Tree, Natalie Whittaker
Verve Press, 2021 £7.50
The tree of life
Trees are symbols of connection. In religion and mythology, the tree of life connects the world of the living with the spiritual world. In the natural sciences, trees are known to commune with one another, sharing nutrients and water through their roots underground.
Yet, in Natalie Whittaker’s Tree, this symbolism is complicated. The pamphlet, which explores Whittaker’s trauma in the wake of her personal experience of stillbirth, looks at the tree’s cyclical existence.
In the opening poem, ‘tree’, the poet encounters a tree which ‘marks the seasons’ and initially (addressing her unborn baby) uses it as evidence of a ‘beautiful’ world.
However, by the end of the poem, winter sets in and the tree is transformed. No longer a thing of beauty, it has become defective; its bare branches are ‘faulty umbilical cords’. Rather than a symbol of life-giving fertility, Whittaker’s tree has broken down, unable to ‘implant’ the realm of the sky above.
The rest of the collection explores what happens in the wake of this traumatic disconnection. In the second poem titled ‘tree’, Whittaker plays on the image of tree as placenta (itself often called ‘the tree of life’ due to its pattern of veins). Here a consultant sketches its ‘winter branches’:
in biro blue to explain what connects
me to you what’s not getting through
The failure of these ‘branches’ severs the attachment of mother and child, and the poet is left stranded, alone in her grief.
It isn’t until the final poem, ‘spring’, that the speaker’s grief comes full circle. The pamphlet ends where it began: with a tree in full bloom, producing new life in a ‘contagion’ of blossoms. The point of contact between the living and the spiritual is re-established as the speaker hears her child’s voice cutting through the sound-waves on the radio, like a heartbeat.
Tree thus concludes by embracing the tree’s capacity for regeneration, just as the daughter movingly implores her mother: ‘live live live’.