Prose Woods: Incisions
Mr Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us – an inexhaustible treasure but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.’[i]
— S. T. Coleridge
I do not doubt that it may be affirmed that there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition. [ii]
— William Wordsworth
C. G Jung notes that ‘Sometimes a tree can tell us more than can be read in a book’,[iii] but what of a series of books, works, poems that becomes a kind of exegesis of tree, wood, forest - ‘where the peers share between’.[iv] In this short piece I will examine a few selected lines from an early work of Peter Larkin’s entitled Prose Woods. With the aim of showing some of the surface textures that a reader may encounter. I will start with close reading, showing how it may be possible to read units of speech as transformative parsing toward a relational poetics, that gifts within its very momentariness the inclusive arraignment of our complex relation to a lived experience on the peripheries of our own. Although this may incline in part toward a theological and metaphysical tract, the intention is to perceive within, the risk of a mournful accountability. In Prose Woods, we are placed before the situation, and confronted by aspects of trees, aspects which are not wholly their own, but rather constricted by the problematical entanglements within the governed spaces of human milieu. I find within this necessarily difficult writing, not only the commitment of intent in respect of a writing that comes to meaning outside the ordinary frames of human language and situation, but also an active perception which engages with the complex relational situation of occupied space. Here it opens up the potential for furthering encounter, where to reside in the patternations of leafy-cathedrals becomes a reciprocating gift by way of an offer, and the experience of a totalising immersion within the complex array may bring ‘us’ ‘forward’ to a state of seeing.
‘Co-kernel, co-appearance, branch and store, between all you have not hidden us, equal peers.’[v]
The prefix ‘co’, read into ‘equal peers’ and the ‘you’ from ‘us’, which in turn is complicated by ‘between’ – ‘you’ and ‘us’, where the ‘you’, ‘have not hidden us’, makes for a remarkable yet complicated sentence. The comma after ‘us’, marks it from ‘us’, as I take breath, before the ‘equal peers’, I waver before qualifying that the like or alike must ‘peer’ together? The ‘you’, is something other than ‘us’, perhaps this ascertains to ‘branch’, and to the architecture preparing the ontological context of ‘Tree’, or a grouping of Trees as a subject of existence. I read the ‘us’, as being perhaps human. But I know the ‘us’ is inclusive, where I can be read into the fabric of context, but, on the other hand, the ‘you’ is exclusive, as either me, the abstract other, or the tree/ branch/ wood. It cannot be read as all or both until a reading from ‘you’ moves forward and reveals ‘us’; so is it we, ‘you’ and ‘us’ that peer together? Or are we ‘peers’ ‘equal’ to one another? And why, ‘between all you’, ‘have [you] not hidden us’? I read it that the ‘us’, maybe in ‘branch and store’, but in concealment, the ‘between’ ‘us’ is ‘not hidden’ from ‘you’, and so ‘you’ in turn are ‘not hidden’ from ‘us’, ‘equal peers’, as the ‘co’ ‘between’ the ‘peers’ completes its horizon in ‘us’. The complexity of relation to a thing and of a thing is made implicit even within this singular extracted sentence. What takes place semantically in the course of the reading is that the object/ subject relation becomes co-figured and co-signified. Here, ‘I am like tree; / from my top boughs I can see / the footprints that led up to me.’[vi] Only rather, I am not like a tree’ and nor am I not like a Tree, I am, or I am read into, a relational state between, I am co-figured in ‘us’ through ‘you’, where I oscillate between instances of the homograph ‘Peers’.[vii] In essence the language of ‘us’ becomes that of ‘you’, so through the mystical provision of language, we may yet or once again become seers ‘awakened’ to the complex relational experience of being in presence, not as the focal point, but as a ‘co-appearance’, a convergence of occupied space. This is not merely to recapitulate a metaphysical datum, but to read encountering and reflection into the ecologically sensitive condition, as an essential experience of co-habitation and perhaps as a necessary condition for a ‘“new scarcity”’, as we in turn ‘convert longing into belonging’.[viii] It must be said that such complex encountering is further complicated by a series of baneful and stratified problematical conditions that become further ramified through networks of crisis. But for Jung, as for us perhaps,
Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed […] direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason, the woods were the places where I felt closest to its deepest meaning and to its awe-inspiring workings.[ix]
