Northwords Now Issue 35

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Tree standing small

By Helen Allison (Clochoderick Press)

A Review by Lesley Harrison

When was the last time a book of poems actually made you cry?

I read my review copy; then had to wait a week or so until I’d pulled myself together before going back to it to write this review.  Tree Standing Small is a collection of poems that grew out of the deaths of Helen Allison’s parents.  It concerns not just the actual matter of death, and the way your childhood rushes towards you when your parents start to die; but the unsettling way they start to relive parts of their lives from before you were even born.

But this is not a maudlin book.  These things have presence; they are set in the very midst of life.  Nor is this a sentimentalised hagiography: the account of her father proposing to her mother as she pees in a building site is hysterical - a great story for a funeral.

Allison is a master of the metaphor that paints a thousand words.  Her parents flitted north to Moray, and “Glasgow shrank to a buttonhole”.  “The book of grief turns its own pages”, she writes of her widowed mum, “her sleeves full of doves … a sea of blankets / waiting to be crossed”.   A tree, hacked down, leaves “his songs hung in the throats of birds”.  Her trick of replacing “it” with “he” or “she” signals to us how she sees the whole process as one with the life forces of the world.

All through, nature gives us our place in the universe.  A barn owl hits a motorcyclist, who then continues its flight through the forest.  Grief is movement.  When her parents come back (as they do) in dreams, they are passing through on a day trip without her; or are black holes in the cosmos which are just about to draw her in.  All these themes are summed up beautifully in the first poem The Gooseberry Tree, which I found I had to return to after reading the final one, Last Light.  The order of these poems recreates the trajectory of bereavement: the swirl of sense and memory and bare grief, and astonishment at the new - the sea rain at Scourie, “the jetty’s red lifebelt like lipstick / on a saint”.

All credit to Clochoderick Press for publishing these sad, poignant, uncomfortable and joyous poems.