Tree, Natalie Whittaker
Verve Press, 2021 £7.50
Innocence and Loss
Natalie Whittaker’s second pamphlet, Tree, explores stillbirth, a ‘subject rarely addressed in poetry’, as one reviewer has noted. The poet pays particular attention to themes of seasons and time, often as a juxtaposition to the violence and bleakness of grief.
The opening poem, ‘tree’, appropriately begins:
on the path to the station
there’s a tree that marks the seasons
Trees, the poet implies, rescue us even in the core of a built-up, concrete city. They are the true clock:
look baby blossom
look baby leaves
look baby autumn
Simple language has a striking effect here.The poem then becomes more disconcerting with the words:
bare branches are faulty umbilical cords
This strangely echoes Hardy’s description of winter branches as ‘strings of broken lyres’. But the idea of ‘branches as faulty umbilical cords’ feels anti-lyrical, interestingly ugly, and chimes well with how we might experience winter or grief.
There’s an obsessiveness in Whittaker’s concentration on the subject of time, with images of tides and waves often called upon to express precise moods. In ‘16:44’, for example, ‘morphine dragged me under a wave’; ‘my girl lay sleeping / she was a chipped blue pebble / on a frozen beach’.
And in ‘05:07’:
the tide washes back strands me alone
In this way, human and inhuman are pitted against each other, with the latter providing a vast backdrop and drama, highlighting the fragility of the human.
There’s painful tenderness, too, in the time-bound ‘departures’ (the second poem in a sequence) where ‘we’ ‘leave the funeral without our baby / leave her in the white coffin’, and there’s ‘a hospital funeral / with nine other babies’. This is a particularly apocalyptic moment conveyed in gentle terms, and it offers a slight break to the overall objective calm tone, something that might wrong-foot the inattentive reader.
Rather like the eye of a storm, Tree has a distanced quality which looks hard at innocence and loss. The poem which perhaps expresses this most keenly is ‘phantom kicks’:
my womb shrinks
to the size of a fist
my womb is a fist
This pamphlet shows emotion at its most raw and poignant as Natalie Whittaker takes us through the devastating experience of stillbirth. The poet uses white space to deepen and magnify the reverberations of loss and grief.
The tree is a symbol of life but also of connection; trees are deep-rooted. In her first poem ‘tree’, Whittaker takes us to a time when she is full of hope: ‘next year I’ll show you autumn’. The visual caesurae after each iteration of ‘look baby’ allow us space to follow the gaze and enjoy ‘blossom’, ‘leaves’ and ‘autumn’. A fractured line, however, breaks this magic:
one day I wake up and it’s November
bare branches are faulty umbilical cords
The penultimate poem, also entitled ‘tree’, returns to this theme, using white space to emphasise disconnection:
the consultant sketches winter branches
in biro blue to explain what connects
me to you what’s not getting through
The prose poem ‘Sands’ (the acronym for the charity Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society) is set in a community hall; the group participants are all ‘broken moth women’. Visual caesurae suggest the jerkiness of sobbing, the repetitive nature of grief. They convey the sense of fractured lives:
as we introduce ourselves to ourselves ugly
shadows sleepless post baby bodies with no babies
Another prose poem is ‘departures 1’. It uses the same kind of fragmentation. The staccato rhythm underscores the bleakness and frustration of trying to exit the hospital car park ‘without our baby’. The poem ‘departures 2’ follows on: ‘we leave the funeral without our baby’. Later in this poem, the white space after each iteration of ‘white coffin[s]’ adds a poignant visual echo to the scene.
In ‘departures 3’ the poet mirrors the pain in her partner’s face; there’s a wealth of empathy and love in the spaces between the words:
I watched her birth her death in your eyes
my love how you flinched
She muses that their idea of ‘departure’ has changed enormously: ‘we thought departure meant leaving on a train’. Again, she employs a visual caesura to emphasise the emotional significance the word has now taken on.
The poet dedicates these compelling poems to her daughter Sammy in this powerful and honest pamphlet.