The experience of Trees becomes at once an essential condition, a condition of conversion toward an active liability for our being in this world and where that may gift a collective culpability or responsibility ‘forward’; as ‘Interrupted rampancy is the beginning of an upright ecology’.[x]
As with much of Peter Larkin’s poetry, ‘With so much so much sees’,[xi] a poetry that is complex & radical and open to each readers passive-incitement. This becomes for me, part of the poems underlying poetic commitment which in itself is radical;[xii] a disquisition that roams arboriculture and one that remains outside the natural (human) capital tendency to promote the accounting of an arbour-utility. As praxis I read continuity with tradition not fracture, and the network of a complicated root inserted ‘within the space of a cultural incision’[xiii] that is powerfully ecologically critical, sensitive - yet remains mindful of origin and perhaps the premise of original perception, as well as the ‘ethics of contemporary perception’.[xiv] When Virilio articulates a relational shift, writing that,
the geophysical environment is undergoing an alarming diminishing of its ‘depth of field’ and this is degrading man’s relationship with his environment .[xv]
Larkin’s work may come to granulate this instance, carefully and attentively negotiating the modernist contradictions of ‘machine time’, but also opening scarcer correlating perceptions as incisive poetic incisions which may be rendered transformative.
Certain poetics I read appear to lock themselves into a circle of force where the spectacle of tyranny situates in the syntactical bane of absolute negativism. But in the exegesis of tree, ‘no tyrant will ever be able to gain power over those who, in some “distant” and “radical” way, truly believe in blossoming trees’.[xvi] This statement is not naive; it is on the contrary problematic, yet powerfully liberating. In the disclosure of trees within the woods and forests, we experience the ‘deep-set place of liberty’[xvii] and ‘The need is constant awareness’. [xviii]
It is in the perpetual conditions of estrangement that we experience ourselves. ‘Appearance is within me, reality, and the being of consciousness consist in appearing to itself’. [xix] I sometimes read the poetry in terms of a mystical crisis which seeks to discover the recoverable contingent character of otherness. To know love and to participate in love ‘for those that love you’;[xx] ‘The emblem, the ravages, except as between two limbs.’[xxi] This love, which may be theologically implicated, as many facets of love often are, is not without a contextualising limit, i.e. it is not absolute but a speculative condition of promise, which is co-figured, to participate in that ‘invisible trespass’, ‘where the singleness of each is enhanced by the communion.’[xxii] ‘The inverted tree is a spinal tree [...] admits the tenderest tree amid peers.’[xxiii]
The theological possibility of reflection and love, connects pathways to a site of otherness and marks semantically out from within the shadow, lights dark and darks light, stretching edge-world to thought-world, enhancing the possibility of self, inter-linked, interconnected and networked to thoughtful registers that promise within a speculative forwarding of, ‘how do we forward through it?’[xxiv] ‘How do we forward through’, to promote a scarcely realised or realisable gift of reciprocity? ‘Such mutabilities put cultural manifestations of forest between us as if not yet exposed forward’[xxv]. To perceive of, exists in further enshrouding the conscious of others through reflection, and the love of others, as of myself to be forward of a gift that knits within the enclave of a surface experience the promise of the actual given experience of ‘suffering and lightness, fragility and depth’.[xxvi] So the common trail of thought becomes the thread of a thought after the fact, ‘not yet’ then the concern ‘sideset in each dwelling stain’,[xxvii] but that which yet, ontologically speaking, becomes on behalf of a promise. This promise is partially realised through imaginative processes and rooted to love, where to love is to have faith in the implicit condition ‘of ideas and risk; learning, failing, wooing, grieving, trusting, working, reposing’[xxviii] - ‘Culture in the size of you, the skill of you upright.’[xxix]
Where meaning penetrates its depth: ‘There is only the surface to speculate, upon drift, upon cover, upon cleft, the opining densities’.[xxx] An alternative mis-reading of ‘opining’ situates opening, and opening displaces the ‘i’ which then, in a closer inspection of ‘surface’ foregrounds the ‘pin’ and the densities of cumulative succession thorough pine needles, as duration’s topological print or ‘surface records of geography’[xxxi]. In the cusp of this, pine and pining as an opinion become a sufferance or a not-yet realised promise, depending on your opinion, or what you open upon, dependent on your disposition. Within the gift of promise the eschatological horizon of the poem offers a mournful ‘drift’, a clause ‘upon cleft’ as ‘records of geography’, to recapitulate not only succession but the severity of ecological damage and violence.
