In a book chat featured on the 2020 Thin Air Writers Festival site, Sarah Klassen and Sally Ito talk about Sarah’s latest volume of poetry The Tree of Life published by Turnstone Press.
Since I had just read The Tree of Life I was interested to learn from their discussion that many of the poems in the section of the book titled Ordinary Time were inspired by things Sarah observed in nature while standing on the balcony of her fourth-floor apartment.
Sarah introduces us to a convoy of geese as they “contemplate, courageously, the next long flight,” the sparrow with its “claws like little commas”, the hawk that “hovers, hungry, wings wide open as if in benediction,” and the bald eagle “in transit across the sky’s blue canopy.”
Readers are enchanted by foxes “yelping, chasing, wrestling on the grass like children unrestrained by fear of predators or vixen mother,” deer who “come softly to the garden bringing nothing but their hunger and their grace,” and even wasps who “nuzzle the patio’s torn screen door seeking refuge from the autumn wind.”
In keeping with the title of Sarah’s book The Tree of Life, there is a series of thought-provoking poems in the Ordinary Time section about trees…. the apple, fig, spruce, oak, elm, and sycamore. Of an oak tree remembered from childhood Sarah writes…..
“A branch of our oak had grown thick and bent
into something resembling the handle of an oversized cup
a giant could stick his fat thumb through.”
I thought the nature poems in Ordinary Time were particularly appropriate for our current time. Of course, nothing about 2020 is ordinary. But people unable to travel or socialize have been drawn to the natural world for activity, inspiration, and reflection. Sarah is a nature watcher and she reminds us not only of the beauty but also the brutality we can witness as we observe the natural world. In a poem about a loving pair of geese and their little family, Sarah also includes
“A crow couple clamped to a willow branch.
Four jet eyes nail the goslings, a succulent quartet”
I was particularly drawn to the poems in the section of Sarah’s book titled Half the Sky. The first six are about women from the Bible and Sarah makes the choice to expose the darkness in their lives. The concubine in Judges 19:22-26 who is
in a town where all she wanted was
a little rest from travel and some food”
Queen Esther for whom
“days are long, and nights she is at the mercy of the king’s whim. She could live, or
she could die if she lifts onto her soft shoulders
the burden of a nation’s fate.”
There are also poems about Jephthah’s daughter who becomes a human sacrifice, Eve whose son murders his brother, Hagar who is sent into exile, and Mary who is harshly judged for her impropriety in anointing Jesus’ feet with costly oil.
During her interview with Sally Ito, Sarah revealed she had not written the poems that appear in The Tree of Life in any particular order and certainly not with the idea they would fit into a certain section of a book. I felt that gave me a kind of license to skip around the book too, savouring Sarah’s rich and riveting texts, one at a time, thinking about the questions they raised and the personal connections they brought to mind.
Four of my favourite poems in The Tree of Life were Country which turns a pedicure into a moving experience, New Music where a young violinist inspires an ageing heart, Itinerary which catalogues the anxieties of travel, and Tower which offers a child’s perspective on a tragedy. I could connect with each poem in such a personal way.
I can highly recommend Sarah Klassen’s The Tree of Life. You are sure to find poems on its pages that will inspire you to look at the natural world with new eyes, help you see old stories from new points of view, and poems that will make you think about your own personal experiences in new ways.