Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Spikenard, Yvonne ReddickThe cover is black with a large red floral circle in the top two thirds, centred. It seems to be dried flowers, with dried leaves -- maybe spikenard. Bloew this and slightly right of centre maybe is the title of the book in large lower case writing and maybe a pale grey colour. Below that the author's name very small, lower case, grey.

Smith/Doorstop, 2019   £7.50

Gold-painted, burning trees

The second poem, ‘The May-Tree’, tuned my reading into the many trees which grow in Spikenard. I adore trees and I’m fascinated by how we can represent them in poems. Trees naturally beget metaphors, but I also want a sense of them as independently complex — something Yvonne Reddick definitely understands.

Reddick shows how humans love to use trees for linguistic decoration (tree-metaphors and analogies) and also physical decoration.

In ‘The May-Tree’, the lovers use the hawthorn for comparison / compliments, augment hazel-shells with gold, crush sweetbriars for symbolic fragrance. In ‘Of Desire’, the fecund natural imagery used in religious rhetoric and church decoration is gorgeously hypocritical:

He preached of the Jealous God, Ancient of Days.

But the rood-screen was carved with figs and rose hips,
while the Book told me: Thy breasts are like two young roes.

She also shows trees being destroyed by humans. In ‘Firesetter’, the speaker razes a forest in her angry despair. This is partly metaphorical, but the destruction is precisely drawn: ‘The oaks, hands of bone with a furnace backdrop.’

In ‘Muirburn’, the speaker’s grief at her father’s death kindles a spark in a forest clearing. In ‘Of Desire’, trees are carved and warped to suit a particular agenda. The destruction is keenly felt because in most poems, trees are individuals, removed from language-users. No matter how the lovers in the second poem use the natural world — ‘By the end, all that was left was a may-tree’.

In ‘La Pive’, the fir cone carries a vast etymological history: Reddick traces its different names through the Académie française, the dictionary, French slang, and Latin/Sanskrit roots. But the tree itself is removed from these discussions, at ease with nurture and violence:

She’d point to a nurse-log, burdened with seedlings,
or a hacked stump in a grove
caulking its wound, and live at the roots.

Reddick does not take a hallowed approach to trees: they are used, axed, burnt. But she shows her respect through proper names, precise lyrical description, evoking the wrongness of violence done against them, and portraying their independence and resilience.

Rachel Piercey

Migration Cycles

Yvonne Reddick’s poem ‘La Pive’ examines a Swiss French grandmother’s word for ‘fir cone’, ‘often transplanted’ by the speaker ‘from Valais woods to foreign forests’. Several poems in Spikenard hold ideas of home and rootedness in careful balance with the drive for travel, flight or escape.

In ‘La Pive’, a single inherited word comes to represent the connections between people that cross borders and reach far back in time:

I cultivate these branches
and plantings of the tongue:

can trace pive back to Sanskrit,
the scripture of the Vedas —
its taproot: pit, meaning resin.

The fir cone becomes a symbol of the essential cycles of migration and rootedness that occur in nature, and by extension humanity. Summer weather

unlocks the bracts of pives, loosing a swarm
of pips, each with its single wing.

She’d point to a nurse-log, burdened with seedlings,
or a hacked stump in a grove
caulking its wound, and live at the roots.

This tension between rootedness and flight is brought out in the sounds and imagery of Spikenard. Stones are scattered throughout: flint, cairns, quartz, amber. Even ‘spikenard’ itself is a solid, spiky word, belying the sweet, earthy oil produced by the plant.

This solidity of sound and image contrasts with, and balances, flights of surrealism in several poems. In ‘The May-Tree’, ‘promises’ become ‘a ring of fly agarics’. In ‘The Oak Husband’, a woman marries an oak tree: she is ‘light as a leaf’ in her ‘gown / of lilies’ and ‘ache[s] for stolid earth’.

‘Peregrines’ holds up a mirror to a world which is comfortable with cruelty to living creatures, as long as they aren’t ‘native’. Lairds order gamekeepers to ‘spare goshawks and harriers, / and fix their crosshairs on migrant snowy owls’. The grandmother appears again in this poem, her ashes ‘beneath a Sussex apple tree, / restless for the crossing home to Chemin des Fauconniers.’ Overtones of Brexit and climate change abound, and the poem warns that if we attempt to prevent natural cycles of migration, we can expect ‘a silent summer, and our islands cast adrift’.

Charlotte Eichler