Birds and bird song in poem and painting

Lines for Birds* is a unique conversation between poet and painter. It is too a conversation with birds. The reader is offered the opportunity to listen, to hear their ‘teachings in the form of bird song’. In telling their story―moving across rather differing places―‘the birds suggest new ways of telling stories about the Earth’.

The book Barry Hill and John Wolseley have created is one of special beauty. It is too a book without an ending. Hopefully the bird story goes on and on. The two artists with different origins―Wolseley grew up in Somerset near the Quantock Hills where Wordsworth wandered; Hill spent his early life near the sea close to Melbourne―have moved through many habitats over ten years.

They discerned a truth they now share with us. Creating this book has much to do with the harmonics of birds―especially ‘their songs in their habitats’―and with the timbre of things, as the artists find expression in music, in painting, in words … in bird song. Poet and painter move across six sites in continents and islands in different parts of the Earth: from Scrub Land, to Wetlands and Shorelands, to Forest, Marais and Maquis, to mountains and rivers.

Placing poem and painting side by side is by no means new; associating them with birds also has a history. Drawing upon the National Library of Australia’s collection of bird prints, in the 2003 edition of Birds, Judith Wright accompanies each poem of a named bird with its illustration. The poems and lyrics of Bengali artist, poet, song writer, musician and religious mystic Rabindranath Tagore are often accompanied by paintings and drawings, for instance in Whisperings and The Crescent Moon.

* * *

Deep within the powerful journey a story from within the Earth rises in crescendo. It is a decade ago and the poet, a solitary figure, speaks from the Japanese Alps, a smoking volcano to his left. He awaits the sound of Japan’s most famous singing bird―uguisu, bush warbler. All is quiet; and the man remains still as a statue. And then comes a sound across a gully; its message rises. The poet turns in wonder to face the source among the rocks.


The stream of sound sprang out of the rocks.

It expanded as it reached me

washed about my face.


the uguisu’s presence was so strong—

volcanic, terrifying in its own way

you would have thought the melody

shot from a hot spring.

Oh there was a beauty to it but

beauty that was molten.


This sound-vision is a ‘rising melody from stone’.

At this moment the reader shares the belief that when a bird arrives into our space ‘it constitutes a burning moment in time’. The poet is drawing from the depths of his own imaginative powers. His experience multiplies at this moment in April 2011. In a perception stirred by the still fresh memory of events along the northeast coast of Japan in recent months, it’s as though the poet’s experience intensifies: beauty and danger come together.

Lines for Birds has been maturing over a decade. In response to an image in John Wolseley’s 2001 exhibition The Wallace Line, an image celebrating the union of beauty and savagery―an olive-backed oriole devouring a pawpaw―there came a poem. It was the first of many poems to birds by Barry Hill. Through the ensuing years a stream of poems and paintings followed it, carrying more and more a sense of the larger energies coiled ‘within the winged forms’. Lines is something like a bird’s eye view, as the authors tell us; yet one moving towards songs of Earth and birds and humans as ‘an ensemble’. The outcome is neither ‘a science of birds’, nor a ‘politically urgent’ book about their destruction.

‘Eagerly We Burn’, in which poem and painting give strength to one another, begins in the fire-struck scrub land of Victoria and New South Wales. The outcome, a song of burnt goodbyes―and of renewal.


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.


And here, after the fires

there’s amber growth from tubers

frisky ginger everywhere

tiger tufts from earth, a tricky life

those hakea have


disguising their spring. The reeds, too

and the spear of the Black Boy

its thrust of yellow flower is sweet

making greedy bees us

plus all the virgin greens—



Haiku as fire song

wilful syllables on one side of the mountain

whisper snowflakes on the other.

Brevities of opposites on each side of the scroll

make a singing space

for a regal honeyeater, look

is that one now?


Flame has charred its back

yet kept its yellow alight

it’s here but not really here

in country that’s been burnt.

If it died it would live in the lines you make.

Love marks the time, we can print the world in a dream

Of white on white.

Eagerly we burn.


Yes, the things we thought were gone are breathing again. Like trees of the Silver Gum Reserve near Marysville in Victoria: breathing, sending out shoots from lignotubers, nutrient-rich stems lying underground. These gums, perhaps a thousand years old, weren’t seen to be regenerating before the fires in February 2009. Now is a time of their renewal.

Over the last ten years John Wolseley has moved towards a graphic representation of bird song. Through sonograms created by passing the sound of bird song through a computer program, he graphed harmonic frequencies and the passage of time. Images of great beauty created in this way form an important part of his paintings here.

The combination of word and image and their interplay creates an intensity of perception and feeling that one or other alone might not reach so easily. And the two authors found the poems and paintings often changing places. The result is a work of art and harmonics in the widest sense, something resembling the birds in song within their dwellings. Thus uguisu sings from within a rocky habitat; one burning moment.

