Like all good people, I like trees, and I like poetry; well, good poetry anyway. And if that poetry somehow involves trees – think Binsey Poplars, Bare Almond Trees, Birches, Elm and so on - then so much the better; nothing like the synergy of combined passions.
So to Tree, by Ursula Hurley, a self-described ‘nature poet’, one for whom the natural world provides ‘endless material’ and for whom each poem is ‘another attempt to capture an impression of the wonders that surround us’, in this collection, via forty ‘rich, passionate and intelligent poems’ exploring the ‘city/nature interface … celebrating the elemental and modern’.
Despite the blurb, with its unnecessary striving for ‘contemporary relevance’, I’m encouraged. After all, isn’t much of the best and most relevant English poetry, from the Old English Maxims to Ted Hughes, essentially rooted in the bucolic tradition? And don’t forget. I like trees. So here we go.
The opening, eponymous poem, a paean to an unspecified tree, gets the collection off to an uncertain start, setting the tone for the collection as a whole. Some evocative images (the ‘blue fire’ of magpies’ wings, ‘brocades of moss and lichens’) are juxtaposed with the over-adjectival, gratuitously metaphorical striving-for-effect of self-consciously ‘creative writing’ (‘gnarled dun bark’, a magpie’s nest in the tree’s branches compared, unaptly, to ‘an oyster proudly bearing its pearl’). The sub-Wordsworthian protagonism of the final two stanzas, ‘If I could touch you/tree … then I would know/your breathing leaves’ strikes a false note (think the last stanza of Hughes’ Horses, or Heaney’s The Tolllund Man (‘Some day I will go to Aarhus’) and is essentially meaningless; faux-wistful echt-poetic posturing.
Equinox, an imagistic sequence of enjambed haiku-like stanzas, shares with Tree the desire to capture the moment’, but stumbles due to imprecision (‘gawky greenfinches’), clumsy syntax (‘Sliding away towards winter earth turns’), and pedestrian phrasing (‘Dahlias glow black-red’). However, the ‘wings catching rainbows’ of the ‘inebriated’ crash-landed bee is vivid and evocative.
In her quest to ‘capture an impression of the wonders that surround us’, Hurley often strives for the snap-shot compression of haiku-like forms. The six short, alternately indented lines of Sun and mountain are certainly evocative, but ultimately empty of real meaning, and with the two-line Hope – ‘The sky clear-pale and cold-grey/A vase of daffodils upon a clean windowsill’ – you wonder what the point is.
You are an airport, I am soap, seems to be about a failed relationship – he’s flown off and she’s washed her hands of him - and although it contains some striking writing, particularly the last stanza (‘Possibilities whispered through plastic bags snared/in the branches of the ash tree’), it is ultimately too disparate in imagery and too personal in reference to connect with any power. The title and punning epigraph ‘For Lax from LUx’ come across as a little bit too-clever.
Many poems are more ‘experimental’ in form and use of language. The imagistic Black bird, with its peculiar spacing of words and lines has the appearance of a ‘shape poem’ and contains the excellent lines, ‘everything quivers with vitreous light/shadows sliding/along greasy pavements’. The Black bird (sic?), holding a red berry in its yellow bill is vivid; however, the apparently arbitrary form, puzzling punctuation and the use of the verb ‘leaks’ to unaptly describe music heard from a open van-window, undermine.
The central poem of Tree and by far the longest, is the three-section, three-and-a –half-page Cathedral notes. In an interview with ‘partner in poetry’ Andrew Taylor at poetrymagazines.org, Hurley indicates that the genesis of the poem lay in a challenge from Taylor to Hurley to respond poetically to Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, a place of significance to Taylor she had come to regard as ‘spiritually oppressive’. Parts I and II narrate the speaker’s unease in journeying to the Cathedral; however, these sections are ultimately unsatisfactory, as there is no clue at all why the speaker should be uneasy and consequently both sections read as preambling, excursive travelogues.
We have to wait until section III before explanations are given to account for the speaker’s unease: three are advanced: the speaker’s fear of others recognizing her ‘pagan soul’; her self-ascribed unworthiness in the eyes and opinions of the presumed devout; and, the feeling of physical or spiritual oppression engendered by the scale (‘enormity of the space above’) of the cathedral. However there is a distinct lack of content and intensity to this ‘crisis’; it’s just not convincing (perhaps she could’ve generated some tension by having the speaker break out into a projectile vomiting fit on sight of the holy building, like young Damien Thorn - his Dad was the original pagan soul). The poem ends, bizarrely and bathetically, with the speaker seeming to hope that she’ll get a poem out of the visit – ‘Hoping/that this space/will germinate words’. Is that it? Has experience itself no value, meaning or merit? Or is it just a sequence of poem opportunities? Poems are not ends-in-themselves.
And yet, there some real quality in Tree. Poems like I will pick flowers for you – ‘old chard and nasturtiums knocked sprawling by frost’; ‘Water dripped from the chestnut/tree, dying assuredly yet outliving us all. We gathered/conkers on the dark lawn/Needing to hold life in our hands and keep it’ – are the real thing. Hurley can certainly write - but I’m not sure she’s yet got anything to say. In these poems she comes across as a tourist of her own experience, and as a result, her sensibility is trapped in the reactive promiscuity of occasional verse.
There are many trees in Tree, but Hurley hasn’t really made any of them her own. Hopkins’ lament for the felled poplars at Binsey was not so much an ecological protest poem about trees, but a displaced expression of the aesthetic and spiritual crisis that dominated his sensibility; Plath’s violent and disturbing Elm parades her familiar demons and is only in point-of-departure a ‘response’ to a tree; in the extended metaphor of Birches, Frost rehearses another of the misanthropic generalizations on the human condition that is his defining characteristic. Perhaps Hurley needs to forget about ‘responding’ to trees and cathedrals and such-like and begin to write herself.
-review by SE