A new world is only a new mind[1]


Arnolds Wood,
Jeremy Hooker
[46pp., 3.00, Flarestack Poetry]


Arnolds Wood is a collection of poems written by Jeremy Hooker for his friend Les Arnold, who died, aged 49, in 1992. The poems, thirty one in total - one sharp, untitled poem on each unnumbered page - serve as a kind of communion between the two men across the invisible terrain of the living and the dead. They are intended to be read as a single 'movement', rather than as individual poems. Honest and explorative, they sidestep self-indulgence and, within the poems, we glimpse the vital presence of poet-teacher Les Arnold himself:

     Late September:
     new students
     flock to classrooms
     where we see
     momentarily
     old faces, you
     standing
     arm upraised -

     shepherd,
     conjuror.

The place of communion, for Hooker, is the poem itself:

                       The man
     I want to talk to is alive
     in the detail of his poems.

Hooker eschews the act of writing merely
about Arnold, relegating him to past tense. Instead he wants to 'talk to' him. Arnold is the animating voice of his own poems and Hooker responds by seeking a mutual 'location' to share in distilled 'conversation'(remembering that 'Con - vers - ation' (from Latin) means 'to turn with' and perhaps, also, as Paul Matthews puts it, 'to make verse together':[2]

     It seems that, reading,
     I could call him out, ask
     whether what I am making
     is a place he could inhabit.

As Hooker says in his preface, 'inevitably, [this poetry has] elegiac elements; but elegy is not its main aim. I think of it, rather, as the 'space' between us. The space of the poems is the ground we shared, as poets, as teachers, as men with a love of nature and landscape...'

Hooker, through the act of writing, is attempting an act of place-making:

     What I want to make for us
     is a place in words
     which we might share.

The poems move through the seasons as they move through stages of grief. The imagery in the opening poem is that of a chill February: 'The wind was cold, and felt like snow'. This is the day that friends of Arnold plant trees, in his name. The title of this collection, Arnolds Wood, has no apostrophe after 'Arnold', nothing to suggest 'ownership'. The trees are planted for their own sake, in a spirit of giving, to echo the quality of the man they commemorate. 

Grief, and the voicing of grief, is acknowledged by Hooker:
           
     Grief is words
     that have to be spoken ...

The need to express profound feeling is a primary act for the poet. In Hooker's skilled hands, however, emotion never blurs worked-for depth. The journey towards acceptance of loss also includes sudden re-emerged pain:

     We get used to death.

     Then one day,
     suddenly,
     it is incredible -
     we do not believe
     he will not walk in.

Inevitably, the sequence becomes a meditation on death itself and Hooker doesn't shy away from dwelling on the questions it raises for himself and for us all:

     Impossible to think
     of oneself as absent,
     all one's roots
     entangled
     in the world.

However, it is clear that the meditation leads Hooker to a quality of depth that, though hard won, serves to better illuminate
life:

     To live for ever
     would annihilate
     everything we love.

     I see we need death
     somehow.

The word 'somehow', given its own line, hangs on the tongue - is almost a hesitation, a bewilderment - and suggests the limits to human understanding and the mystery of death that we must all live with. And yet it is through death that life, as meaningful and precious, gets thrown into relief. Quantity ('to live for ever') is not the point; quality is. Love.

For Hooker, Arnold, the inspirer and enabler of others, remains a teacher to the last:

     It is just possible
     you will teach me
     to make a friend of death.

Arnolds Wood is a striking sequence of poems that ultimately celebrate life in all its transience and fragility. It is also about the enduring nature of friendship. These poems carry a listening silence in their bones; it is what nourishes their marrow. Yet the necessity for utterance is there, each poem a testimony to being here. They acknowledge the intimate relationship between form and emptiness. In this way, speaker and listener are bound into a seamless whole.
 
          Fiona Owen 2005

Notes
[1] Arnold used this quotation by William Carlos Williams as epigraph for his own sequence of poems entitled 'Shaker City' (in Shaker City
, Stride, 1998). Arnold was deeply interested in the Shakers, their pared down aesthetics, and 'the coherence of their lives [which] serve as images of wholeness' (quoted by Hooker in his short essay on Arnold's poetry in Arnolds Wood).
[2] Matthews, Paul Sing Me the Creation
(Hawthorn Press, 1994)