The conversation plumbs the depths of human understanding. It does so not only by two forms of artistic expression crossing over and changing places. There are deeper waters this duo fathom. The inspiration and the debt belong to thought and inspiration given in certain ancient texts. The authors write and paint as though the birds have taken them there―towards ‘reading nature’, towards an awareness of signs invisible before. Well, could it be otherwise―blessed as they are by the wisdom of Sufi philosopher and poet Farid ud-Din Attar, born in Persia sometime during the twelth century.

Attar’s poem, titled in English ‘The Conference of the Birds’, published by Penguin in 1984, is a multi-layered allegory about how humans should live. Interestingly, in an old Persian manuscript, drawings of each of the assembled birds accompanies the text of this very long poem in quest of Truth. Its technique has much in common with Dante’s Divine Comedy, moving as it does from the everyday world to the ineffable realm of the Absolute.

In Attar’s ‘Conference’, the birds had to be shown the Way―the Hoopoe’s birthright. The Hoopoe could see, ‘for it had the holy sign on it … They had to stir themselves to do the right thing, for the sake of everything’(my emphasis). The Hoopoe confronts the assembled birds one by one; he looks each in the eye, challenging it for the long journey that would ‘save itself on Earth from utter waste’. Fortunately for Earth, in Attar’s poem they were able to listen.

The Hoopoe is both guide and messenger. And reading nature is part of its strength. ‘My wits find water in the trackless waste’, the Hoopoe says to the gathered birds. In Barry Hill’s poem ‘Truth’, in Lines for Birds, we hear the Hoopoe speaking. The poem is like a direct descendant of Attar’s poetry; yet it is Hill’s poem, not Attar’s …


Water, water

you can hear the Hoopoe call—

water needs to flow like natural goodness

or else we lose our Way.

Is anyone listening?

Do the birds attend?


May this be read as an injunction to we humans today? Is the bird guide speaking to us? Telling us to read nature, perhaps less our wont than that of ancestors? Or of the Indigenous ones displaced by immigrant forebears? Is this what the authors mean by dreaming of a new conference of the birds?

Reading nature is by no means lost―neither to birds nor to humankind. In

‘Zebra Finch’, the third stanza reflects with wonder how birds know, how they ‘read’ the world, and the stories that go on walking in their sleep.



Somehow heard from miles off.

tickle their fancy:

how they know is a mystery

as is their futuristic new grass count—

patches timed for chicks.


And reading nature is everyday for some of humankind. In conversation with me over more than a decade from 1980, an old man at Mer/Murray Island, the homeland of Edward Koiki Mabo, distilled his experience of a lifetime in the words ‘I read nature for my book … and I know how to go about in my part of the world’. Such reading is all over these parts where the Meriam people listen to maisu mir, the whispering and resounding of the sea on the Great Barrier Reef that tells them whether to go out to sea or whether a storm is on its way.

Lines for Birds dazzles with shining moments tempered with quiet warning. The authors’ words are truthful. In ‘Wetlands and Shorelands’, where the bird ‘writes’ the wall, we sense how the beauty of the Earth may instil a wish to nurture and defend it.


I’d like to think that only now

does the dark lush of the birds shine as it should—

full of shimmer and as political as neon

or post-Copenhagen talk.


Somewhere here lies the collection’s singular strength. Have these two artists set a course on assembling their own conference of birds? This needs great care, partly not to intrude upon the deepest meanings of other cultures. Among those in our midst like the Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land, shimmering or biryun is sacred ancestral power that cannot be looked upon by everyday mortals. It is the pinnacle of the sacred and its deepest meanings belong to Yolngu.

Lines for Birds explores and discerns some deep truths partly buried in our own times. Its messages are just right for me at this moment in April where I am thinking out of southwest Tasmania’s ancient forests; forests seen in the brilliant light cast by the turbulent and still mighty Franklin River whose right to be was contested a generation ago. And the Styx forest of great trees, the Eucalyptus regnans, ‘a truthful place’ in Peter Cundall’s words, saved by the courage and steadfastness of human tree guardians. A place of phantasy and continued vigilance in nearby Florentine Forest. In among the eucalypts and fagus (Nothofagus gunnii), deciduous beech indigenous only to Tasmania, the spirits of before dance together with us. A place of hope well dreamt by Richard Flanagan’s drowned river guide: ‘He fell asleep and again dreamt of being rowed by two myrtle trees, except this time they rowed through the stars to the moon …’

Sitting beneath the vast gums I find Lines strong and at the same time calming. Telling stories about the earth, conversing and listening, harmonic and visual―a truthful conversation. Birds know where they are. April is the time when the little olive-green bush warbler Silvereye leaves Tasmania to winter on the mainland.

*Barry Hill and John Wolseley, Lines for Birds: Poems and Paintings, University of Western Australia Publishing, Crawley, 2011.

By Nonie Sharp

Nonie Sharp is an Arena Publications editor.

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