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The Ash and the Oak and the Wild Cherry Tree

Kerry Hardie’s newest collection is a dark and gorgeous hymn to human mortality. Death is, of course, such a common theme in poetry that it’s difficult to find anything new to say about it, but Hardie succeeds, injecting into these poems her usual quiet originality. For her, death is not to be feared — if anything, it is a place of comfort and safety. The refrain of ‘Sixty’, the first poem in the collection, is ‘everyone is slowly going home,’ and elsewhere, in the afterlife of ‘The Inmost Sea’, the dead ‘stretch in the fresh red graves / fennel and dill line the breath of the wind.’ Life, Hardie reckons, is messy — in ‘Happy Endings’, a scene of children playing on the beach becomes a metaphor for the way things inevitably unravel.

There was a plan, but it went with the tide;
everyone ended up too drunk to stand,
our shoes floated off and we grizzled with cold
and the evening light pearled the wavering line
where the sea took the edge off the land.

Death, meanwhile, brings clarity. In the final stanza of ‘Timing’, the speaker hears of the death of her neighbour, and like the spring that has just arrived, the news allows her to see the world afresh.

When the death news ran we looked at the ground
where our feet were planted. Then off somewhere.
Between two trees.
At the patched door on a stone shed.
At the post van, disappearing.

Death in Hardie’s poems is a release from the process she finds truly terrifying: the slow decay of ageing. Old age, she says in ‘Sixty’, ‘is not how I want things to be. / It cancels the contract of life, / it stifles our birth-howl.’ In the collection’s title poem, the speaker’s mother is eerily transformed into a tree: ‘she is old now. She sways / though no wind blows.’ And in ‘Waning’, Hardie laments, ‘all that I love is alive and already dying.’

How can we love
when love must watch life cease to live?
How can we not
when downy seeds blow the ripe roads?

In previous collections, Hardie has written a great deal about death in nature: the triumph of summer and the inevitable descent into winter. So it is no wonder that this collection, although more heavily populated by humans, also tips its hat to the beauty and cruelty of nature. ‘October’, another extended metaphor for ageing and death, illustrates the way in which the movement of the seasons ruthlessly changes the natural landscape.

But the golden goose will drown in the night
of the deep black rains of November.
The little red fox will shrivel and starve,
his white bones will lie in the fields.

In ‘How We Carry On Pretending’, the ageing woman becomes an overgrown house: the idea of death as a way of ‘returning to nature’ taken literally.

Instead, there is a small, tired house,
half derelict, and anyone can see
the forked crack gaping in the gable end,
the ivy pushing from inside the rooms,
levering its way through the empty frames,
reaching its scabby arms towards the light.

In the natural world Hardie inhabits, humans are always insignificant, vulnerable. But hers are not the dwarfed humans of the sublime experience: these poems are not about awesome mountains or breath-taking vistas. Hardie takes a more ecological approach: in these poems, humans are merely another kind of animal living inside and alongside nature.

Away in the distance the pup was clearing the gulls
Right under my feet the suck of watery sands,
the ooze and wormcasts squirming between my toes.

I was a dot, a tiny concentration
of blood and bone and intelligence
moving about
under all that vastness.

In ‘Fruit Net’, the speaker holds a trapped bird she has freed, and feels her own kinship with another creature. ‘It stills, I still. It rests within my hands, / its life as intense as mine.’ And in ‘From Time to Time Red Dog Shows Up in the Forest’, the speaker greets a strange dog, animal to animal, and realises her own insignificance.

Great cauliflower-domed seed heads of hogweed
tower the overgrown path.
Then he’s off.
Dogness of dog
into woodness of woods.
My feet make small sounds in the silence.

The feeling that runs throughout the collection is that of time running out: seasons changing, the familiar disappearing, death approaching ever faster. This shows not just in the content, but in the poems’ sparseness, too. In comparison to her previous collections, the lines here are shorter, the poems barer and more urgent. Hardie dedicates the collection to her brother, who died, she adds, at forty-seven. In ‘The Emigrant’s Photo’, she describes the photographed man as ‘warm and alive with death.’ This is also a fitting description for a book of poems that celebrates the wonder of our small lives as much as it laments their brevity.

— Claire Askew, The Edinburgh Review

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