Anthologies, like woods, are places to return to. Their contents linger in the mind as one feels the urge to revisit a particular location. From childhood’s world onwards trees can be very important as places of refuge, tree-houses, and doors of escape: Sherwood Forest is quite ingrained in the British consciousness as a mapped out world of freedom and secrecy. Anthologies are reflections of their editors and they represent a very particular bringing together of poems which repay being looked at again and again: they are books, like memories, to be carried around with one. This new publication containing some sixty poems is no exception and it could not come at a better time: look at the website and buy a copy for Christmas!
One of my favourites is Ern Strang’s ‘Prisoner Writing Home’:
“The view is open only so far
and does not include the sea.
Beside him, the bed
and a letter to his mother
or his father or his brother.
Does it matter?
There is one tree in the cell,
a thin sapling birch
that glints in the light
like church bells glint…”
In Dickens’s novel Little Dorrit we are introduced to the ‘little fiction’ by means of which Mrs Plornish escapes from the confined living premises of London’s Bleeding Heart Yard near Clerkenwell. This infernal region of London is made up of large houses which are divided up into tenements and Mrs Plornish brings up her family inside a cramped living-space from which she escapes by a leap of the imagination:
This poetical heightening of the parlour consisted in the wall being painted to represent the exterior of a thatched cottage; the artist having introduced (in as effective a manner as he found compatible with their highly disproportioned dimensions) the real door and window. The modest sunflower and hollyhock were depicted as flourishing with great luxuriance on this rustic dwelling, while a quantity of dense smoke issuing from the chimney indicated good cheer within, and also, perhaps, that it had not been lately swept. A faithful dog was represented as flying at the legs of the friendly visitor, from the threshold; and a circular pigeon-house, enveloped in a cloud of pigeons, arose from behind the garden-paling.
For the inhabitants of this claustrophobic tenement which exists below the level of the main streets of London this interior decoration is ‘a most wonderful deception’ and ‘it made no difference that Mrs Plornish’s eye was some inches above the level of the gable bed-room in the thatch’. A more recent adaptation of this theme is of course the film ‘Shawshank Redemption’ in which a man escapes from confinement by tunnelling physically through the wall which is decorated with a picture: imagination leaps through stone. In Ern Strang’s poem the tree’s shadow thrown upon a wall possesses the capacity to “grow / through concrete”.
On the opposite page from this poem there is Harriet Fraser’s ‘View from a Manchester flat’ in which a window
“…looked onto other windows
a straight-line scene, bricks, metal, glass,
littered corners, a sleepless hum of cars”
But as if to alleviate the sense of monotonous repetition in this outlook “there was, to make me smile”
“a single slender tree, a birch,
its branches close enough
if I stretched beyond the sill
That past tense of “was” casts its own shadow over the following lines and the poem moves inexorably towards a conclusion which possesses a sense of inevitability:
“One day, I came home and found it gone.
Sawdust and twigs, ignored discards,
and the hacked stump, a raw full stop
of life cut short.”
The “hack and rack” of “growing green” which asserts a sense of human responsibility in Hopkins’s ‘Binsey Poplars’ (‘felled 1879’) is felt here and the loss projects itself into a future in which the poet wonders how she could tell her children’s children “that once there were trees”.
To plant a tree is an act of faith and Peter Carpenter’s poem, ‘Tree in the Garden’, records the planting of an alder which his wife had brought back from a local shop some ten years ago. The tree has “come on / from a stave sheathed in cellophane / to something with a trunk the girth / of a telegraph pole…”. Now, next to the London Road it
“…gives its pick
and mix shadows, like Pisarro in Norwood.”
A palimpsest nature of the past glimpses at the viewer of Pisarro’s early gouache sketch of ‘The Avenue, Sydenham’, 1871. That sketch was made as an early study for the oil painting which hangs in the National Gallery and it reveals a female figure whose “pentimenti could be seen / still on the gravel, advancing towards me, / as a darker stain” (Peter Robinson, ‘Lawrie Park Avenue’ published by Shearsman Books in The Returning Sky, 2012) Robinson’s poem makes us aware of a stillness residing in a frame as an erased past shadows forth into the stillness of the poem’s present before concluding:
But lacking such things to do with the past,
like this figure he had painted out
who fills the air with an indelible stain,
there’d be no possibilities.
They thicken into leaf, his flanking trees.
Look, now, it’s as plain as plain.
Peter Robinson’s contribution to this new Worple anthology takes its title from Heidegger’s late work Die Holzwege (Off the Beaten Track) and it concludes with the line
“and how the tree survives on trust!”
This echoes perhaps a line from Heidegger’s essay ‘Why Poets?’ from off that beaten track:
“Mortals keep closer to absence (if we think of their essence) because they are concerned by presence, the name of being since antiquity.”
Ian Brinton, 13th December 2017, St Lucy’s Day.