In a poem by Barry MacSweeney – we read – ‘tree/ destroyed by the legion of governments/ and the studied stupidity/ of the lapsed intelligence of the people of England. [xxxii] P 85. In the Poem ‘To a Fallen Elm’, John Clare writes – ‘Thoust sheltered hypocrites in many a shower/ That when in power would never shelter thee’.[xxxiii] In the arena of trees, within the hypocrisy of states and self, the clash of culture and social fall-out seeks the ‘penetrable shelter’ of trees, woods and forests. [xxxiv] The Woods become a place, a site, a shelter for all aspects of society, and from all aspects - whether from violence, marginalisation, alienation, weather, love, play. It can also simultaneously become a place to perpetrate violence and socially malignant acts of abuse, ‘that shelter anger’[xxxv]. This violence is also co-figuring, it is not the volition of a single species, but sadistic cruelty is almost certainly the sole domain of the abusive power of human fancy. The obscuring of cultural impress gives rise behind ‘penetrable shelter’, to perpetrate torturous acts, not merely acts of unlawful vandalism but crimes of critical damage, perpetrated on differing types of life including the trees themselves or communities of, ‘beside urban stream by forest fire turns round to a matting of damage’.[xxxvi] It could be read as symptomatic of the deep divide from understanding inter-relations and the need to make inclusive environments that enhance the importance of respectful stabilities that form or nurture complex relational understanding. For institutionalised distance from one to another, conditions an alienated perspective or a minority interface which may in turn cultivate the systematic estrangement that through social and capital neglect, commits violations of intent toward differing states of being, and in consequence toward the perpetration of ‘damage’ - upon self and other. Larkin’s poetry address the flow of disturbance/ harm through a parse of self- healing attributed to the trees recoverable densities through succession and re-growth, which can be read as further gift of a promise networked into the redemptive. Where ‘Correlate flows with the gouge, already busy at ceiling the salve.’[xxxvii] The cultural responsibility to woods reaches far beyond utility, either as touristic value or gross domestic product; it gathers us to ourselves and our ‘opining densities’, which gathers us ‘forward’ to the ‘densities’ of succession and toward the vertical relations of address. ‘Our relation to the natural world takes place in place, and it must be grounded in information and experience.’[xxxviii] The care of such relations and interconnectedness must be reciprocal, ‘equal peers’ where ‘the lovers must leave a distance, a respectful fidelity, for love: then they approach and retire so that love may suspire.’ [xxxix]
At the risk of being read as sentimental, the address of a crisis can be dedicatory, foregrounding the ‘loveliness and wonders’ - whilst entangling within this dynamic the negative condition and its encountered risk. Where ‘a politics of alignment ascends the sky compatible in sufferance’,[xl] a participation of reception and reflection may align accountability on the human condition, as the milieu of networks within the poem/world continue a forward dedication on behalf of each other, on behalf of ‘us’ – ‘a glint along intervariate paths’ beckons ‘us’ ‘forward’. [xli]
[i] Coleridge, S. T. (1906) ‘Occasion of the Lyrical Ballads’, Biographia Literaria, pp. 161. London: J. M. Dent & Sons
[ii] Wordsworth, William. (2000) ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’, The Major Works, pp. 602. OUP.
