Peter Larkin, Give Forest Its Next Portent. Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-84861-384-3
What is it to be tree, wood, coppice, root tangle, to be inflected, to arch? My feeling as I have been reading Give Forest Its Next Portent is that Peter Larkin is creating language, and densities of word and form, solidities and spaces, to open up potential responses to such a question. What might this portend for a forest, and for the poet and reader who contemplates the kinds of things trees and their communicative amassing in forests enact? What can the poet, or the reader under the imperative ‘Give’, give to the future of the forest?
Larkin’s book has been for me a slow read because each of its parts becomes an invitation to contemplation of resonances of living wood; even when it is separated from its living plant, it creates in situ a habitus for other life. Give Forest is in seven parts, each a long poem of several sections: ‘Brushwood By Inflection’; ‘exposure (A Tree) presents’; ‘Sparse Reach Stretches the Field’; ‘Arch the Apartness / \ Proffering Trees’; ‘Hollow Allow Woods’; ‘Trees Not Tending Leaves’; ‘praying // firs \\ attenuate’. Each section begins with several short epigraphs, including from Theodor Adorno, the Gospel of Luke and theologian John Milbank. Several sections include an opening note, to explain terms or images, such as ‘inflection’: ‘The “inflection point” on a branch is where the direction of curve outwards changes to the direction of curve upwards, and is usually a play-off between elastic bending and thickening growth’ (9). These notes sometimes tend toward prose poems in themselves.
The style of the poetry varies from lines of fully justified text (prose poem-like) interspersed with short-lined free verse stanzas, to series of couplets and prose poems of several pages. What stands out is the vocabulary, the play of nouns and verbs and their evocation of place and other-than-human being. There is a contemplative, detailed and somewhat uncanny gaze at work here that translates in the poems into an aural scape that, in its excess of signification, unsettles human self-presumption. Or so it was for this reader.
In the first long poem, ‘Brushwood By Inflection’, inflection is a place of bend, time and gift. The tree of its first section scatters, gives. There is a dense, on-moving evocation of the chaotic, given underlay of brushwood fallen from trees. The use of language draws the reader into this piling up and spilling out of the cast off wood. Section two introduces mechanistic things cutting open and wounding. In section three, a long prose poem, a ‘we’ enters along with sacral allusion. There is a sense of différance in the tree, and the ‘tree is subject to not belonging to the network it projects but is brushed from flesh to flesh at the woundlessness of inflection itself’ (30). Section four, opening out to couplets and the visual space these provide, speaks of ‘decisions of a tree’ (32) and concludes ‘brush the event from its tree’ (34). The ambiguity of ‘brush’ – as a verb, to efface or clear perhaps, but as a noun the tree’s gift – is characteristic of Larkin’s style in this collection and effective as a way of unsettling expectations and challenging the reader to think further and become other. These are not cheap puns.
‘exposure (A Tree) presents’, the second poem, gives the reader root as lens (39) and evokes the rates of the processes of tree-ing (40). Can a reader bend into becoming tree?
a stance raking forward what diminishment thins in shared
vertical attire …
intimate gash intricate
mesh, open chute
its root, focal
blockade at branch
There are echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ in the poet’s delight in excesses of language, and perhaps also something of James Joyce: ‘Seatage of root makes suit to sweep the leap’ (41).
A human gaze is confounded, multiplied, in Jean-Luc Marion’s parlance, ‘saturated’. Plants are languaged in these poems but not speaking; this is a kind of English of the ‘being given’ of a thing being opened:
being riven as crack
fixity of the given
until it awns open-
toll from the stutter
upon vertical abutment
This is poetry as philosophical (and theological) companion and critique.
The agency and rationalities of trees, as part of the complex inter-agencies and reason of woods, can be read here, ‘where the tree itself pauses’ (45) and roots have logic (46). Again a kind of tree-y différance is suggested (51), and the proposition of an arboreal sublime: ‘the tree’s brusqued heel of transcendence’ (51-52). As reader, I am pressed to consider what an arboreal economics might look like (54-57). The sequence closes ‘before / an horizon immense at its other than replete’ (57).
