Poem of the week: Woods, and Us by Alison Brackenbury – The Guardian

The benefits of growing up close to nature are remembered in a world where it is has become much more remote
Last modified on Wed 2 Mar 2022 07.07 EST
Woods, and Us
I grew up in a wood.
Well, no. I slept in bed
but spent my days by blackbirds. Rooks
cawed in my head.
I found the thrush’s nest,
her cup of warm-pressed mud.
The beech trees straining to their light
sighed in my blood.
We never owned that place,
I moved at eight. And so
in town gardens, in narrow space,
I watched trees grow
where sparrows shrilled, but neighbours
fretted for light or drains.
Now, many blackbirds later,
I find wide woods again
which few of us can grow,
which no one truly owns,
new pine tips which flash red, long paths
dry as our bones.
The children storm high walls,
the broadest ground they know
beyond tall timbers, bird or fox,
our woods, where people grow.
From Alison Brackenbury’s latest collection, Thorpeness, Woods, and Us visits scenes and sounds from the poet’s childhood in rural Lincolnshire. The iambic quatrain moulding the narrative consists of two lines of trimeter, a third line of tetrameter and, usually, a final dimeter. It’s a structure loosely related to the oral tradition of the ballad, one which Brackenbury often invokes in her poetry.
Here, there’s a gliding, almost casual treatment of the form. It suggests variety: the different species of trees and birds, even the building of a nest from diverse materials. Only the first and third stanzas have an ABAB rhyme-scheme, the others being rhymed ABCB. “Grow” is repeated three times as an end word, twice as the B-rhyme, echoing but altering the verb-in-apposition of the opening line “I grew up in a wood”. The repetition of “grow” unobtrusively emphasises abundance, as if new green shoots were dotted around the poem.
A little opening joke (“I grew up in a wood. / Well, no. I slept in bed” ) is a graceful point of entry for the reader, and although the tone will be pitched higher than this in subsequent stanzas, the informality of the personal account continues to ground the more heightened moments, and provide a base for the reader’s trust. The narrator’s identification with the woods is declared twice, emphasised by the shared syntax of the last lines of the first and second quatrains: “Rooks / cawed in my head” and “The beech trees straining to their light / sighed in my blood.” The use of both realistic and metaphorical registers amplifies this inner “possession”. While the caws of the rooks are audibly present, readers may like a reminder of the lovely sounds surrounding a speaker who “spent [her] days by blackbirds.” Here it is.
Urban realities intrude when the narrator has to leave the place “never owned” and discovers that trees are not always welcome. The choice of “light” and “drains” as the focus of the difficulty is significant. Drainage and light are as essenial to arboreal survival as they are to the wellbeing of humans.
An apocalyptic scene replaces easy solace when the exile returns “many blackbirds later” to “find wide woods again”. Pines whose new growth “flashes red”, and the “long paths / dry as our bones” indicate drought, disease and, ultimately, human extinction. There’s collective responsibility implied in the pronoun-shift from the first-person singular, as if to challenge the pleasure and significance of the previous discoveries. Woods “which few of us can grow, / which no one truly owns” may literally be beyond us, moving out of reach.
The verb “grow”, transitive here (ie “few of us can grow woods”) becomes intransitive in the last line of the poem: “our woods, where people grow.” As in stanza four, the dimeter elsewhere favoured for the closing line of the stanza becomes a trimeter, moving the poem away from ballad form and closer to the measure known in hymn-writing prosody as short metre. A fine, emphatic conclusion, the stanza re-illuminates the influence of growing (up) in a wood, and drawing on its nutrients, with the further implication that it’s by living in and with nature that the young attain full stature, as “people”. The new generation of children appears still to have access to the woods and all the possibilities they represent, but the “high walls” and the ominous “red alert” of the previous stanza remain in place.