Friday, 2 October 2020

The Presence and Presents of Trees - The IRON Book of Tree Poetry

I'm sitting here watching my silver birch turn yellow and rain leaves onto my garden. My next month of weekends will be taken up by raking and raking some more. I can set my seasonal clock by those birch, when they wake from our long winter, the allergies they give me in May, the green coins shaking above our hammock and their bare trunks shining in the midwinter dark. They appear in my Finnish poems regularly, a totem of my time here.

Like many other poets, I've written countless poems about trees or including trees. Something about their shape, movement, permanence and long life attracts the writer. I've written one just on how the leaves fell from a small stand of trees, trying hard not to use words normally connected with leaves or trees, but to become caught up in their dance. I've written about old trees and fallen trees, trees as a metaphor for growing old or for loss. One of my tutors offered a course using trees as inspiration last year and I decided against it because I couldn't imagine I had more to say about trees. 

This autumn, I was asked to review The IRON Book of Tree Poetry, edited by Eileen Jones and Peter Mortimer. I can now see that no matter how many ways a poet can look at a tree, there's always more to say, more to see. The collection includes more than 40 poets, some I'm familiar with such as Ken Cockburn and Rebecca Gethin, others new names. All offer a vast feast of language and images related to the theme. It may feel like a familiar subject, but it is examined through so many different lenses: sometimes up close, looking at a group or individual specimen or from the vantage point of a physical or a cultural setting, that the poems still managed to surprise me. At times, they turn back on the reader or humanity in general and say things that were uncomfortable to hear. 

Poems that examine new vistas on the presence, usage and importance of trees in our world. Poets who imagine being trees, who consider our inter-connection with them, who plant trees not for themselves, but for future generations. The trees gathered have names, personalities, places in history, in the landscape and in their poets' lives. Some feel like friends, others silent teachers, leading us to understanding. These poems are a 'copse of everything' to do with tree poetry, as Gill McEvoy says in her offering 'A Small Wood by the Sea'.

Not all the poems praise trees out-right. They acknowledge the complicated relationship humans have with trees: we use them, destroy them, pass them by everyday without truly noticing their beauty. Alan Lunt shows a humorous lack of love for the unusual species in 'Monkey Puzzle', "They're more like armoured skeletons than ordinary trees" while I've always found them amusing, especially after I learned their names. We connect to some trees more than others.

With a darker, more introspective note in 'Rhododendrons at Stapleford Wood', Celia McCulloch examines the plant's place in the British landscape and our treatment of it. Her stark comparisons with the current political upheaval around immigration rings uncomfortably true: "We ethnic-cleanse the woods of these dark, flamboyant strangers". It makes me second guess my reasons for recently removing an awkward one from my garden and replacing it with a horse chestnut.

Other poems feel comforting and familiar, a walk through a grove we have long visited, while some bedazzle with their rich language and shifting focus like the two poems by Katrina Porteous:

                 Climbing out of a ruin, a tangle of spikes
                           Snagged by the wash-pool, 

                                                       It corkscrews,
                                                   Crone-like,
                                                       Into debatable air.

                                                                   'Quickthorn'                    

Other poems take novel views of the relationship between trees and people by intertwining their stories and culture as in John Willby's heart-wrenching poem 'That Tree’s Mother Saved My Life' and Pauline Plummer's 'The Baobab'. They remind us that trees stretch beyond our lifetime, offering more than background for our experiences. 

With the upsurge of interest in rewilding, climate change and  our co-existence with the natural world this book's release is timely, but I really enjoyed the well-rounded view of the poems, looking at more than just trees' environmental impact. The book turns towards the resonance trees offer with our inner worlds, those spaces where poetry resides. 

Follow more on Facebook @Ironfestival for more reviews and details of the book and its blog tour.



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