Review of Mark Tredinnick's 'Fire Diary'

Puncher & Wattman, Glebe, NSW, 2010

One part story. Two parts poetry. Three parts honesty. Four parts grace. And five, greater than the sum of its parts, love.

For me, that is Mark Tredinnick’s first volume of poetry, Fire Diary, an evocation of what it means to be a man in progress, negotiating family life with the writing life, often finding himself wanting, but, in the end, forgiving himself, because he knows that after all he’s only human.

First part story. Underpinning Fire Diary is the life well-lived, dreaming domestic, where “the rain writes the only script there’ll ever be for any of this.” We are introduced to a blended family living outside suburbia (near the Wingecarribee River, 120 kilometres southwest of Sydney), where the poet writes in a cowshed out back and communes with foxes and possums, cicadas and copperheads; where the stars are visible at nighttime and the moon sometimes by day; where the youngest of his five children learns to walk on the day the oldest learns to drive, “and in between sixteen years ran before they could crawl / me any closer to who I’m meant to be / by now.” This is a life of quiet appreciation, for the small things each day brings: “God delivers when you stop / praying. The music starts when you stop / playing so hard and listen.” Like any family, though, the day-to-day can overwhelm: “I open it and read. / And just as I do, my daughter cries down the hall, / and I call out, / in my end-of-the-day-after-a-very-late-night- / Before exasperation, at her brothers to stop whatever / small act / of bullying they may be practising upon her.”

Yet, despite being “scattered like the children’s toys” and finding himself “Failing on and on,” the poet finds joy and beauty in a world where “someone has eaten the top / off the round and impious moon and at last / the children are asleep and the stars are telling their beautiful lies again.” Yes, there is doubt: the poem “Insolvency” asks the question, “Do I bankrupt my household or starve my soul?” Yes, there are choices to be made: after being a lawyer and a businessman, he now pays for his life “with poetry / And hope,” and of course it’s never enough. But these are the choices we all must make: “You live your life. You try to make it beautiful. / Until it’s over. And then it’s over.”

And integral to story is place ― as much a part of Fire Diary as the rain and chooks and children bickering ― and hardly surprising since Mark Tredinnick’s major research as an academic (he holds a doctorate in Literature and Ecology from the University of Western Sydney) has been about the importance of place and story. Indeed, his critically acclaimed The Blue Plateau: A Landscape Memoir (University of Queensland Press, 2009) won the 2010 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award and was shortlisted for the 2010 Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Fire Diary’s roots are planted firmly in the world, where images of nature figure prominently: poplars (in summer “a brothel”; in winter “a naked fretwork”), chooks (who meet their demise on election day: a parable for politics, or was it just the fox’s lucky night?), life and death, and always fire: of life, madness, of language, of love. There is pragmatism on one hand (“the possum shitting in the ceiling above you”) and questions of God and immortality on the other (“my friend fights beautifully / like a trout on God’s line”). Where light (“evening slicks the beach like gasoline”) and dark (“the night smells like any one / of a dozen childhood camps”) and ever-changing nature are part of the warp and weft of a place in constant flux:

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.

(from the title poem, “Fire Diary”)

Whereas The Blue Plateau is a gorgeous elegy to the Blue Mountains in New South Wales where the author lived with his family for seven years (and, incidentally, is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time and SHOULD have won the Prime Minister’s Award, if you ask me!), Fire Diary is a more personal journey, of a man and his family, of nature and the seasons. And if The Blue Plateau is filled with language that brings me to my knees (unconscious poetry like “I woke to the light the stars were singing down… Wild enough yet for dogs to cry the mornings up”), Fire Diary is another kind of poetry, an edgier, more personal poetry, reflecting the emotional ebbs and flows that come with being human.

Which brings us to two parts poetry: laudably accessible yet full of those “aha!” and “I wish I’d written that” poetic moments ― which, for me, defines good poetry. Some of the poems are about the writing process itself ― how the gifts of images and words enact their power before his eyes and through his pen, mixing bigger questions with the mundanery of the day-to-day. Poetry comes in the guise of a beautiful woman, whose “breasts against my shoulder / blades feel about as good as anything ever / will.” Or in the guise of a fox (in the book’s final poem, “No Particular Ending in Mind”):

Let your mind be like the fox you caught earlier, eating pizza from a box

on the porch in the dark: go hungry, but not too hungry. Know a gift

when you seen one. Take it, but leave the box. Turn, but don’t run.

And in an unusually formatted poem (“Stopped by the Road at the End of the World”) that step-marches across two columns and reads like a Snakes and Ladders game (and is well-nigh impossible to replicate here, out of context of the rest of the poem), the poet comments on poetry:

Poems are how we speak
on the other side of hope: broken-hearted,
wounded, grateful. Beautiful as death,
lonely as birth. Poetry is short, which is good
when time’s short, too. Poetry is slow,
which is also good, but in a slower way.

Poetry is rain on the face
of the world. It’s the face of the rain itself.

Poetry makes it possible to imagine
the world in its own skin – a problem
we don’t have, for once, to solve, a puzzle
that can’t solve us.

As to three parts honesty and four parts grace, Fire Diary is a book I would like to give to some of the men in my life (including an ex or two), with whom I would share this poet’s hard-won wisdom (though the poet would be the first to say the jury’s still out on whether it’s won or not, or even if it’s wisdom) about life, failure, and forgiveness ― especially of the self variety: “But, look: I am a lucky man. / I’ve broken some bones; / I’ve lost a marriage, I’ve too much work and too little time and barely enough / money.” This is a poetry that is self-consciously by and about a man-in-progress, who seeks to be a better person ― “It’s late to be starting, I know, / But I’d like to take possession / of my life; I’d like to stand up in it as the aspens stand up / in the dark” ― sometimes succeeding, but more often finding himself wanting. And is perfection the thing, anyway, knowing that, in the end, as Leonard Cohen says in his song “Anthem,” “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

And finally, five parts (and greater than the sum of those parts) love. At its most basic, Fire Diary is a beautifully and elegantly constructed love poem to the poet’s life, his surroundings, to his children, to his partner Maree (“when the silence fell inside / the end of everything / it was you I reached for”). Assuredly voiced, deeply autobiographical, but never (that dirty word to writers and publishers) confessional, the poet wears his heart on his sleeve ― image and metaphor bearing witness to a rich inner life, with we, the readers, privileged to be invited in. That that love comes at a price is more than evident in the poetry, and is made explicit in the Acknowledgements, where he thanks his family for “bearing what poetry costs.”

We, too, must make the same acknowledgement, as we are the richer for Mark Tredinnick’s poetry. If ever there was a book that lived up to Kenneth Rexroth’s exhortation: “I’ve had it with those cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry and never buy a book,” Fire Diary is it.

Laurie Brinklow is a Prince Edward Island poet, editor, and book publisher who is currently working on her PhD (researching the importance of place and story in the islands of Tasmania and Newfoundland) in the School of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania.