At Bay Press, 2020
Reviewed by Joe Enns
TreeTalk by Manitoban writer Ariel Gordon is a collection of poem fragments gathered during a two-day event of the same name in July 2017. The TreeTalk event took place on the patio of a restaurant in downtown Winnipeg called The Tallest Poppy. Over the hot summer weekend, Gordon wrote poems on slips of paper and encouraged others to do the same, tying the poems with string to a struggling boulevard elm as a symbol of re-foliation.
The 234 poems written by Gordon (111), people passing by (107), and other academic sources (16), emulate new leaves. “Poems are edited by writers like me, / But only arborists can prune a tree.” In the book, the poems are embellished with sepia ink illustrations by Natalie Baird. The watery ink blot art provides an earthy visual that matches the writing.
Gordon opens with a scientific description of the American Elm followed by the date and temperature and a meditative poem that describes the downtown area. TreeTalk’s poems and artwork act like the nearby windows through which readers see people interact with the tree.
The opening introduces a relationship with time: “…the perch. / Telling time by the bus schedule, / the number of yolks broken…” The people on the street measure their own lifetimes against that of the old elm. “I’ve heard it said that trees move through time / rather than space, as we do.” Time is also represented in the spatial structure of the book with large gaps of white space between poems that create long pauses like the lapses between events occurring around the tree.
Gordon’s TreeTalk is also organized to reflect the progression of the two days during the event. The first section covers July 29 and makes up two thirds of the book. From “the breakfast rush” of the morning to “a fold of shadow, the day dimmed” and “the last snippet of the day,” the poems describe events on the Winnipeg street. Then the date changes to July 30, cites the temperature, and the poems work their way through the last day, closing with the question, “How do you leave a tree?”
TreeTalk seems to have inspired confessional poems in particular, naming those things that might be avoided and sharing intimate details. “CONFESSION: I once spent a sweet hour cutting an entire tree into firewood, an hour perfecting my swing. The tree split, it knotted. Sawdust flew. And all of it was fed to the fire, turning my skin smoky.”
The elm is regarded as both a provider and protector and embodies the guilt associated with how we treat the earth and invade nature. “How do you know a tree? / You are three times as tall as me, double my age. / I can’t help but maybe I won’t hurt, this paper, this string.”
Gordon includes an appendix describing insect infestations in Winnipeg that year, including the silk strings in the air. The urban elm had been a victim, defoliated and exposed. “The poems move. People look up. / Poems as poison ivy, coated & waxy. / Poetry as invasive species.”
TreeTalk creates a second canopy for the boulevard elm, re-foliated with poetic paper leaves and tied with string instead of caterpillar silk.
Information cited from academic sources aligns with Gordon’s background in science journalism and her 2019 work of creative non-fiction Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forests. Gordon has also published two previous books of poetry: Stowaways (2014) and Hump (2010). Both books received the Lansdowne Prize for Poetry, and Hump also received the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer.