The Big Trees Really Are That Big

Selected Poems 1970-2005, Elaine Randell
Exeter, U.K. 9.95
[9.95, 148pp, Shearsman Books]

There are so many things that I responded to in this collection, I have to review it backwards, by starting with a poem first:

   Too Late

   for stars
   and barefoot I return home.
   Growing pains.
   The trees are covering the street lights,
   my hand on the far side of your wrist
   and all that withstands pain.
   People in bus queues, they lean and sway
   and put down bags and take them up again.
   Death steals us back.
   And tonight someone is whistling as they
   walk along the pavement
   is taking stride after stride with air in
   their lungs
   is wearing clothes that fit and move
   is carrying objects dear to them
   is walking home never the same again.

I haven't chosen this as a `best` poem, but because there are elements which return throughout the collection. Death is something to wrestle with, or find a way to claw free from, all the time. And then there`s the way Randell poems tend to sweep in and out of temporal focus; there seems to be human life/time and tree life/time, where trees represent, perhaps, an idea of being both in and outside of time at once. They have something to show or teach us about enduring, and re-turning to life in the midst of ongoing tragedy. For example, Randell wants to show us `how the big trees are so big` (from 'tell them how easy love is'), and shifts the focus from a child`s sleeping frame to `the white limbs / of the young trees behind your head`, (from 'I am touched by your fear'), which works as a physical comparison and a temporal/cosmic irony. In `Diary of a Working Man`, `he cannot take his coat off but walks / into the university of the tree...`. A tree is an education; an `elemental lesson`.

The way Randell uses language can rattle and soothe in turn:
   A crippling in the gore
   where the seams of the heart
   make a join in the raft...


   lilt over the sway
   by the bridge and the elemental lesson
         (from 'Seven Poems')

This strange, slightly ungrounded vibrancy in the language, set against the often halting, brittle structure of her poems, creates a sense of movement through time, which is heightened by the shifts in focus. One moment you are in a High Street bus queue, the next staring down at the whole of humanity. It`s a bit unnerving, and I like that. (Now I`m thinking 'Well, staring down like some kind of recording angel sitting in a Big Tree', but I kind of like that as well.)

The absolute engagement with her subject allows Randell to throw in surprises which knock the reader sideways, such as this, from Diary of a Working Man again:

   Like turning a wet
   shirt inside out
   the room was in his overall.

Despite the subject matter (pain, disappointment, sorrow, grief... you name it, it`s here), there is no emotional trickery in the poetry; we are not being `worked` toward a feeling or attitude about life. The stories are shown to us, and we can see them or turn away. In the longer poems, such as `Hard to Place`,  and `Along the Landings`, what is documented just is how it is, rather than how awful it is, or how it could be if only. I think this is very hard to do well, because so much of the poet has to be left out of the writing. But Randell takes us on a journey through a landscape which, however much you want it not to be true, (fairer, or less chilly), just is true, and I applaud her ability to stand back, out of the frame.

`Songs for the Sleepless` is another long sequence of poems, and I think it is a huge and awe-ful piece of work; it goes to the very bottom of a dark well, and repeatedly climbs and claws back to the light, to slip back, and climb again. There`s a kind of inevitability about the movement of it, like the fact of being alive and having to put one foot in front of the other, as an act of trust.

  ' Everything you are this minute flows away faster than a breeze. It takes pain
     to  burn through time, to turn a spot on the wall into the centre of the world
    now and hereafter.'

    But then there is all that attempt
    all the effort of non doing
    all the sitting around and hallo
    and see you
    but then the Moorhens gather together each morning whatever
    and the frosting trees are gladder than ever.
    A pianist breaks his hands on the chords
    but it is only a temporary arrangement
    like death it comes and goes.
    It goes away and without realising it
   we are back again with our lips in shreds
   with nothing to say but that its gone and we`re alone
   with the weather and the remarks of the trees
   are but efforts to make the
   trembling slower.

The sequence barely resolves its preoccupations. There is a stoic imperative, `you must` (keep going), which you don't even have to believe. There is also no trace of self-pity, resentment or even anger; this is the world, our lives, the time. And out there, the trees...

I suppose there is a certain drama about these poems, but not melodrama, no. It`s bound to be difficult, if that with which a poet wishes to deal happens to be death. There is here both an emphatic resistance to death, (and death-in-life), and a tribute to the finality of it. What bleakness or futility the poems might express is absorbed in the treatment; the language moving between beautiful twists and a bald simplicity. Take these lines from `This belonging, this us`:

    Our tiny childrens hearts are lanterns / of promise...

    The rivers / dark silt tenders less...
    Life is O.K.
    It has a lot to recommend it.
    By and large...

And although I shouldn`t think that Randell intended to put the notion of salvation into these poems, there are, always, the trees. They are somehow a kind of placebo, and certainly a consolation.

The fact that many of these poems manipulate the language to and fro so easily, so widely, as well as moving from the heart`s close-up to the long panned shot of Everything, makes them hard to dissect, or quote from. You need the whole piece. You actually need the whole book. I think this is why I have found it difficult to review in pieces, as it were. The poems complement each other, build on each other, often with repeated phrases in separate poems; `heart like a Robin`s egg` and
`to what can the heart be blamed`, for two.

Jane Hardy of The Guardian says '(Randell) ... has virtually created a new genre - the case history as fable.' Well, I think perhaps U.A.Fanthorpe has been doing this for some time, but Elaine Randell`s case histories appear to be presented by the people themselves, rather than through a poet-medium. And there is far more to Randell`s work than the case history/fable, so it`s misleading to dwell upon that aspect of the poetry.

To say I`ve been delighted with this book is also misleading; I`ve been peculiarly horrified and elated in turn, and once or twice I really did get that neck-prickling sensation some writer-I-can`t-recall-who said was the measure of a good poem. Some of this might be recognition, as I used to work in mental health, but that`s not even half of it. These are raw, sometimes howling poems, which make you shift in your seat, but they are true and honest poems, and I`m very glad to have experienced them. In the whole collection, I found one dud, but I`m not going to spoil things by saying which one.

        Sandra Tappenden 2006