Poetry review – TREE: Pat Edwards appreciates a moving collection by Natalie Whittaker
With its striking front cover and stark title, Tree is a journey into one woman’s painful experience of stillbirth, as short and impactful as the life it commemorates. The poet uses the imagery of trees to help us understand the growth, the significance, the beauty of human life and how it is cyclical, continuous, bound up in beginnings and endings.
The opening poem, ‘tree’, imagined as a gentle conversation with the unborn child, is profound in its yearning, and is sublimely answered by the closing poem, ’spring’, where the now dead child urges her mother “live live live”. These poems and many others in the sequence are resonant with the seasons and how these echo a couple’s excitement and expectation of their child. The hint of healing and hope in the final poem suggest that, even after the seeming finality of death, re-emergence into light is nature’s way.
It is strange and very upsetting that the poems take the reader to places that at first may feel familiar: counselling sessions; funerals; hospital; medical terminology; sleepless nights; Google research. Some of us will have experienced these but not all of us will know such things in relation to the loss of a child. In ‘Sands’, we sit amongst the “broken moth women” surrounded by the ordinariness of a community hall with its nasty plastic chairs, and hear the harrowing tales of Carly, Vicky, and Tasha who have all lost babies. The double spacing between the phrases in this poem feels like the stumbling recollections of the women at the support group meeting, and the gaps left by each of their individual losses. Other poems use the same device to powerful effect, feeling like the cracks into which we can all fall when bad things happen.
In ‘the first week’, Whittaker mixes flowers, flies, blood, milk, stones – all natural and beautiful in one context – but each becomes a symbol of bereavement when seen in relation to a woman denied her new-born baby and the family life she might have had. The poem ‘departures’ in three parts, first following the couple as they leave the hospital immediately after their trauma, then showing the funeral and finally looking back at young lovers parting on a train platform. In each section leaving is at the core, the sense of being ‘without’, the weight and burden caused by the pain of having to leave something or someone behind. The repeated use of lower case and minimal punctuation helps to remove the superfluous, the self-importance of convention and rules, taking us right to the heart of what the poet wants to say.
Like everyone, Whittaker has to go back to the routine of her normal life and try to pick up the pieces. She is an English teacher and her students are studying GCSE set texts, lines from which become “landmines/waiting under fields” ready to “detonate/where everything is already broken”. Here the poet conveys with utter poignancy how the lines suddenly take on new meaning and catch her out unawares.
This short pamphlet captures brilliantly the fragility of our existence, and brings together the miracle of life and reminders of how quickly and cruelly it can be lost. The writing is shockingly raw and unflinching, each poem flowering for a moment and then fading away or exploding like “a bomb has gone off” inside us. Yet I think we cannot help but return to ‘spring’ and its “contagion of blossom/a pink blooming” and feel the necessity to cling on to hope and renewal. Perhaps this is writing where poetry shows itself as catharsis and a real source of comfort to everyone who mourns.