Rootstalk, Ella Duffy
Hazel Press, 2020 — £10.00
Cycles of loss and renewal
Rootstalk is one long poem, voiced by five women. Two are well-known — Persephone and Demeter. Two of the other characters are said to be drawn from historical accounts, I presume of botanists. The fifth voice is a child. The poem centres around her discovery of a Ghost Orchid. This rare flower only blooms once a decade.*
The stories of the female characters are interwoven like tangled roots or undergrowth. There are echoes and repetition. Earthy words are prominent: slugs, bulbs, taproots, leaf-litter. The lush abundance of woodland is conjured through layering rich sounds and imagery.
There’s also lots of light and space, giving time for the reader to absorb the story and its setting — one page contains just six lines. This allows the reader to sense more of the story than is actually revealed through Duffy’s lightly sketched narrative (p. 13):
Our town talks:
Two women in that house, boiling down flowers;
Two women, one bedroom. That’s right.
Heard it from the neighbour of a friend.
The woodland is alive throughout. It hides and reveals; gives and takes back. On page seven, we’re told ‘it is the nature of woodland to be in on a secret.’
Then, on page nine:
There are more women in the wood these days;
heads down, muttering into their maps.
And more than once, a woman asking the copse for her daughter.
‘Copse’ is unsettlingly close to ‘corpse,’ and so we are reminded both of how far women have come in gaining independence, and also how vulnerable they remain to violence.
How does Nature respond to human grief? (p. 16):
Woodland does not pause at loss,
it lives through its buried —
That living ‘through’ is part of a quiet hopefulness that grows up from despair. The poem ends with Demeter saying (p. 23):
I arrive at the place where the missing are found and start digging.
*This orchid was thought to be extinct in the UK, until one was found in 2010. Its exact location is kept secret, somewhere in Herefordshire…