‘Like a root in arid ground’: what poems about trees might tell us

Walking in south-east London last weekend, I found myself looking up at a magnificent Dutch elm tree. I’ve been looking for elms for years. Mature elms are rare in the UK, of course, having been all but wiped out by the Dutch elm disease of the 1960s and 70s – said to have destroyed around 20 million trees. Seeing this living tree, I thought of the lost medieval town of Dunwich, which W.G. Sebald describes disappearing into the sea in The Rings of Saturn. Like the lost bell of the church ringing outwards into our present.

A Dutch or possibly white elm

Recently, I’ve been reading the twentieth-century Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. Looking back on her youth, she wrote:

“Man’s voice held no sweetness for me,
but I understood the wind.
I loved the burdock and the nettles
But above all the silver willow. […]
Strange – I outlived it.
A stump grows there now…”

Anna Akhmatova, ‘Willow’ (1940)

This put me in mind of other poems about trees. In her poem, ‘The Black Walnut Tree’, the late American poet Mary Oliver debates with her mother whether to sell their old walnut tree to the lumberman. For the sake of their “fathers out of Bohemia/ filling the blue fields/ of fresh and generous Ohio,” they can’t bring themselves to have it felled, “so the black walnut tree/ swings through another year/ of sun and leaping winds […] and month after month, the whip-/ crack of the mortgage.”

Seamus Heaney, in the sonnet cycle ‘Clearances’ – written after his mother died in 1984 – describes an old chestnut he had grown from a jam-jar as a child: “…the crack and sigh/ And collapse […]/ the shocked tips and wreckage of it all” (‘Clearances 8’). In a visionary poem ‘The Wishing Tree’, from the same collection, he imagines his mother as a tree lifted into heaven:

“Trailing a shower of all that had been driven

Need by need by need into its hale
Sap-wood and bark: coin and pin and nail
came streaming from it like a comet tail

New-minted and dissolved…”

Heaney, ‘The wishing Tree’ from The Haw Lantern (1987)

If it dies, it brings forth much fruit’:

What might we learn from these poets? From Akhmatova (the most tragic, and in some ways romantic of the three), a sense of the hard cycle of her own life set against the tree; from Mary Oliver also, independence and doggedness of spirit. And from Heaney, his great gift for elegy. From all three, the restorative power of the landscape; a love of the natural world for its own sake. All seem to prefer to see a tree standing, but should one fall, it will deliver up certain secrets, a full measure shaken together and pressed down, in proportion to the gifts of each poet.

At times it seems there’s a certain synchronicity or grace that sustains us – the way trees are not entirely singular, but essentially live in communities. It is now known, for instance, that groups of trees can feed each other through their root systems.

This poem is for my sister on her birthday.   

 

After Anna Akhmatova

Strange – I outlived it.

You came back, all seemed
re-arranged. Familiar cherries
no longer standing. The reddish

glossy bark – a brief synaptic-
flash. Where you moved –
the mirror was heavy, but not the light.

The North Sea is not the Atlantic.

Still, a child now is dreaming | through
the face you held at five.

                        *
The saplings we planted
in late-adolescence – the birch
and mountain ash – are thick-

set now, less easily swayed. Though

the Atlantic is not the Pacific:
the mirror is heavy | not the light.

References:

I previously wrote about Seamus Heaney here: https://benedictgilbert.com/2020/07/21/known-and-strange-things-two-poems-by-seamus-heaney/

Anna Akhmatova, Selected Poems, Trans. Richard McKane (Penguin, 1969)
Mark Strand & Eavan Boland (Eds.), The Making of a Poem (Norton, 2000)
Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber, 1987)

Further reading: Elaine Feinstein’s excellent biography, Anna of All the Russias (2005), is well-worth reading.

