose section that immediately follows this is a jaunty and concise telling of the story of ‘The Conference of the Birds’, accompanied by the Wolseley painting ‘Cloud Forest and Hoopoe’ (2003). Hill slides from the birds that must make the journey with the Hoopoe, to be shown The Way, a difficult journey with many sacrifices, to the birds that appear in our backyards: ‘In the eye of the birds we see a self who intimates the Way. Each bird, if we are at one with it, is a joyous instant in time. The pleasure is deeper than we can say. It is beyond pleasure. The essence of Bird is to help us arrive’ (119).

Hill writes of this mystical bond between birds and humans throughout the book, but he touches it sometimes with a melancholic reminder that it is fragile; Wolseley’s paintings are even more poignant in this respect. Both show what we can learn from birds, help us arrive, show us The Way. We don’t do the same for them.

The brilliant red of the bullfinches ‘born for the snow’ (124), the calligraphic nature of some works of Wolseley’s, with birds in scenes of colour splotches, Twombly-like scratches and lines and marks, the vivid parrots—these are matched by the sometimes complex language of the poetry, steeped in allusions and mythical references and synaesthesia. In a clever move, the artist and the poet end with origins and the universe, the vast stretch of time—‘The egg’s a poem to space and to lightness’—and without fuss, note the mere twitch of time that humans have existed (209).

There is so much in this work of art and poetry, for both the heart and the mind. The poetry is complex but not incomprehensible, and rewards re-readings; Wolseley’s paintings are exquisite companions. To reiterate my question—does the reader need to be experienced in reading poetry to tackle this book?—I would now say no, just persistent, imaginative, open to the symbolic and to play. A suggestion would be to accompany this book with a recording of Messiaen’s bird music, a copy of Attar’s ‘The Conference of the Birds’, perhaps even a field guide. But time and slow reading will be your best accompaniments.

About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane