The Flowering Tree
Claire – Dear Little Sister
Introduction: “The Cruel Madness of Love”
Love, wrote Shakespeare, “adds a precious seeing to the eye” because it “courses as swift as thought in every power” that humans possess. “Never durst poet touch a pen to write / Until his ink were tempered with Love’s sighs”: all these quotations come from Love’s Labour’s Lost (IV.3.i) but statements about love can be found throughout his work, as they can with every other major poet. This is hardly surprising. Love and death are the great subjects of poetry, from its beginnings to the present day. Love is the most desired of all human emotions, despite the trouble it brings, because it is the most powerful. Its only rival is grief, but even grief is a form of love. The reverse is not true. Love provides the standard subject-matter for the most durable of all poetic forms in English, the sonnet. Of course, love itself can take many forms – the love of God, the love of children, more broadly of family or a general love for humankind or for the environment, but the form celebrated on St Valentine’s Day is romantic love, and it is romantic love with which this anthology is concerned. Many of its poems were selected from those submitted to a Poetry d’Amour competition organised by the West Australian Poets Inc group.
In his famous poem Maud (1855) Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote of “the cruel madness of love” which would have “the passionate heart of the poet … whirled into folly and vice” (pt 1, sec 4). I do not detect a great deal of vice in the anthology’s poems but there is certainly a fair amount of “folly” and “cruel madness”. However, I still hold to the idea I once expressed in a poem that “the greatest folly” is “never to stoop / to folly at all”. In an even more extreme statement, and in the serious mode to which he was given, T S Eliot once asserted that in “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender” it was “by this, and this only, we have existed” (“The Waste Land”, V). Love certainly requires surrender, a letting go of the ego that almost everyone in our ego-encouraging society is willing to make, moving houses or countries, giving up jobs and every other part of their lives to secure it. In our ambiguous age we may be uncertain of values but we don’t doubt the value of love. Small wonder then that it can seem a form of “madness”. Although it has been experienced, examined and dissected for centuries, it retains a large element of mystery. Love is the state in which our emotions most completely swamp our rationality, so that poetry might well seem its natural mode. Even people who do not normally read poetry from one day to the next turn to it at weddings and other special occasions.
Love is, thus, territory ever open to exploration, even though it has been written about for centuries, but poets do need to find new ways to express that exploration. In some ways love is the most forbidding of poetic subjects: one moment of imaginative sleepiness or of insincerity and your words will slip back into the clichés of pop songs. The most sophisticated poems can be the most simple, and the poems in Poetry d’Amour range from the simple to the complex, with the complex poems often reflecting a degree of anguish about the loved one’s absence. Many of the poems come at their subject in surprising ways, the poet’s inventiveness with imagery and thought giving that required imaginativeness to an old subject.
The winning poems from the competition are printed first, and deserve some comment individually. The winning poem is Gail Willem’s “Broken Memory”.
Most successful love poems are poems of loss or longing and “Broken Memory” is no exception. It is an agonising poem whose meaning is gradually revealed and whose tones shift as the speaker’s thoughts move through bewilderment, sorrow, sad but satisfied memory, acceptance of present reality, anger, hurt, and a feeling of lostness – not in a linear way but twisting in and out of these recurring emotions. It is thus a psychologically complex poem, using the imagery of an old Holden and crows to surprising effect as “I” reaches out to a “you” who is beyond recognising her. It is an extraordinary poem that can present love as a “dim scream” and make it seem undeniably true.
Second prize was Vivienne Glance’s “The Flowering Tree”, a shape poem which reaches into Indian culture through a film or dance which presents a girl “who can change into a tree of jasmine flowers”. It is a gentle poem in which the speaker initially stands outside her story as an observer, merely an audience member, but who becomes so intrigued that he is drawn out of this dispassionate stance into a wondering empathy that leaves him, and the poem, with questions. The girl’s transformation into a tree gives her a different time scale and an ability to “converse with air and rain”. However, when she does so can she retain human capacities for empathy – can she “hear the rain-soft / children laugh?” Underlying this representation of metamorphosis are numerous implicit ideas, for love is the greatest experience of transformation we can experience, at least in this life. “The Flowering Tree” is a poem of questioning but joyful subtlety.
The three commended poems are very different from one another. One of the difficult aspects of love to represent – in film, paint, dance, words or any other medium – is sexual experience, but “Hinge” by Karen Murphy does so in a mature way, working with detailed sexual movement and a gasping use of line breaks. The poem captures both female and male movement until the point of orgasm. The key to success in such a poem lies in the detail and in getting the tone right; here there is no sensationalising or moralising, but the depiction of a human experience that seems simultaneously gentle and violent, and entirely natural.
Peter Bibby’s casual, simple title “The Invite” belies a poem, which is almost breathlessly complex. Its three seven-line stanzas comprise just one sentence as the speaker considers the complexity of his curiosity and fascination about what “you” does and is like away from him. He recognises his addiction to wondering about all this, is surprised and worried about it, and conveys it through a succession of images, of wind through fabric, of bodysurfing, of light and dusk and gifts – with all of it resolved “when you say come” and this psychologically complex person suddenly acts simply and obediently. The last line’s directness reflects the shift from complexity to simplicity but there is a sting in the tail when we reflect back to the title, since the last line seems to offer as much a command as an invitation.
