Tree, Natalie Whittaker
Verve Press, 2021 £7.50
Innocence and Loss
Natalie Whittaker’s second pamphlet, Tree, explores stillbirth, a ‘subject rarely addressed in poetry’, as one reviewer has noted. The poet pays particular attention to themes of seasons and time, often as a juxtaposition to the violence and bleakness of grief.
The opening poem, ‘tree’, appropriately begins:
on the path to the station
there’s a tree that marks the seasons
Trees, the poet implies, rescue us even in the core of a built-up, concrete city. They are the true clock:
look baby blossom
look baby leaves
look baby autumn
Simple language has a striking effect here.The poem then becomes more disconcerting with the words:
bare branches are faulty umbilical cords
This strangely echoes Hardy’s description of winter branches as ‘strings of broken lyres’. But the idea of ‘branches as faulty umbilical cords’ feels anti-lyrical, interestingly ugly, and chimes well with how we might experience winter or grief.
There’s an obsessiveness in Whittaker’s concentration on the subject of time, with images of tides and waves often called upon to express precise moods. In ‘16:44’, for example, ‘morphine dragged me under a wave’; ‘my girl lay sleeping / she was a chipped blue pebble / on a frozen beach’.
And in ‘05:07’:
the tide washes back strands me alone
In this way, human and inhuman are pitted against each other, with the latter providing a vast backdrop and drama, highlighting the fragility of the human.
There’s painful tenderness, too, in the time-bound ‘departures’ (the second poem in a sequence) where ‘we’ ‘leave the funeral without our baby / leave her in the white coffin’, and there’s ‘a hospital funeral / with nine other babies’. This is a particularly apocalyptic moment conveyed in gentle terms, and it offers a slight break to the overall objective calm tone, something that might wrong-foot the inattentive reader.
Rather like the eye of a storm, Tree has a distanced quality which looks hard at innocence and loss. The poem which perhaps expresses this most keenly is ‘phantom kicks’:
my womb shrinks
to the size of a fist
my womb is a fist