Jan 31 2024
Poetry review – THE TURPENTINE TREE: Colin Pink finds himself drawn into a world re-created by Lynne Hjelmgaard’s poems of recollection
Lynne Hjelmgaard was born in New York City, married a Dane and has lived in Denmark teaching art to children. She has sailed across the Atlantic and around the Caribbean with her husband but now lives in Britain. In The Turpentine Tree she takes us on a journey through the realm of memories. The collection consists of vivid recollections (often triggered by photographs) of childhood, growing up and travelling in the USA, falling in love, having children and grandchildren, sailing, friendships and grieving the death of absent loved ones – in particular her husband and her partner in later life, the poet Dannie Abse.
The first section deals with childhood memories in the USA, mostly poignant memories of her father and mother.
Mother forms lonely fragments in memory. I think of her mostly with questions.
Of her father she recalls:
I used to meet him at the top of the subway stairs at 6pm – wait for his ghost-like face to emerge from the crowd, wait for his smile.
But there are also memories of the vulnerability of childhood, of walking ‘…the long way home // to bypass certain children, run up the steps of the bleak stairwell / instead of waiting for the whining lift’.
One of the most powerful of these poems is “Summer Camp” where Hjelmgaard remembers the rigours of attending camp in New York state in the 1960s:
All eyes upon her, we watch the girl being dragged outside to Flag Raising at 7.30am. Still in her underpants, she has refused to get ready one too many times.
They sing patriotic songs, learn to make their beds first thing in the morning and jump into a cold lake. The poet remembers: ‘I pray for a catastrophe like a flood or a drought / so we can all be sent home.’ Another striking poem is about an old black and white photograph of her mother as a college girl with:
waves of black hair held back with clips, prominent cheekbones. You seem to be facing the world head-on, stubborn, poised and ready…
This section ends with “From A Wardrobe” an exquisite poem about the significance of clothes: packing away her father’s old college sweatshirt after he passes away; as a child wearing her mother’s silk negligée and dancing dreamily to Johnny Mathis; later her husband ‘…adopting my long / woollen turquoise scarf… as if it had always belonged to him.’
The second section is about love, relationships, making connections, often while travelling and they are mostly tinged with sadness; for instance, in “In Paris”:
We talked about an imagined future, a trip around the world knowing we never would do it, the rest of the day spent in our room holding each other, holding the afternoon.
These love poems are haunted by a sense of the impermanence of existence; in “The View” a photograph of a dead lover is glimpsed reflected in a mirror and the poet is struck by ‘the shock of you / here and happening now’. In “For Dannie” she sees a young couple walking together and wonders:
Do they know the touch of a loved one can reach his beloved when he is no longer there? Do they know happiness has to be given back?
In another poem she reflects: ‘Mostly, I’ve been lucky, though I envy the innocence / of my twelve-year-old granddaughter who sings along / to the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s love songs…’
The third section opens with the poet trying to decipher her Danish husband’s journals, battered and stained, hard to read. In a horoscope made in Bombay in 1970 she tries to find herself in the section on marriage and family. Other poems feature memories of her children. “The Copenhagen Hair Salon” is a very charming poem about her daughter playing hair dresser with her mother as the customer. ‘She’d fuss over my long dark hair, throw a hand mirror / and magazines onto my lap… // She’d talk with other imaginary customers in the room / in her newly-formed language.’
In “Grandkids” she observes her grandchildren, their ‘arms, legs longer than yesterday, / their open faces waiting for my embrace.’ In “Two Photos” she contemplates pictures of her son, first as a boy and then as a man. She is conscious of ‘the thin wire tightrope of love. / You know it’s there / though sometimes you can’t walk it.’
Some of the most powerful poems are poems of mourning for her Danish husband. In “Annelise” she recalls squeezing the hand of her son during the funeral service and how, when she visits Denmark the language grasps her throat to ‘reach a hand way down inside my chest.’ In “The Photograph Answers” she asks:
Did we really exist? Yes – the photograph answers. A warm summer evening, sunlight crowning the top of our heads, the moon a dim shadow. We sat together, deeply engaged sharing the same thought.
With the indirect communication that is literature we eventually reach the universal through a deep immersion in the particular; and this is something these poems will provide for many readers, so that readers will often find themselves enjoying ‘sharing the same thought’ as the author.