September is here, and the season of dying leaves will soon be upon us. But at least Hamilton is beautiful in autumn. You need only take a walk along an Escarpment trail bordered by Fall-enflamed branches to know that. Many of our urban streets are lined with majestic maples and oaks and sycamores. To live here is to be accompanied by hundreds of thousands of perennial woody plants—to watch them grow and change and come and go in our parks and in cemeteries, in open spaces in our own backyards.
These are the very trees that award-winning Hamilton poet John Terpstra praises, questions, and ponders in his newly republished collection Naked Trees. First released in 1990, this edition features beautiful woodcuts by Wesley Bates, another Ontario artist. And you need not be an arborist, a poet, or even a Hamiltonian to appreciate this gorgeous multi-poem meditation on gifts of nature most of us daily take for granted.
“This book pays tribute to the fallen,” says Terpstra in his introduction, letting you know this is not a collection that rejoices in the living trees without lamenting those lost. He is tender with his subjects—grateful for them, and admits that as a writer and a cabinetmaker, he owes them a great debt.
The first section tells a story familiar to many: a tree forced down. In this case, it is a silver maple in Terpstra’s neighbourhood taken by a city work crew. With it go memories and histories—not just Terpstra’s, but also those of the people who lived so long in its orbit. Its absence brings “A loss of equilibrium. And the entire street feels less secure.” And haven’t you felt this? Or seen a street of someone you know so altered?
Throughout the book, Terpstra’s melancholy yet patient tone is just right—never melodramatic and yet never blithe, and always ripe with fresh metaphors. Chunks of tree do not just ‘sit’ on the ground—instead they “lay scattered on the lawn like oversized building blocks that some oversized kid had kicked down.”
Trees, however—even those deceased—are more than building blocks in the poet’s enlivening hands. “Trees are intended to move,” he says—and move they do, almost human as they bend and sway. Even when not in motion Terpstra sees in them “an overall impression of humanness” — such as a young sycamore with “the awkwardness of youth, the gangly look of a skinny adolescent, one who is all limbs, whose joints are prominent.” How like us his trees are.
What Terpstra does so well, though, is balance the humanness of trees with their mysterious “otherworldliness.” Every poem has at its center a profound respect for the knowledge and histories that trees have to offer those who take the time to pay them attention. “A tree will be the first to know when the rain starts” says one of the many poems emphasizing the practical and sensory knowledge of these natural additions to urban landscape. Yet it seems their full truths are always just out of our reach. Again and again, Terpstra treats them as enigmatic intercessors, since they “inhabit the world between geography and population, between earth and animal.” He revels in their paradoxes of gravity and purpose without straying from their physicality.
There is lightness and wit here also. Terpstra lets his poetry play with the trees, as if he is a child playing around their trunks or beneath their shade. Take the ironic truth in the first line of “Prison,” which observes that “A tree either is the view or blocks it.” Or the description of a utility pole as “the pinewood of the grid-laid city.” These are not poems to incite laughter, exactly—but Terpstra’s winking amusement is contagious.
Naked Trees is a journey to be taken and re-taken, like a favourite path or street revisited. Perhaps the best way to read it is to embrace it as an invitation—a call to look more closely at the trees you encounter, in all environments and seasons.
This city-dweller is grateful, however, to have read this book at summer’s end. My anticipation for autumn has more urgency, now—and poetic shape. I enter September with Terpstra’s lyrical autumnal phrases hanging in my mind, awaiting “the annual, monumental disrobing of the trees.” Even when the branches are bare, I know that I can look forward to the leaves under my feet as “new and crisp and colorful as the paper currency of a gone country.” Such lines will accompany me on my strolls and hikes, and come back to me as I look out my window at Hamilton enfolded by the Fall.
I encourage you, too, to head over to local publishers Wolsak and Wynn and secure yourself a copy of this striking, eloquently crafted work. Once you do, I daresay that you will never see trees the same way—or forget what a delight and honour it is to have a poet like Terpstra in our midst.
Adele Konyndyk is a Hamilton-based freelance writer and editor. She’s also a huge CanLit adorer and, like many in the country, especially fangirly about Alistair MacLeod and Alice Munro. Currently Adele is at work on her first book, a collection of short fiction. You can email her or follow her on Twitter @AdeleKonyndyk.