When the Tree Falls: A Review
his time is precious as a dry spell
when there’s silage to be cut
Jane Clarke’s second collection When the Tree Falls records her father’s life passing through its final season. The narrative is centred around country living and goes about its business with astounding grace and balance.
Clarke does not treat the land as something made for poetry: reared on the farm, its rhythms and rituals are hers. Expressing her father’s illness through familiar, concrete imagery gives her poems a striking and tender sincerity: her father becomes “a frightened bullock”, his fever coming on “as fast as nightfall in winter”; the insidious spread of his cancer is later likened to “The way couch grass takes hold of a garden,/ spreads seeds, runners, white rhizomes/ long before we notice”.
These poems do not use poetry to obscure or detract from the reality of her father’s illness and death. Rather, they root one reality in another: connecting her loss to his life, his life to the farm, the farm to her life. Because life must go on, especially when there are animals to be birthed and tended, and fences to be checked and mended. And so, this collection is one full of cycles and routines in which life and death come and go, in the natural way.
If a tree falls in a wood and no-one hears it, does it make a sound? The question is meant to challenge our perception of sound: the tree falling is irrefutable. Clarke recognises love is thus: not a gathering of empty words, hollow laments, or fervent declarations, but simple, indisputable, acts of care, and attention; holding hands, shaving, visiting the cows. Love is integral to this collection, the only absolute present:
When he falls asleep
at the kitchen table and drops
another cup, my mother bends
without a word, sweeps up
the broken pieces in her hands,
looking out for shards in case
he wanders barefoot in the night.
People who don’t say much tend to say exactly what they mean, and Clarke captures the poetry in the brevity of her friends and neighbours by letting them speak for themselves through her beautifully rendered, but otherwise unadorned, accounts:
fill the kitchen with the man
they knew, a grand man altogether,
always out early, hardy as a wild duck,
a good judge of a bullock, fierce man
to work, he had woeful hands,
a man of his word.
That said, she also acknowledges how this same silence caused untold suffering and grief for thousands of men, women, and children growing up in Ireland. In ‘In Glasnevin’ she considers two lovers consigned as friends on their headstone, wondering whether the demarcation was their choice or their fate:
faithful comrade, lifelong friend,
reminds me of my grandmother
who used to say there was none of that
in her day.
In ‘Polling Station’, written in mind of the abortion referendum which took place in Ireland on May 25th 2018, the conversation in the queue outside may be friendly, even light-hearted, but:
No one asks anyone where they’ll place their X-
every family has stories, left like ploughs
and harrows among thistles behind the sheds.
The poems that draw the collection to its close very much encapsulate the pragmatic, even convivial, spirit the Irish espouse when it comes to death: as with so much “it happens quickly/ in the end”, and they “agree they couldn’t have/ a better day for digging a grave”.
Clarke’s confidences are few, and the poems that do speak of grief and hardship do not dwell on them:
Not that those months
minding him were easy
but compared to this
they were white
and pink-splashed blossoms
on briar roses in June
This distancing allows the reader to share the circumstances of the poem, without becoming overwhelmed by them, making it a collection that provides genuine comfort and solace.
Clarke recognises and records the poetry in her life. These poems are rich and earthy, natural and cultivated, and When the Tree Falls is a beautiful second collection, giving the reader not only a sense of loss, but also peace, and even joy, in the quiet memories that live on here:
When he asks to get up
I hold his wrists,
brace my weight against his.
For a moment he’s confused –
It’s okay Janey, I’ve got you,
Go on now, you can stand.
When the Tree Falls. Jane Clarke; Bloodaxe Books, 2019. £9.95