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The Turpentine Tree by Lynne Hjelmgard

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The Turpentine Tree is an enduring symbol of memory, fragile but enduring the passage of time and still persisting: in the title poem, Lynne Hjelmgaard describes it 'a coppery faux god / with wildly twisted branches'. It might slip into the void, but here it is for now 'flying into the eye of the storm.' Hjelmgaard employs strong, sensuous imagery to capture moments from across her remarkable life. These are portraits of family, friends and relationships - of Hjelmgaard's uprooted life, including a life at sea, the subsequent displacement, widowhood and search for connections.

Often the remembrances in poems are sweet-bitter, recalling friends and lovers lost, including the writer's late partner Dannie Abse. These explorations of loss are extremely moving, but the poems also communicate the value of a rich bank of memories which range around from spectating on a girl being punished at camp ('Summer Camp'), a Florida roadtrip with friends ('1969'), or an 'Evening Flight from Copenhagen.' Very often the speakers are in transit, travelling through, and so the poems hold onto intense, lucid or epiphanic moments. Out of Hjelmgaard's experiences of solitude come landscapes of silence: atmospheric, rich in emotion and personal detail, exploratory and questioning.

Her poems reveal uncertainty, loneliness and longing but also celebrate the lost; they take solace from ocean journeys that still inform her present - from people and places loved and left behind - and from what is garnered from the natural world. There's an honesty, easiness and at times humour about the language. Vulnerability and strength walk side by side to give an extraordinary depth of experience for the reader.

There's a visitation from her dead lover; her husband's spirit is safe in her wardrobe in a plastic bag; her father's ghost is on a WWII battleship in Norfolk Harbour and later waits for her in a crowd of strangers at Miami airport. These snapshots are sometimes based on real photographs, or at other times are imaginary photographs; Hjelmgaard questions 'Did we really exist? Yes - / the photograph answers' ('The Photograph Answers'). Threaded throughout all these memories is the gorgeous vividness of nature - the sea, animals, and creatures - which take speakers out of human concerns to a more connected relation with the world.

The Turpentine Tree is about intangible presences which open up memory and move beyond it, towards a universal interconnectedness. How far back does grief go? What is lost, what can be found? Is memory transferred between us without words, years later, is the unsayable felt? (from 'On the Atlantic Coast of Spain')




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