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Review of The Night Tree
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Jane Griffiths, Poetry Review, volume 95: winter 2004-5
In The Night Tree, Jane Draycott's second collection from Carcanet/Oxford Poets, nothing is quite what it seems. In 'Night Driving', the journey in an unknown country becomes a hallucinatory vision of all Europe's wars, past and present, rolled into one, 'ahead, in the rear-view and burning.' In 'Set Like a Net', the circus people who 'imagine themselves, sewing on stars, walking / the wires, crossing the high pass to safety' prove to be Jews in Hitler's Germany, not performing but tortured, in hiding, fighting for their lives. These are night visions in every sense of the word, not least in their oliquity. Draycott has an extraordinary gift for transformation. Her metaphors are translucent, suggesting there is nothing that cannot be seen through or seen double.
In a poem such as 'Set Like a Net' this is purposely disturbing; elsewhere it exhilarates. In the stuninng title poem, it is impossible to say whether the tree is a metaphor for a ship or the other way around. Both possibilities have to be borne in mind simultaneously, so that the experience of reading the poem replicates the disorientation of the narrator in 'the sea / which is a forest' where:
time travels slowly
as if at great height or in exile and men
report voices heard crying in darkness,
though for myself I think it is only the seals
calling to each other in their language
through all the leafiness of the night.
Here, as so often in the collection, the dark becomes a metaphor for the unconscious weight of a shared history. In the final part of the work the Thames comes to serve something of the same purpose. The river is a strong physical presence, but it is also more than itself: the sum of all responses to it, or 'a fast-flowing rumour, / which runs throughout the day.' This dream-like quality is particulary apparent in 'Matchless', a sequence which floats lightly on its semi-submerged origin in the fourteenth-century dream vision Pearl. In the Middle English poem, a jeweller who mourns the death of his young daughter, imagining her as a pearl dropped in a garden, is granted a revelation of her as one of the bridges of Christ. Nonetheless, it is a poem of loss, ending with his rash attempt to plunge into the river that separates him from his daughter in New Jerusalem. 'Matchless' too deals with loss:
Lost to their father flawless
and small they slip, Margery
Rita and Pearl, into sleep
one August embankment.
The exact nature of the event is unspecified. At first it seems the lost girls are merely grown to adulthood. Yet the summer afternoon of the opening section shifts quickly to a nightmarish cityscape. Here the searching men may be predators rather than fathers; the girls may be runaway, homeless or drowned; and the river is at once a metaphor for the course of life and, literally, the end of it. As in 'Night Drive' the uncertainty as to what precisely is happening itself becomes the threat.
'The Night Tree' is full of dreamers, solitary figures who struggle to get a grip on their physical surroundings. There is the man who knew he was turning to glass, the fossil collector, the schoolboy mathematician for whom diagrams are 'a place / where mind's not agitated.' In Draycott's dangerously shifting world, their responses are only appropriate. Like the restorer of wall paintings or the salvage worker, and like Draycott herself, they are visionaries, making visible what was invisible, or at least providing new ways of seeing.
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