Channel: Poetry | The Guardian
Viewing all articles
Browse latest Browse all 3815

Poem of the week: The Year of the Tree by Katherine Gallagher


Nature and mythology combine in this playful account of lugging an oak tree through the London Underground

The author of this week's poem, Katherine Gallagher, was born in 1935 in Maldon, a gold-mining town in central Victoria, Australia, and grew up on a farm in nearby Eastville. She lived in Paris for a number of years before settling in the UK in 1979. The journey in "The Year of the Tree" is, by contrast, a modest one, confined to the London Underground. But it seems to have larger journeys, like tree rings, wrapped and compressed inside it.

The narrative, laid out in spare, short-lined couplets, begins with an arresting hook. As in some of those parables written by eastern European poets in the past century there's a faintly surreal scenario ("I carried a tree/ through the underground") presented in a simple, deadpan style. But while plain, the diction is pointed. "It was hard" immediately describes the effort of carrying the tree, but extends to the tree's texture and rigidity. The picture we first imagine – of a whole tree being carried – is intended: at least, this tree doesn't turn out to be a sapling tucked away in a plastic bag. It's "heavier than a suitcase" and possibly human-size, as seems borne out by the use of the pronoun "we" at the beginning of stanza five.

Typical commuter behaviour is observed as part of the background story. People "scarcely noticed" the unusual duo at first – or perhaps, being seasoned Tube-travellers, they quietly pretended to scarcely notice. Then a few bold spirits venture the reader's own question: "Why a tree?"

The little vision of tree carrying as a daily "rite" may be a tease, but it adds a dimension and further direction to the poem. The answer to "Why a tree?" is deliberately humorous. That prim, Latinate abstract noun "edification" has grabbed a whole line, mocking its own self-importance. Yet the word is far from hollow: it expands on the existing potential of the tree for building, with a notion of self-building. The following stanza is less tongue-in-cheek: "A tree always/ has something to teach." This may nod towards Gallagher's Irish heritage, and the Celtic tradition of the oak as a source of wisdom. Also, despite its un-fussed and coolly playful tone, by evoking the difficulty of "lugging" the tree along, the poem is inevitably a reminder of the Christian significance of tree-carrying.

New sounds occur in the next stanza: the "sharp gusts" which "whirred" (an unusual verb choice) along the Underground's corridors, making the branches rustle. The rustling here is a good detail, and a little ambiguous because, while the tree is destined for replanting (and living foliage, of course, can rustle) the verb is usually associated with autumn and dead, dried-out leaves. The observation that the sweepers are picking up "scraps of paper" – one of the end-products of the timber industry – enhances this idea. The sweepers, nicely in character, are polite but anxious that the tree shouldn't be left behind – the image of the tree as unwanted litter is not far away.

There doesn't seem to have been a Year of the Tree in the UK, though the UN declared 2011 the International Year of Forests. Gallagher's poem was written considerably earlier. However, her title alerts us to the irony in such well-meaning designations. A mere year of tree awareness would hardly save the planet's forests. It's a mark of the poet's tact and gentle humour that an environmental message is present: potent but not preached. Her oak tree retains an older, mythical resonance.

We never see the speaker emerging into daylight so as to fulfil her intention of starting a forest in her garden. We don't even see her boarding a train. At the end of the poem, speaker and tree are still in transit, and the curiosity shown by the other travellers has edged towards paranoia, judging by the comment "Relax…/ it's a tree, not a gun".

The poem's story has characteristics of a quest, as corridors and escalators are endlessly traversed and questions posed and answered. The shadowy setting hints at a deeper underground, perhaps: the underworld.

Descents into the underworld recall the Orpheus myth, among others. Oaks were the trees that tore up their roots so as to follow the singer-poet's music to the seashore, and Euridice herself was an oak-tree nymph. Orpheus's music is a kind of peaceable weapon, calming and taming ("… a tree, not a gun"). Though one of the charms of "The Year of the Tree" is its light touch, its mythical elements form a strong underpinning. The oak tree seems a fitting symbol of both the natural and inner worlds we neglect at our own risk, of the past lives and journeys we carry with us as we travel, and the importance of holding on to these riches, though they may single us out for scrutiny or be otherwise heavy and "difficult to balance".

• "The Year of the Tree" appears in Gallagher's fifth full-length collection Carnival Edge: New and Selected Poems, published by Arc, who will bring out a new volume of her work in 2014.

The Year of the Tree

I carried a tree
through the Underground.

It was hard. At first,
people scarcely noticed me

and the oak I was lugging
along the platforms –

heavier than a suitcase
and difficult to balance.

We threaded through corridors,
changing lines: up and down stairs,

escalators, and for a moment
I imagined everyone on the planet

taking turns
to carry a tree as daily rite.

A few people asked
Why a tree?

I said it was for my own
edification –

a tree always
has something to teach.

Sharp gusts
whirred through the corridors

rustling the branches
as I hurried on

past the sweepers
picking up rubbish, scraps of paper.

Be sure to take the tree
with you
, they said.

Don't worry, I'm taking it
to my garden,

the start of a forest.
When people stared,

Relax, I said,
it's a tree, not a gun.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Viewing all articles
Browse latest Browse all 3815

Latest Images

Trending Articles

Latest Images