Peter Larkin, Leaves of Field
Published 15 September 2006 Shearsman / Paperback, 116pp, 8"x5", £8.95 / $15 / ISBN-10 0907562973; ISBN-13 9780907562979
Reviewed by Edmund Hardy
"Trees in leaf have such a vast proportion more of surface than those that are naked, that, in theory, their condensations should greatly exceed those that are stripped of their leaves; but, as the former imbibe also a great quantity of moisture, it is difficult to say which drip most: but this I know, that deciduous trees that are entwined with much ivy seem to distil the greatest quantity." Gilbert White's observation, in a letter dated Feb 7, 1776, posits two ideas: that trees are distillation mechanisms, "perfect alembics" as he wrote elsewhere; and, in passing, that trees dress and undress – White's autumn diaries note when each species did "begin to go naked". White has seen the ivy's effect, he tells us; thus, the sentence itself distils: the thick & glossy ivy waters the ground.
Peter Larkin stays resolutely on that "vast proportion more of surface": he is interested in leaves, stalks and roots. Larkin does not describe trees as naked though he does talk of veils and "undergarb of drenched shoot".
Larkin's is a punctilious poetry of the leafily adamant. The prefatory note to the title sequence begins by asking
How does, once supposed, the standing tree emerge from a more primary field of leaves? This isn't to keep trunk and branches always sliding, always afloat: on the contrary, it is field which launches touch-down, lays up or overlays what is driven down to earth. These selvages of field generate horizons once on the earth. What happens, then, when a field becomes leaves?"
'Leaves of Field' is a long sequence of short prose pieces, thin strips down the page. The trees and the woodland fields are not specified, apart from a brief envoi of late leaves and early leaves. The poetry speaks of Leaf with a vocabulary which runs the gamut of vein, root and stalk words, as well as incorporating things which are almost metaphors, such as a "staddle" (which supports a rick), spectral leaves of grass; there is not, however, a particular use of scientific vocabulary – e.g. "cellulated pastes" may be mentioned but this remains a non-technical talk however grounded in biological understanding. A heterophenomenology of forest, then, of that perimeter which springs up on untended ground.
What is a field? Colons and semi-colons allow an over-laying of clauses, a style which Larkin elaborates on so that the overlaying is also an up-laying, apposition as the stalk or peduncle of sentence. Flakes of field circling round and round a perceiving middle.
Leaf has always had its sessions in primaries for another, with feathers of derived feeding, nurture which subsi-abides over root. Crying born canopy was weft for pervading, root-pinnacled in cascading about stalk. A shade fills to turbulence their cloud-urbs of tree, forms-of or astride a foot, its roofish decorum of awning's rotaed flake of root.
"Forest" is a legal term, the area in which people could be prosecuted for breaking Forest Law; so a medieval map showing a forest may also outline the coopertura foreste, "covert of the Forest", within the forest, and that is the physical forest which is the modern meaning of the word. As with the staddle, Larkin sometimes chooses words which bring other fields into play, as the leaves become a screen.
Neglect how in real leaf the surface changes when unfolding, not how it stitches petition to earth when unfielding.
Two further sequences, 'Open Woods' and 'Moving Woods', alternate prose with little poems or tails. From leaf to woodland, an emphasis falls on management, timber, wood-pasture, clearance.
Where woodland is generator the stimulus might be a seared interior, there flames of clearance don't invoke passage. This mode of opening shakes out the rides, goes over exposure through adherence to sheer vehicle of site.
While we're alive, suggested William Carlos Williams, we retain an interest in trees; only on our final stretcher might we join with the poet's English Grandmother, in the ambulance, and ask,
What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I'm tired
of them and rolled her head away.