Peter Larkin has been publishing poems about trees for almost 40 years, yet with each new collection he brings fresh perspectives. This arises in part from his close attention to trees, an attention which he invites us as readers to share. It is also nourished by his interest in scientific research into trees and forests, and recent philosophical debate on the non-human and our relationship to it.
In his latest volume, Encroach to Resume, ‘Bodies the Trees of’ is a good example of the way science informs the poetry. The poem takes as its principal source The Body Language of Trees: A Handbook for Failure Analysis by Claus Mattheck and Helge Breloer, a book given to Larkin by J H Prynne. The handbook is focused on the hazards that trees can pose: how they break, why they break, and why sometimes they break when we don’t expect them to. The authors identify a series of indicators of stress and potential failure, the ‘body language’ of the title.
Larkin has written before about the interaction of a tree with its environment and how this shapes the eventual form a tree takes. In ‘Bodies the Trees of’ he explores the idea of a tree being the record of the various vicissitudes it has had to negotiate through its life. Each response a tree makes to stress generates potential lines of fracture. Thus ‘cracks radiate, the root-swerve revolves describes (sub-writes) a blow’ (para 2) and ‘silent signs render screams to seams’ (para 4). ‘Sub-writes’ here evokes ‘underwrite’ (risk insurance), and ‘screams’ suggests both the sound of sheering timber and the cry of someone struck by a falling branch.
The poem goes on to explore various aspects of potential stresses which might cause failure, and the way in cities we deal with risks through pruning and felling, constraining ‘branches in harness’. It also generalises this image of vulnerability to say something about our own being in the world. In paragraph 7 we read: ‘excessive stalling into shape trees share horizons of the body across all the unsheltered flesh of the world’.
A very different poem is ‘Given Trees Their Other Side of Nature’, a text which engages explicitly in metaphysical speculation. The poem is prefaced by three epigraphs, the first from Rilke’s Erlebnis in which the subject of the text wonders if he has been ‘transported to the other side of Nature’. This is followed by the environmental philosopher Bruce V. Foltz asserting that ‘the other side of nature is the side that allows it to be more than…our own production. The other side is the side we sense but do not see…’. The third epigraph is from Emily Dickinson: ‘I could not find a privacy/from Nature’s sentinels –‘.
The sense of there being an otherness in nature, a numinous presence we scarcely apprehend, is a common theme in Larkin’s work. This for him is not a transcendent reality but something we experience phenomenologically, however mysteriously. Thus in the seventh section of the poem Larkin writes: ‘Nature’s other side no less born, sensory only as its gift bestirs a fragility not quite nearby but companionate burden’. In the central part of section 10 we read:
at a dimensionless
in welts of belonging
prongs of the trees
smack at nature’s
It is through the material presence of trees that we have a sense of this otherness. Section 9 includes the line:
No such erasure without a raised other side, what is not a lid hidden only as leanest against, supportive until obstructive enough for prayer
Larkin has made increasing use of the word ‘prayer’ in his poetry in recent years, though who or what is praying in the poems is often ambiguous. Personal pronouns appear rarely in his work. Here he speaks of prayer ‘not bridging but a thrown (penetrating) embankment, its own least-beyond-from-which’ (section 1). Ultimately it is prayer, understood as a reaching towards, which retains the initiative in this poem, rather than metaphysical argument.
‘As a Tree Not a Tree’ is another fine poem which anticipates many of the themes in ‘Given Trees’. I enjoyed the subtle ambiguities explored here, the sense of a tree containing what is literally ‘not tree’ while also being more than ‘tree’ in a metaphysical or spiritual sense – that a tree ‘shelters what it is not’. Four other poems on various tree-related themes make up the collection as a whole.
Larkin’s texts are challenging, demanding work from the reader. The ideas he explores are often subtle. But the effort is worth making. The global environmental emergency we confront demands of us a very different way of being in the world. Larkin’ poetry is an invitation to reflect on what that might feel like.
Simon Collings 13th May 2021