Robert Nisbet admires a strong and deeply touching collection by Sue Millardashtree

Ash Tree
Sue Millard
ISBN 978-0-9569469-8-0

Ash Tree is both record and testament, a depiction of the grief and love surrounding the poet’s loss of her grand-daughter Naomi, just short of her sixth birthday and after a two-year illness.

There have been various poetry collections about bereavements, notably Douglas Dunn’s Elegies, and, while readers will always be moved by the grief, so much is involved in the quality of the telling. I don’t mean “technique” exactly (for “technique” is such a cold word), more a quality of artistic tact and sensitivity, the ability of an author (and one which is wonderfully present here) to present the confused mass of events and emotions without falsity, succinctly and with feeling.

Although the book’s 19 poems move broadly chronologically, we are conscious of endless fluctuation as the poet’s moods shift so hugely from despair to love to hope. The volume contains a few poems (‘Search Bar’, ‘Ariadne’ and Doses’) whose content and images are stark: they are dominated by drugs and shadows and fear. They are harsh poems, close to being unpalatable, but they are an essential ballast, a base from which the poet and her poems can rise towards a genuinely cathartic achievement.

There is also the powerful poem ‘Godless’, in which the voice of desperation exclaims, There is no god in heaven … I’ve torn the god idea / out of its smug blue sky. And then we learn of the poet’s one sustaining faith, in the call of blood, the bond of kin.

Throughout the body of the book we read of the abiding and ultimately consoling presence of the natural world, which is ever there, both as counterpoint and complement. The poet wishes at one point that the mare she is riding might gallop Naomi away, to a swift and perfect death / to cheat the miserable length of dying. Fledgling swallows, tiny and vulnerable, can be picked up by the poet to shelter / the mystery / that should fly to Africa, and hope.

The sudden relieving draught of nature caught me most strongly in two beautiful moments, first of all in ‘Many waters’, with a truly memorable closing stanza: Hush the goodbyes. I shall watch / while your river flows to the falls / and try to smile for you. Likewise, at the end of the penultimate poem, the poet, who has been dreaming of a rain which is now cloth-soft and without passion, says, When I woke, it had rained in truth – / sweetly cleansed all, / like a baptism.

The collection’s dominant motif is that of the ash tree of the title and the title poem. The tree is rotten and must be cut down but at this point we have sadly to contrast the clean-cut mercy of the saw which awaits the tree, with the cruelty of Naomi’s treatment. But a healing note is heard in the final poem, ‘Phoenix from the Ash’, when we read of the tree’s roots dug in and her twigs stoutly bursting into life. Only then do we read of Naomi’s new brother soon to be climbing on the tree’s stump and the poet can now recall how / she danced up there, in purple and in pink.

This is a fitting climax to a touching and beautiful book.