The Conversation of Trees
The Conversation of Trees is Vanessa Kirkpatrick’s second poetry collection and it builds on the themes of her prize-winning first, To Catch the Light: human connection and dislocation, and the relation between the human subject and the natural world. This is a poetic of delicate observation, a gently rendered imagery which carries a reader through leaves and air, touch and breath, a listening to the ‘conversations of trees’ and an exploration of the questions of love, loss, art and empathy. Kirkpatrick’s eco-poetic and lyrical work opens up a fertile and liminal space in which to consider intimacy – between lovers, friends, a mother and her child – and where the closely observed and felt world is recognised in all its alterity but also for what it might say to the human animal who is moving amongst it.
The poems are anchored by a sense of joy, such as is celebrated when a child comes into language, tasting the world and the word at the same time:
You chant round vowels, crisp consonants, feel the fullness of ‘apple’ purling on your tongue.
In ‘The Three Oaks’, the child’s engagement with the world and the expression of it through language is reinforced by the observations of the mother who has brought her into ‘Dodona’s grove’, this ‘deep pool / of shade beneath the oaks’. The natural world is perceived as a place of mystery, a language as yet unlearned – and Kirkpatrick frequently uses mythic tropes to reinforce this – and, in this attenuated state where the child ‘rubs her eyes / and waits for sleep’, her mother listens hard to read and to understand this radically different mode of communication:
I trace the braille of lenticles, hear leaves shuffling like pages of an ancient book. … How to net this music into words? The leaves speak only when they touch.
In the title poem, ‘The Conversation of Trees’, the poet refers to this quasi mystical state where the observer might be able to understand the language of trees – whose ‘Veins flow with verdant knowledge. / Roots delve and keen the past / while branches search far constellations’ – as ‘taking the green’. This concept can be understood literally, such as when the foal bends her head to the green clover; it can also be understood as the state in which otherness might be truly heard, the gulf between the listener and the ‘different voices’ of the trees closed as much as possible – as when the novitiate takes the veil and moves into a different relationship with the physical and the spiritual world:
Like the lowly swineherd, Caedmon, stealing from his stalls to press an ear against the choruses of monks I stand with the door ajar unknowing, yet spellbound by these strange, pure tongues and I wonder if I too might one day find the music of my soul’s flute and take the green and love entirely.
However, ‘the green’ doesn’t only bring connection; as the poet notes, ‘nature’s / dual conceits / of timelessness and change’ (16), mean that at least part of that strange music involves a recognition of loss and mortality. What is born, what constitutes the fertility of engagement between people (‘When we touch / the warmth dissolves / all edges’, 9), will also come undone – through the seasons of death and change. There are a number of poems which chronicle such loss: the lost light of childhood in ‘The Window’ (10), the long-ago moment of the death of her brother in ‘Unravelling’ (33); the poems for Rob Curtis, such as ‘The Colour of Touch’, in which the space of dreaming – the ‘one moment / the full moon lingers / on the world’s shoulder’ – is the only way to return to that lost state of connection, ‘My ear on your heart’ (52). The beautiful poem, ‘This Long Night’ takes us further into this space, dark ‘with the weight of memories’. Spread out across the page, its two parts reach and almost touch each other, weaving together these two apparently contradictory elements: the faces ‘I have known’ and the ‘oncoming tide of anonymous faces’, 'the roots of trees,’ and the trees ‘bending in a breeze’:
At dawn I am motionless as dark angels of regret enter my room their hands open and warm on my skin.
The longer poem, ‘Letters from Eurydice’ (57) takes up the mythic form of this trope – that art, epitomised by the lover-poet Orpheus, is almost, but not quite, powerful enough to turn back the tides of death and less. Adopting a similar voice to that used by American modernist, H.D. in her poem ‘Eurydice’, Kirkpatrick speaks from the position of the lost love – her recognition of the weariness that comes from impossible longing and the ego of the poet who, in the end, was unable to recognise her: ‘your glance has sealed my fate / and the shadows moved, only for you’ (61).
The Conversation of Trees takes us to a place which is in between, where one order of things perceives another, where fingers almost touch. This can be seen graphically in ‘Littoral’, as coast and bush almost overlap:
A salty tang drifts between the tall trunks of spotted gums. I can almost hear the leaves fall across our path. They catch the light more loudly than what you are saying through silence.
The collection’s final poem ‘Liminal’ (66) brings together the key themes of connection and transience, winter and summer, distress and peace. ‘No sooner than I touch you / with these words, we will be gone’, the poet writes, recognising both the strength and the limitations of her craft, as well as the advice which she takes from the earth: ‘In each birth, she whispers, a loss’. In this liminal sphere, the poet allows us to see both ways – to try and make our peace with the inevitability of darkness and cessation by adopting the listening, observing position of the poet, to find ‘that deep inhalation of the mind / [which] lingers a moment on silence, / observing the edges of things’.
Vanessa Kirkpatrick, The Conversation of Trees. Katoomba, NSW: Hope Street Press, 2017. ISBN:9780995365230