The title of Sally Clarke’s poem“ Claire – Dear Little Sister” is a touch sentimental but one of the poem’s strengths is its delicate simplicity and willingness to risk sentimentality. The first line conveys a wonderful light physicality – “My fingers touch where yours have touched” – but this is in aid of thought about a person who can no longer be touched and other family members lost to the opposite of love: war. The speaker is enjoined through imagination with her sister and consequently they together with brothers killed at “the Front”. Nothing is forced in this poem; it is a courageous depiction of love and loss, which is ultimately enabled by its sensitive movement and aching, open vowelled last line.
The anthology closes with poems not drawn from the competition; some of these were solicited from established poets, and their work tends to be psychologically and technically intricate. In Glen Phillips’ “Poem for Everywoman” the quiet, controlled tone belies the shifts in roles the woman plays and the strong feelings they evoke in the speaker. Here the woman is the strong figure; the male is passive and awed, and gently ushered out at the end of the poem. Annamaria Weldon’s “The practice of belonging” provides a subtle pun on “practice” in its title and employs striking imagery (“headlands darker than lampblack, at rest / on a parchment sea”) to present love as a sense of belonging, to a person or place, by “letting go”, allowing them to inscribe themselves on the speaker’s self.
Even a poem of this degree of subtlety and thoughtfulness provides only an indicator of the varieties of love and its infiltration into our lives. The greatest of all popular music groups once sang “All you need is love”. It was an exaggeration: we need more than this, but need it we certainly do. This anthology is offered in the hope that readers will find somewhere in its contents an expression of feelings and ideas that will speak to and perhaps for them, in a way that they might not manage themselves.
The University of Western Australia
You and I stand eye to toe
your face tired mine spinning
with thoughts my breath
catching ice in my eye
your broken memory
two years two weeks two days ago
your mouth still trembled
I still Iitted you like a key
to the old Holden reclining
out back Iilling up with rust
amber lights stuck on wait
our life has changed
the closeness of our heartbeats
frail sidelong somehow
you hover a crow
that’s snagged the jagged pieces
swallowed the dim scream of love
the cries take little nicks out of me
licking up from every crack
I can hear you looking for something
pushing the dark pink air with
flaying wings behind a cracked windscreen
kicking it with curses
I’m lost in your memory
but you’re flapping around inside me
coming down like feathers out of nowhere
in cellophane air evening draws tight
here I am walking behind your eyes
searching your memory for an old Holden
and black crows
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The Flowering Tree
in my seat, eyes parched
by air-conditioned air in this sunless theatre
but my tears are gouged out by the flute’s ice-pick notes
the cello’s blistering pulse – and her endless, endless suffering.
I soak up her story, this Indian girl, who can change into a tree of jasmine flowers.
I moisten my face with the desperate beauty of her tale, how as a tree, she gives birth to endless blooms
to sell in the courtyard bazaar – an act of loving grace to the poor. But this tale of organic transformation
drills deeper than folklore. I imagine myself budding off blossoms, solidifying my legs into knotted bark,
splitting myself into leaves. To live at the pace of trees is to count seasons as days, to fold
into the earth, converse with air and rain, sing love songs to the sun and moon.
When she transforms
can she smell spiced
chai, feel vibrant silk,
hear the rain-soft
children laugh? And
when she returns to
human form, how
can she make love in
a bed, scented with
her own white petals?
It was that moment when
hip met thigh and the soft curve of
her bottom arched into hands, as his
fingers rose and opened underneath
her, grabbing flesh in small malleable
Of her skin, of her eyes, travelling across
the width of her eyelids, the soft brush
of her eyelashes, seeing inwards, he is
everywhere inside her, his palms
slow progress up her milky white stomach,
the gentle rise and fall of her breasts
as his hands press up against them, lifting
them towards her tilted chin, compressing
them into him as he rocks against her thighs,
spread open and perforated, he angles himself
with a small amount of flexibility and she rolls
her head back, raises her hips into him
and they rock gently, violently,
until the hinge breaks open
and they rock
Karen Louise Murphy
Curious though I am, as to where you walk,
Why you turn, what you think, like, hate –
Say not oppressively, say not in sycophancy
But as a westerly attentive
Running ripples through the fabric
Invisible in all except
Enlivening and cool effect;
Addicted though I am, to the outward track
You take, the next remark you make
Say not incessantly, say undercurrently
Just as a breaking wave’s embrace is
Constancy that buoys a swimmer
But the swimmer takes or leaves it
Drops her wrap and then retrieves it;
Unable though I am, to make sense of this
Desire to light the house of love
Say not too blindingly, say understatedly,
As dusk upon your skin, a visit
Without gifts that will always look too small
and when large be out of place —
everything’s resolved when you say come.
Claire – Dear Little Sister
My fingers touch where yours have touched
I know you in these yellowed pages
aged-brown ink and photographs,
from two dear brothers at the Front
and hopeful letters sent to them.
When both were killed,
these messages of love returned and,
gathered in one precious bundle
lay for years remembering.
My eyes read words that yours have read,
our mingled tears dry sorrow on the page,
your loss, your anguished heart becomes my own
and I cry with you, reach out to join
the aching empty arms of war.
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