two tree notes

1. Jeremy Reed, Selected Poems (Penguin). This is from the period in the 80s when he came in from the cold, though he didn't stay.

     Two (buoys) I see wintering
     at grass in a shipping yard,
     veterans of long wars,
     their grizzled tonsures hard

     with resilience, awaiting
     new paint, their cyclopean
     eyeballs gone rusty from staring
     unlidded at the ocean.

Judgments of this period are inevitably flecked with judgments of the political shift (in poetry terms). Setting that aside, so far as it's possible, this poetry continues to amaze me.

"Winter Mullet" (from Nero, 1985) has the author solitarily fishing the warm outflows of a power station and it climaxes in a truly outré simile:

     I stay on, the cold chaps my fingers red,
     its pimpling's like dried beads of black hemlock,
     the fish have tightened now into a head,...

OK, so hemlock (Conium maculatum) is a common umbelliferous plant with a mousey smell and wine-spotted stems, highly toxic and evidently the source of the poison that was used to execute Socrates. (See
Enid Bloch's essay
Hemlock Poisoning and the Death of Socrates: Did Plato Tell the Truth?
.) It can also be used therapeutically, but hardly ever is because of the low therapeutic index.

Black hemlock is an alternative name for mountain hemlock, Tsuga mertensiana, a decorative tree of no great utility from the snowlines of the Rockies. The hemlocks are a genus of mostly New World coniferous trees that gained their name from a supposed resemblance of the scent of the foliage to hemlock.

It's from another of these, the Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), that the substance "black hemlock" (hemlock pitch, Pix Canadensis) used by perfumers and herbalists is made - it's made from the resin.

The name, of course, is replete with darkly glamorous potential. Thus Linda Pilkington's Ormande Jayne fragrance Ormande Woman uses black hemlock as one of its materials, and her publicity positively encourages a confusion with "Socrates' chosen poison". Likewise Boudicca's Wode is advertised as containing an extract of Queen Boadicea's death-potion. It's from here that the phrase "black hemlock" has slipped into popular culture, re-emerging in that popular piece of costume jewellery for Goths, the black hemlock poison ring, a large black crystal hingeing to reveal a secret compartment beneath it. It even turns up in footy talk, in this surprising demonstration of why Seneca was a Southampton supporter and all Saints fans are Stoics (red blood, white toga, black hemlock - get it?).

That artificial injection of West End glam seems entirely appropriate to Reed's poetry but what does he mean specifically? He must be referring to the herbalist's resinous substance, his numbed fingers feeling when they touch each other like they are touching, not each other, but something alien between them, while the poet takes on the semi-comatose trance of the fish themselves and is caught in shock by a man's torchbeam. But this simile is more important for its effect in focussing attention on the poet's conflicted performance than for its descriptive meaning. And though his swarming winter mullet are nearly as memorable as the lashing conger eel (in another of these poems), it's the performance that is mainly what I think is so compulsive about the mainstream Reed.



     Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
     The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
     And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
     What we below could not see, Winter pass.

     Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

(The text as it's generally published, e.g. where I found it, in Country Verses, edited by Samuel Carr, 1979. Text is from 66 poems, except for the title and the hyphen in "elm-tops".)

     10 iii 16
     Going home

     Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
     The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
     And saw from elm tops, delicate as flower of grass,
     What we below could not see, Winter pass.

(from Notebook containing drafts of 66 poems, 25th June 1915 - 24th December 1916. The capitalization of "Winter" is hesitant.)


     Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
     The speculating rooks at their nests cawed,
     And saw from elm-tops delicate as flower of grass,
     What we below could not see, winter pass

(from Notebook containing drafts of 27 poems, 1916.)


     OVER the land half freckled with snow half-thawed
     The speculating rooks at their nests cawed,
     And saw from elm-tops, delicate as a flower of grass,
     What we below could not see, Winter pass.

(from - internet representation, introducing casual changes.) I do appreciate "half freckled" - it's more accurate than what Thomas wrote. Because if the snow is freckly in one part of the view you can bet there's others where it's either all snow or all clear. But in another way this modernizes the poem, because we now take for granted an English landscape that is much more open than it was in the days of the elms. Thomas' point was that, being down at ground-level, humans couldn't really see the bigger pattern in the way that the rooks could. Not that the "point" is really what makes the poem tick - the final line doesn't repay much reading, it's just an enabler. The force of the poem really lies elsewhere: "cawed / And saw" mysteriously evokes the scrambling activity of the rooks; "speculating", while partly evoking the comical appearance of the rook's face (from a distance) also emphasizes that comical solemnity (that term follows inevitably) is exactly inappropriate to their manner, that there is a total difference between animal experience and human experience, that their posited wisdom/superior vantage point is a wisdom beyond and quite unlike the wisdom of solemn old gazers in human society.

Thomas wrote this poem near Sevenoaks. He had already enlisted, but wasn't sent to France until November 1916 - he was killed in action soon after arriving at the front in April 1917.

As Thomas's poem confirms, up to the 1970s the rookery-tree of choice in southern England was usually an English Elm (Ulmus procera). This was because the elm was a hedgerow tree and it overlooked the rookery's feeding-grounds, which is what rooks want (the size of a rookery matches the acreage very precisely). Coincidentally or not, the upswept shape of the elm crown rather resembles the shape of the hybrid poplars that rooks favour these days. As for Thomas' image of "flower of grass" - though this comes in to the poem mainly for its unseasonable breath of midsummer - the distant edges of the winter elm-crown do have a tufty look that could vaguely suggest the panicles of meadow-grass or Yorkshire fog in their open state. I am basing that remark on photos. To see it today, you would pretty much have to go to the Brighton enclave, where the council chose, uniquely but successfully, to preserve their elms by watchfully cutting away diseased limbs whenever they appeared: a far-sighted decision that saved a lot of money as well as the traditional appearance of Brighton's streets.


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