The Violin Forest, Katherine Towers
HappenStance Press, 2019 £5.00
All the wood’s a stage
I pick up Alice Oswald usually when I want someone to tell me what’s happening in the woods. I can happily pair Katharine Towers with her after reading these poems. The woods are a stage for small tragedies of thwarted potential: flowers throb with thoughts we will never know (in ‘Snowdrops’ ‘Their little lamps can shed no light’) but in their limited capacity for expression the bluebells flash ‘violet and dauntless’ (‘High Lees’). The owls also think, a dead fox listens — even the falling leaves have minds attributed to them.
In this theatre of suspended disbelief the frequent repetition of short, simple, Anglo-Saxon words creates an effect like the noise of rain falling. I read as if in a trance, cover to cover, then back again. I joined the poet in denying the hard boundaries of death and life, animate and inanimate objects. In this world, a train and a horse enact a tiny story of missed connections:
A train looks up at a long white horse.
The horse looks back; the train is gone.
[‘Horse and Train’]
Death is a change that can be survived. Trees are cut down to be turned into violins, harmoniums, and the process is not about loss or pain. In ‘Peckham Rye’, ‘An oak tree has magicked into a lamp.’
The dawn chorus in the woods is captured by an ‘oak and walnut four-pedal grand’ (in ‘For Example’) and the only sign that any brutality might be involved in felling those trees is where the meaning of ‘break’ slips in the last lines of that poem: ‘you’ll hear dawn break / like the bones in a hand’.
Katherine Towers almost turns her subjects inside out in The Violin Forest. She explores them from every angle and also puts herself in their shoes. She observes with a keen eye, thinking, questioning, reflecting.
In her poem ‘Sparrows’, she uses nine lively verbs to describe the vivacity of these small birds. She gives us insights into their behaviour which she portrays as ‘to jostle […] over minute differences, or over conundrums of love’.
In ‘Snowdrops’, she focuses detailed attention on the experience, as she sees it, of snowdrops in the ground. ‘What makes them concentrate on the mud?’ she asks.
Similarly, we feel her empathy with her subject in ‘Mr Dead Fox’. She unpicks the appearance of a dead animal in what must be the most sympathetic portrayal of road kill that I have ever read:
With one ear pinned to the tarmac, he must be listening
for what happens next
The idea of meditation also pervades ‘Untranslatable Owls’, a prose poem. The description of the owls starts powerfully with ‘Strange as gods’ and ‘alien saints’, before leading into the idea that the birds themselves are ‘meditating’. The poet then invites the reader to take on the wisdom and other-worldliness of the owls: ‘to run away from the world and all its mad mayhem.’
The collection concludes with ‘A Green Thought’, a small, intensely thoughtful poem, which perfectly suits her focus on the natural world, especially on birds and trees, and the meditative approach throughout.
Our restless minds, magicked into poetry
What are the limits of the imaginative mind? Debate about this question creates tension throughout a beautifully wrought sequence of poems. From the outset, the poet is at pains to point out that the animals, plants and objects we observe in the natural world either have no mind, or minds that reflect concerns vastly different to our own.
The robin and the red leaf in the first poem ‘Nonchalant’ set the stage by not ‘minding’ about autumn, by ‘making no fuss’ about dying. In the second poem this idea is even more overt:
Take from a river any thought of endlessness
or death to find it’s only water on its way.
Neither is the tired old moon a mother
or a maiden or a crone.
So any sentience or symbolic meaning attributed to river or moon is, it seems, a projection of our own human mind.
However, as soon as we accept that stance, the poet presents us with the sparrows in the third poem, who ‘think themselves little lords and ladies of the dirt.’
Poem after poem plays with this problem in different ways: what do birds or flowers know? And what do we project — onto owls, yews, horses? We are presented with bluebells that talk and feel pain in ‘High Lees’, followed by ‘Snowdrops’ in which the flowers ‘are doomed to scrutinise’.
The sentience and transformations that the poet ‘magicks’ into being are not restricted to the living. So while a foal may not be capable of ‘knowing’ that it’s limping in one piece, in another a dead fox ‘must be listening for what happens next.’
As a reader I see the justice of both positions and am happy to go along for the ride. Katharine Towers seems to suggest that we can never settle as both reasoning minds and imaginative beings. Although we understand that the world we perceive is our own fiction, we keep trying to communicate something we understand to be true, doomed as the endeavour may be.
The poems insist that such projection is all we have. In the same way as a bird sings, it is what we do, so ‘Breathe in deep. There’s nowhere else to live.’