[iii] Jung, C.G. (2008) C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life, ed. Meredith Sabini, pp 6. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books
[iv] Larkin, Peter. (1985) Prose Woods (The Blue Boat, 3), Gloucester: Moschatel Press, unpaginated .
[v] Prose Woods, .
[vi] Thomas, R.S. (1960) ‘HERE’, A critical quarterly supplement - Poetry 1960, pp.19. Hull: The University.
[vii] In the film Guardians of the Galaxy the sentient Tree -being Groot, offers sanctuary to his fellow guardians by protecting them within his branches. Throughout the film, Groot is only heard repeating the phrase “I am Groot”, due to the stiffness of his larynx, but in his last sacrificial stand, when asked why he would give his life to protect his fellow Guardians, he simply replies, “We are Groot”. This highlights not only the protective symbolic nature of trees prevalent in human psyche, but also addresses a pertinent shift in presence, from ‘I am’ to ‘we are’. Incidentally the character of Groot also highlights the culturally imposed dialectical nature of the forest and the chiaroscuro of many of the imaginative tropes of the forest. Seemingly, in spite of our wavering ambivalence toward such matters, a conscious neglect materialises in the gamut of our collective output. See also, Dr who, series 8: episode 10. ‘In the forest of the night’, which is Blakean beyond the title.
[viii] Larkin, Peter. (2012) ‘Relations of Scarcity’, Wordsworth and Coleridge Promising Losses, pp.85 New York: Palgrave Macmillan
[ix] Jung, C.G. (2008) C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life, ed. Meredith Sabini, pp. 29. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books
[x] Larkin, Peter. (1985) Prose Woods , .
[xi] Prose Woods, .
[xii] ‘Radical going to the root [...] or in the ground; also (of bodily organs [...]) vital to life’. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.
[xiii] Larkin, Peter. (1985) Prose Woods ,.
[xiv] Virilio, Paul. (1997) ‘Eye Lust’, Open Sky, trans Julie Rose, pp. 90. London: Verso
[xv] Virilio, ‘The perspective of Real Time’, Open Sky, pp. 22-23.
[xvi]Zanzotto, Andrea. (2007) ‘Between the Recent Past and the Distant Present’, The selected poetry and prose of Andrea Zanzotto, ed. & trans. Patrick Barron, pp. 411
[xviii] Larkin, Peter. (1985) Prose Woods , .
[xix] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (2004) Basic Writings, pp. 176. London: Routeledge.
[xx] Larkin, Peter. (1985) Prose Woods, 
[xxi] Prose Woods, .
[xxii] Rose, Gillian. (1997) Love’s Work, pp. 131. Vintage: London
[xxiii] Larkin, Peter. (1985) Prose Woods, .
[xxiv] Prose Woods, .
[xxv] Prose Woods, .
[xxvi] Mazzacurati, Carlo. (2007) ‘Introduction’, The selected poetry and prose of Andrea Zanzotto, ed. & trans. Patrick Barron, pp. 411
[xxvii] Larkin, Peter. (1985) Prose Woods, .
[xxviii] Rose, Gillian. (1997) Love’s Work, pp. 135. Vintage: London
[xxix] Larkin, Peter. (1985) Prose Woods, .
[xxx] Prose Woods, .
[xxxi] Virilio, Paul. (1997) ‘Escape Velocity’, Open Sky, trans Julie Rose, pp. 125. London: Verso
[xxxii] MacSweeney, Barry. (1997) ‘Strap Down In Snowville’, The Book Of Demons, pp. 85. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe.
[xxxiii] Clare, John. (2004) ‘To a Fallen Elm’, Major Works, pp.97. Oxford: OUP
[xxxiv] Larkin, Peter. (1985) Prose Woods, .
[xxxv] Prose Woods, .
[xxxvi] Prose Woods, .
[xxxvii] Prose Woods, .
[xxxviii] Snyder, Gary. (2004) The Practise of the Wild, pp.42. Shoemaker & Hoard: U.S.A
[xxxix] Rose, Gillian. (1997) Love’s Work, pp. 133. Vintage: London
[xl] Larkin, Peter. Prose Woods, .
[xli] Prose Woods, .