Poetry review – THE MULBERRY TREE: Mat Riches takes a thoughtful look at Clare Crossman’s final collection
The Mulberry Tree is Clare Crossman’s seventh book of poems, and her fourth with Shoestring Press. Sadly, it is also her last book as she passed away in 2021. Her obituary outlines her life and there’s a glowing tribute to her by her husband at the Poetry Society website.
The Mulberry Tree was completed before her death, but published after and it’s tempting to read it as a book of looking back, of setting memories in order, and, if that is the aim, it certainly succeeds. It travels across time and memory, achieving what the last lines of the epistolatory poem, ‘Two Letters’, describes as
Part of us folded between the pages, like calligraphy as we talked across distances in a slow hand.
The poems of this collection very much feel like part of that dialogue carried over onto the page, but while we are only seeing one half of the conversation, Crossman’s skill and the positions she takes mean that we are invited in, and shown enough to get a sense of the world she inhabits and the world that made her.
The book is divided into five sections, the first of which sees Crossman looking back at her childhood and the lives of her parents and her brother. It paints a picture that is, at first glance, rather an idyllic Pathé News-type picture of England in the 50s – all the jam and Jerusalem, etc. However, digging a little deeper we get the picture of a society still coming to terms with the war.
In the title poem, we are told in the first stanza
Nothing was ever wasted: elastic bands, old envelopes, paper bags put neatly away. It was because of the war, that might come back.
The sense of what was hanging over the children (and the adults) of that era is palpable throughout, and is ramped up in the final stanza
We were the future, held in photographs, bright against the day. The lucky ones, swinging on branches of a golden age; come out of a terrible knowledge, into a lengthening shade.
That “lengthening shade” and those photographs continue in the poems that follow, notably the second poem, ‘A Photograph’. This poem paints a picture peculiar to that era of “rinsed light” and “my brother and myself / in our hand-knitted cardigans”. However, what really stands out is the buttoned-up father. The second stanza portrays him:
In memory, my father is at the other end, with us in between. Owl glasses, bald head and serious face. But in reality he is absent – in his office, organising, writing letters, answering the phone. But perhaps it as lunchtime and he came home to eat a tomato and horseradish sandwich and take this photograph.
As with many of the poems in this book, there is a lot happening in this stanza,. At first glance we have a portrait of an absent or distracted parent, but dig a little deeper and we have an unreliable memory kicking in—”In memory” suggests it’s recollection and not reportage, and the father coming home to eat and to “take this photograph” suggests the views of someone older and realising the pressures of life. The final stanza of this poem encapsulates these thoughts, and is an evocative and beautiful warning to make sure we enjoy these simple moments. I won’t quote from it as I want you to go and read it.
The first section moves on through Crossman’s youth during the early 60s to the 70s…stopping outside the family on a friendship, one that you get the sense stays with Crossman for the rest of her life. In ‘A Friendship’ we meet two
Single girls, uncertain of who we are, we both come from ordinary places where time is seasons and the movement of the sun. We have read a lot of novels. How we translate our narratives will be the work of years.
There’s that theme again, and a sense of using the present to understand the past, and using the past to make sense of the present.
We know that Crossman’s family left Kent for Cumbria when she was 14, and this gives the second section of the book some context. It moves us from the urban references to “municipal gardens” and “Chelsea chimneys” in ‘Dandelions 1962’ and ‘Walton Street’, respectively, to ‘Chalk Stream Lullaby’ and its
…morning of pooled sun beside the crossing pole for travelling over. Water boatmen, hover flies, lift of a moorhen’s wing.
The world around Crossman becomes far more bucolic, but this does not generate nature poetry (not that this a bad thing). In ‘Bird Watching’, the protagonist lives alone and comes “home, after a day of listening / to other people’s stories” to a house where “everything / is as you left it”. The poem describes someone who appears to have chosen the solo life, “You like alone.” However, they aren’t an island.
In high summer you follow them wagtails, oystercatchers, swallows on the sweep of Norfolk marshes. Thinking of those you love and loved, on the sharp rising of their curves and tilt of wings.
The final stanza describes these birds as being able to “Define the air as they wish”, and a poem that comes a little later in this section seems to mimic the birds, while referring to Crossman herself. In ‘The Night Train’ we are told of how she might have ended up a working on the trains, travelling up and down the country, but the last few lines are
I wake up in the morning from a lullaby or a dream, somewhere else, touched and taken unable to look back, gone my own way.
Those last four words seem highly pertinent to how I imagine Crossman lived her life.
While the next two sections contain some fine poems, and excellent examples of nature poetry, it’s worth skipping on here to the final section because nothing that precedes us really prepares us for the last part of this collection, in which we are confronted by Crossman coming to terms with a diagnosis of cancer.
The section, subtitled ‘The Thickening’, sees her wrestling with the diagnosis, questioning the “thickness of cells, reinventing shape / rewriting who they are in these green days”. Has this whole book been Crossman rewriting who she is, remembering and setting down before she starts this new journey? As the final stanza has it in reference to a hawthorn in sunlight, “If I am leaving now. How will I begin / to become their beautiful light?” That deliberate use of the full stop after “now” is telling, a sense that this is not over, that the end is not decided is interesting in a poem called ‘Somebody Catch My Breath’. The poem is largely constructed in short sentences like this that create a breathy feel.
The section continues with poems of acceptance, and of friendships formed on oncology wards and during chemo treatments. We have the wonderful ‘Discussing Phillip Larkin In Oncology’ that wonders what the miserable old bugger would make of the modern world’s way of caring for cancer patients
[…] What would he have made of counselling? Head massage? The Macmillan pod? Something curmudgeonly.
In ‘Ward D9’, we see a group of women united by their treatments, finding some ways to have fun together as a “murmuration of rose-ringed parakeets, / plumed in our floral nightdresses, flashes of colour.” Later on, the poem shifts in the middle to a sense of fighting back.
We did not choose this, I and the other two women who delight in answering back. Neither victims not heroines. On this cancer ward between the sheet changes and the drips, we remain, flightless, piratical look down from the windows, shameless still hoping for air and spreading our wings.
At the centre of the collection is a poem called ‘Another Compass’. It is dedicated to a Dr. Deborah Talmi, who is currently working at the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge. Her work focuses on “Why do emotional experiences feel the way they do, and how do the feelings we have influence what we remember later on?” In the poem Crossman writes
We are not robots responding to the ringing of a bell or programmed by a digital code. But, plural, remembering the smallest things, knowing how to look: We make, remake, unmake cannot unseen what we have seen.
While arguably nothing prepare us for the final section of the book, it is perhaps because of this final section that all that precedes it starts to make sense.