Lawrence Illsley’s “A Brief History of Trees” was one of the three winners of Live Canon’s 2020 Collection Competition, judged by Glyn Maxwell. It would be wrong to describe Lawrence’s book as a “collection” in the usual sense, since it has an overall unity/narrative untypical of the conventional collection. In eight carefully-crafted sections it describes the impact on the poet of his mother’s sudden death, weaving a narrative that is straightforwardly chronological, from the evening in August when he was staying with her in Cornwall, to the day in February when he returns:
"letting myself in to the empty house removing the condolence cards from the windowsill..."
Each of the eight sections also focusses on a tree, encountered by the poet in the course of his journey – from a mother beech in the first, to a rowan in the last. The particular characteristics of each species acts as a loose metaphor for what is happening:
"...Togetherness and connection seem important to beech trees. Their supple branches graft to a neighbour's, forming a chorus line on the hedgerow. Whilst underground, their network gets complex. A forest talking in slow electric pulses. Root to root. Sharing nutrients through a wood-wide-web of mycelium strands. Mycorrhiza fungus down in the rhizosphere connects kin so that mother beech can feed their progeny..."
So far, so straightforward. What makes this book so moving, however – and I have now read it with pleasure three times – is a combination of factors. First, there is the resonance of the emotional journey. The narrator is due to go to a graduation ceremony in Brighton, so leaves his mother, who is waiting for a scan. While he is in Brighton, his mother dies, having apparently fallen down the stairs in her house, and his sister Rachael is the first to receive the news:
"Rachael found out first. The police came round to her flat. Sat her down. I'd turned my phone off. I honestly don't know why I did that. Usually I just turned down the sound. But it was my friend Xim's drum performance and I didn't want my thigh vibrating. No-one important would ring. Later, rain teeming down pathetically, I switched my phone back on and saw the words. Ten missed calls. "
There is an unflinching honesty in the emotional narrative that gives it the all-important quality of resonance. Particularly moving is the account, some months later, of the narrator’s breakdown:
"....I wanted to disappear. I wanted to drink. To drown."
Then there are the trees. Poets have various stock ways of dealing with nature and bereavement: the permanence may console for what is transient; the movement of seasons may distract. Lawrence tackles the question differently. The key to his approach can be found, I think, in the reference to mycelium in the beech-tree passage quoted above. To quote a BBC article: “While mushrooms might be the most familiar part of a fungus, most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads, known as a mycelium. We now know that these threads act as a kind of underground internet, linking the roots of different plants…The more we learn about these underground networks, the more our ideas about plants have to change. They aren’t just sitting there quietly growing. By linking to the fungal network they can help out their neighbours by sharing nutrients and information – or sabotage unwelcome plants by spreading toxic chemicals through the network.”
In other words, everything in our world is linked. A tree becomes more than a metaphor – it can be an example, in its conduct, for how we should behave. In the second section, the elm is described as having been infected by a fungus (causing so-called “Dutch Elm Disease”):
"In defence, our elms formed tyloses which blocked their xylem. Stopping water from reaching their leaves. Millions died. Many were razed."
"...elms are tenacious. They clone and sucker. Replicating from a root once the trunk has been cut down..."
At this point the narrator is in Brighton. The diversion on elms is a result of his hunting out a Cornish Elm in Preston Park. He has not yet heard of his mother’s death. But the description of the elm anticipates both the way in which his mother’s body resists disease, without success, and the way in which the narrator survives.
Similarly, when the narrator is disintegrating as a result of his loss, he goes for a walk in Brentford, where the Grand Union Canal joins the river Brent. There are willows on the bank:
"The branch, twig, bough, wing, wood, sprig, prong, splits. Floats down the river. Roots. Sprouts. Shoots. Clones itself. Propagates. Replicates in another location."
Emotional resonance; the communication of trees, as part of a universe in which man and nature are indissolubly linked.
Then there is the question of poetic form. You will already have seen, from passages quoted, that the verse stretches across the page, starting in the first section with four-line stanzas with step-like indentations that give the verse an onward movement. Line-breaks are aggressive:
"Hazel underbrush covered the ground. Beech shoots popped up and waited. A beech is used to waiting. Born into shade in beech woods they wait for light. In stealth they grow. Reaching slowly for the sky. "
As the work progresses, the verse-forms – and indeed the syntax – become more fractured, reflecting the narrator’s disintegration:
"I had an urge in me to. To disappear. I ordered another pint. Then went outside."
There is a remarkable confidence in Lawrence’s use of form, so that it achieves its effect almost without the reader noticing.
I found this book astonishing, and thoroughly recommend it.
Lawrence Illsley’s “A Brief History of Trees” is published by Live Canon and can be purchased from Live Canon’s website. The collaborative system of a mycelial web achieved wide currency with the forester Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees”, published in 2015.