You can find the tree here: https://ladywellfields.blogspot.com/p/tree-walk.html

© Benedict Gilbert 2020

 

‘Known and strange things’: two poems by Seamus Heaney

I. Postscript:

“I always felt you earned your living,” Seamus Heaney has said, “and your poetry was a grace” (Out of the Marvellous). The poem ‘Postscript’ is the final in his first collection written after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. It seemed to come as a gift to the poet: “Now and again a poem comes like that, like a ball kicked in from nowhere. […] before I knew where I was, I went after it” (Stepping Stones, p. 366). The poem opens as if mid-thought, the tone gently assertive:

“And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October when the wind
And the light are working off each other…”

‘Postscript’, The Spirit Level, 1996

He seems to catch the ‘speedy feel’ (Stepping Stones) of the wind, the lake, the Irish west-coast (“wild with foam and glitter”), the swans (“their feathers ruffed and ruffling, white on white”). The opening eleven lines, of what is essentially a poem in blank verse, form a single sentence in which Heaney opens up his gift for marrying the lyrical and the vernacular. His metaphors are so effortless as to seem almost organic, and to grow out of his physical descriptions: “The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit/ By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans.” The poem shifts and becomes weightier at the point at which he pauses to counsel:

“Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass…”

‘Postscript’

The very physicality of words is at play here like the plosive sibilance of the Atlantic – the soft boom and wash. As is his gift for idiomatic language slipping and losing traction in the mouth, even as it is spoken. In seeking out new meanings, the often throw-away phrase neither here nor there is given new life. The self he addresses is both emptied, then filled, with the experience of the natural world. The poem ends as Heaney describes the “big, soft buffetings” that “catch the heart off-guard, and blow it open.”

II. The Blackbird of Glanmore:

A decade later Heaney wrote another poem in which his experience of the natural world is mediated from inside a vehicle. The closing poem of his collection District & Circle (2006), ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ describes a more domestic setting (the Heaney family home of Glanmore cottage in County Wicklow). He addresses the blackbird directly: “On the grass when I arrive, filling the stillness with life… It is you, blackbird, I love.”

The poet moves effortlessly from the present moment (“I park, pause, take heed./ Breathe. Just breathe and sit”) into the past of his own writing-life:

“And lines I once translated come back:
‘I want away to the house of death, to my father

Under the low clay roof.’”

‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, District & Circle (2006)

This association then allows him to remember his four year-old brother, Christopher, killed in a road accident in the early 1950s when the young Seamus was away at grammar school. “And I think of one gone to him,/ A little stillness-dancer…” The allusion ‘I want away to the house of death’ is to his translation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, although Heaney may have also been thinking of his own on-going translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Aeneas visits the spirit of his father in the underworld:

“Let me take your hand, my father, O let me and do not
Hold back from my embrace. And as he spoke he wept.
Three times he tried to reach his arms around that neck.”

Aeneid, Book VI, lines 940—42, p. 38

Heaney’s own father died in 1986, and the poet describes his life-long love of Virgil’s poem as intensifying from this time onwards.    

Again, he moves effortlessly through time. This time from the past back to the present by remembering the superstitious words of a neighbour about a bird on the shed roof, ‘I said nothing at the time/ But I never liked yon bird.’ This archaic voice from the past (and with it the bird as ill-omen) are silenced in a near-cinematic moment: “The automatic door clunks shut.” Back in the present, the speaker gets out of the car and describes the aerial or ‘bird’s-eye view’ of himself as “a shadow on raked gravel/ In front of my house of life.” The poem, then, is one of life and death. Of breath and shadows. But far from an ill-omen, the blackbird is a sign of life and renewal.

Interestingly, when Aeneas enters the underworld, he does so at a place called Avernus, ‘place without birds’ (Aeneid, Book VI, lines 320—21). It seems natural that Heaney would associate birds with life. But we don’t need the classics to tell us this. In a strange moment of synchronicity, it is Sunday afternoon and a blackbird appears down among the cobble-stones and gravel as I’m writing. And again this morning after a heavy summer storm last night. A bird I’ve not seen here before. Or perhaps I’ve not been paying close enough attention. Heaney’s lines come back with their undaunted bird-like animation:

“Your ready talk-back,
Your each stand-offish come-back,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.”

‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’

References in this post:

Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous (Produced by Charlie McCarthy), An Icebox films production for RTE, Ireland.
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Dennis O’ Driscoll (Faber & Faber, 2008)
Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (Faber, 1996)
S.H., District & Circle (Faber, 2006)
Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI (SH. Trans., Faber, 2016 – published posthumously)
Sophocles’ Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy (SH, trans., Faber, 1990)
Heaney wrote about his brother in the poem ‘Mid-Term Break’, in Death of a Naturalist (1966), his first collection

NB. I previously suggested that Heaney’s father died in 1987. However, a haiku the poet wrote entitled I.I.87, suggests that he died in 1986.

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Blog content: © Benedict Gilbert 2020