Hierarchy of Needs (a retelling), Charley Barnes and Claire Walker

V. Press, 2020  £6.50

Learning from nature

The poems in this noticeably direct and unpretentious pamphlet are framed by two pyramid-structured ‘hierarchies of need’ modelled after Abraham Maslow’s 1943 theory of human motivation. One pyramid shows nature’s basic, psychological and growth needs; the other does the same for ‘21st century humans’. The pamphlet sheds light on — and examines the symbiotic relationship between — the two sets of needs.

The opening poem is ‘Tending’, a beautiful personification of a plant’s early growth: ‘the little bulb of [its] beginning’ is wrapped in ‘kind earth’ and feels ‘the safety of this tethering’:

Then upwards. This first break into sunlight,
a warmth like laying skin on bone.

In ‘Lion’s tooth’, the dandelions ‘tell of life spans and spurts / of growth’, and the fully blooming — or ‘self-actualised’ — sunflowers in ‘Racing to Helios’ celebrate themselves as ‘bounty hunters / tracking solar streaks and stealing / their fullness’.

A family tree features in ‘For Agatha, who loved this place’ and ‘#tribalgathering’ — poems that mark a shift in the pamphlet to a focus on human needs.

In ‘The petals I dried’, the sunflower petals found in a book remind the depressed narrator of her former lover. She remembers the photo she took when he bought the flowers — ‘his shy smile filtered through the bouquet’ — but now she sees the petals

for what they are:
a death laid bare between pulped bark.
Earth with too much rain muddies and floods.

In two poems — ‘And when she does leave’ and ‘“About me and who I’m looking for”’ — noticing and spending time with nature helps the narrator to grow beyond break-up grief and become ready to meet someone new. But such a meeting will ‘not be through filtered light’:

He will know how to nurture growth,
how to carry earth in his hands.

This pamphlet is a timely poetic reminder that all life needs to be tended respectfully, by ourselves as well as by others. In the prose poem ‘Competence’, the work of personal growth is described: ‘I pull / the seeds of plans from the ground and work upwards.’ It’s a process that ideally also involves respecting nature’s needs, too.

Tim Murphy