With the language and imagery of gift and givenness, healing and growth, ‘exposure (A Tree) presents’ also speaks of privation and scarcity. This idea becomes central to ‘Sparse Reach Stretches the Field’, and the reader understands the ‘scar’ in ‘scarcity’, the ‘degradation of forest’ (62). There are echoes of the insight of Robert Pogue Harrison’s Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, when Larkin writes for example:
we stand on the threshold of a post-scarcity remit as the city expands faster than its own needlessness of site at frail stretch at last for patience with poorly endowed patina on any convertible placing from cone of branch to the field-spasm of horizontal woodland subsumed from outlier a debris of fore-brandished choked relay
How is the writer reponsible in relation to ‘trees pencil phobes by / natural graphic scratch’ (65) or ‘the field starved enough to publish’ (66) when ‘every cast bud [is] taking its spare tree chance’ (73)? The final section of ‘Sparse Reach Stretches the Field’ brilliantly conjures not only the agency of trees but more deeply the possibility of trees’ assent (or yes), where scarcity calls forth, for good or ill, a kind of ‘making-do’ (74-80).
The deconstructive (in a Derridean sense) of the arboreal recurs in ‘Arch the Apartness / \ Proffering Trees’:
exilic road projects
like particles its underease
or between-arch to sense a
beginner greenish hue of
Deconstruction, though, might mean not only the way language works to undo itself, but also the way humans work to undo worlds, often the worlds of other creatures. The poem concludes with an image of interstices:
of arch compelling itself
in ease of apartness
stood to betweens
The fifth poem, ‘Hollow Allow Woods’, explains the author’s note, responds to the ‘shallow quarry which forms an under-bowl to woodland … of the flat hollow(s) of Mear’s Plantation’ and a nearby barn and cottages, all ‘half a mile south of Hillesley in Gloucestershire’ (104). The ‘predominant flora [of this quarry] is ash, sweet chestnut, and … beech with an understorey of old man’s beard, hart’s tongue and shadow-stinted bramble’ (104). Absence recurs as a theme here:
extraction wasn’t wide enough
for infinity but steeped bluntly
local down a flank
no mouth for trees
a hollow is deserted
transience crossing (too
The hollow is hollow and not. There remains an impulse toward co-agential growth coterminous with a counter-impulse: ‘If a crater were outlived forever it would still borrow this blister scope of tree against faults of sky out hunting for it …’ (138).
As its title suggests, the penultimate poem, ‘Trees Not Tending Leaves’, shifts the focus to leaves:
… leaves breathe-in unchested not
fringed but ranged in coils counter-tuned to be sheer leaf at
handling a tablet of micro-weather
Where many trees are deciduous:
loss of leaf is not lack of leaf but the main shower of
implication a spate of retention grounded in jettison
The final poem, ‘praying // firs \\ attenuate’, turns us to the possibility of trees at prayer
praying firs to the
of their office
and arboreal invocation, yet also of what human prayer might be with trees, and prayer as (not like a) tree.
how to plant prayer on its
raked scope, offer a leap
from rampant sediment, what
will become a neck of fir
where ‘Prayer takes the flightpath of a world not yet cleared of trees’ and where the reader is instructed
do not pray
in the guise of another
instilment let the
firs be their own
surplus of salience
The poems in Give Forest Its Next Portent speak both tenderness and a robust (almost austere) passion for the more-than-human forest. On the occasions where ‘we’ enters the poems it is ambiguous. Is the tree or the human voice of the poet speaking? What does the ‘we’ suggest: ‘contrition’ or its lack (79) or human presence mimicking trees (99), perhaps an irrecoverable distance embedded in the gaze-word of approach to the other? This is a book of dense language which presses the reader to attend to the arboreal other. To write about such a complex and innovative work is inevitably to get it wrong, to read into what the poems convey. The style of Larkin’s writing is saturated, conveying an excess of meaning, calling forth what Marion describes as a counter-experience, in this case a counter-experience mediated through Larkin’s contemplative engagement with trees as they exercise agency in a world where human agents so often appear to dominate, a world where trees however stretched and stressed are central players. I found the final stanzas of ‘praying // firs \\ attenuate’ deeply moving. Tolle lege.
Anne Elvey is Managing Editor of Plumwood Mountain journal. Among her poetry publications are Kin (Five Islands 2014), This Flesh That You Know (Leaf Press 2015), Intatto/Intact (with Massimo D’Arcangelo and Helen Moore; La Vita Felice 2017) and White on White (Cordite Books, forthcoming 2018). She holds honorary appointments at Monash University and University of Divinity, Melbourne.