(Mica Press, 2021); pbk £7.00
Award-winning poet and memoirist John Greening brings us on a pilgrimage to the site of a historical, seventeenth-century spiritual community. His narrator is contemplative, almost restless, in his encounter with the nature. ‘Walking there, he hears the trees addressing him;’ the oak, sycamore, sweet chestnut, and pine beckon him closer to the panorama of a steeple where one man – Nicholas Ferrar – and a chorus of psalm-children wait beside a pyre of books on fire.
In The Giddings, Greening’s narrator describes a pilgrimage to the spiritual community in Huntingdonshire. This autobiographic character sketch, written in beautiful interludes of poetry and prose, reminds me of the Haibun, a Japanese literary form of travel writing. Greening’s narrator observes the physical and spiritual evolution of the landscape around him, connecting both aspects of growth through prosaic and poetic stanzas. Yet his reflections do more than traverse form; each verse connects to bridge the present and past.
Chronology is one of the most complex aspects of the collection. Although The Giddings begins in a modern world, this lyrical narrative moves backward in time. For a while, the poem and its narrator remain in 17th-century Huntingdonshire. It is here that we witness the shadowy mass of ‘the master … burning his conjuring books.’
On occasion, the poem returns to an older age, drudging up imagery of the now obsolete. Two examples of this would be the ‘cruise missiles […] wheeled out in the 1980s,’ and the ‘disused windmill […] stripped of its sails and any risk of ever being moved by the wind.’ Both objects are ‘conversation[s] marked on the map, work of decades ago –.’
The poem is as active as its narrator, walking
back down the avenue, where civil war
is hardly more than unfurled leaf, a reign of peace
where we catch glimpses of major historic events before finally returning to the present Little Gidding.
In similar fashion with form and time, Greening’s collection moves between geographical space; from Monks Wood, Huntingdonshire, Virginia, to the memory of London, England, ‘when a sixth of the population’ died. Looking up from Little Gidding, we watch the ‘Huntingdonshire moon […] become a raw Spanish sun;’ Ferrar
is seen walking, younger now, walking hundreds of miles (though he never leaves Gidding, which is nowhere yet in his thoughts) […] free to walk and think about the future.
The Giddings concludes with a final scene that ‘looks for all the world like Cambridge.’ Greening describes the setting like ‘a shadow procession passing.’ Crowns, robes, footmen and ladies in waiting, their elongated shapes draped across the lawn, cross the bridge between past and present. Always, in their midst, remains the ‘one identifiable profile: young Ferrar, joining the others.’
Throughout the collection, the members of Nicholas Ferrar’s congregation are represented as personified trees. They are ethereal voices hearsed in the bodies of ‘oak, elm, holly, hazel, cherry, juniper, walnut, maple, sycamore, apple, willow, cypress, etc.’ They lament their obsolescence and bewail the damage caused by ash, disease, and decay.
You see we all become extinct
not just the precious landscape trees.
Each member adds ‘one extra inch around the waist’ of a tree […] just some rings, a little height and deeper roots.’
We never move.
We make sure progress.
Greening describes the trees shaping
in special ways that could be ours,
in tree prayer, tree psalm, tree hymn. They start anew
each season, as we should.
The collection’s denouement demonstrates to us the process and purpose of progress, renewal and change in the aftermath of disaster and time:
hurry, lean, whisper, allow yourself
once in a while to lose your head, re-
doubling, re-rooting, harbour your best
resources for the moment you reach
whatever underworld you are now.