Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer

The Wren in the Ash Tree

  • Hope for Cop 28

    There isn’t much of it. But if ever we could get the powerful ones together and make them listen to us, it’s now. So here is a canto from my long eco-protest poem The Wren in the Ash Tree which was published in Haggards in 2018. The Outcry isn’t mine – it’s the ‘outcry of the earth, the outcry of the poor’ which The Papal Encyclical Laudato Si’ talks about. And, just to add to the timely references, the line ‘enough of blood and tears’ was said at the signing of the Norway accords between Israel and Palestine in 1993.

    Canto 1: The Outcry

    The hanging man says,
    ‘Outcry of grief
    goes up and down the world-tree,
    grumble of ravens and chattering classes
    in tweets and rumours on smartphones.
    Her leaves are nibbled by squirrels,
    in curtained bedrooms and behind
    the facades of abandoned shops,
    browsed to the bark by greedy stags,
    in city suits and plate-glassed offices
    her roots undermined by serpents
    wasting the soil. The hedges are down,
    the fenlands drained and the red dust
    is washed off suburban car fronts.’

    The wren is singing in the bramble bush.

    The woman at the ford says,
    ‘On one bank of the river,
    there is a lament for the fallen,
    on the other, the outcry
    of those who have lost everything,
    and there is never enough
    of blood or tears.’

    El duende says,
    ‘This is the place of pain.
    To sing here you will need
    to open the heart,
    the lungs and voice,
    and meet it square.
    You can’t sing from hiding,
    nor drunk or afraid.
    You can’t sing this softly
    like chocolate in the sun.
    You must give yourself
    to the fight with all your strength.
    It will take all you’ve got.
    It will feel like death.’

    The wren slips between the branches
    of the birch tree without a sound.

    And the field says,
    ‘You can’t write my music.
    There ain’t no sixteen bars,
    no twelve bar phrases here –
    field music comes bursting
    straight from the heart.’

    The city is silent.
    All the roundabouts
    are wearing flowers
    dressed in cellophane
    and there are soft toys
    on every doorstep.

    The song from the city is sung
    behind a proscenium arch,
    in other voices, not ours,
    And we are shamed by silence.

    The wren is hidden
    among the leaves of the ash
    and sings without ceasing.

    And the púca sings
    in the depths of the sea,
    ‘The water is poisoned with oil
    and the krill are scarce. We are hungry
    and choking on plastic.
    There are small boats, sinking
    beneath the weight of sorrow
    and the men with guns who turn
    the lost ones away from their coasts.’

    And the völva is casting the runes.
    The leather bag is thick,
    tough and unbending,
    and gives away no secrets,
    but the stones mutter
    and grind against each other.
    The black angular lines –
    tree, hammer, wealth,
    ocean, ice – will come together,
    fall in the right configuration,
    give their bleak verdict soon enough.

    The rune for harvest is the same
    as the rune for the day of reckoning.

    And the wren sings on the bare branches,
    sings without ceasing.

  • The Wren in the Ash Tree

    The last twenty pages of Haggards contain a long poem called The Wren in the Ash Tree. I’ve been going on about it , it seems like forever, and bits of it have appeared in Dark Mountain 9 and on this blog here, but now you will be able to get the whole thing.

    It was inspired by Sorley Maclean’s An Cuillithionn’ (‘The Cuillin‘, 1939), which I read two years ago. At that time,we hadn’t yet had the major political upheavals that were to happen, but I could see which way the wind was blowing, and I really thought we might be in for a major collapse of both environment and society. I was trying to chart both the progress of decay and the  intellectual dereliction that made it possible, and, hopefully, find perspectives that might encourage us not to despair completely.

    I chose the wren almost at random, because I love wrens, and because the song of wrens in the trees surrounding our garden often accompanies my writing. It was particularly fortuitous, as when I started research, I discovered its traditional use as the symbol of enlightenment, inspiration and creativity. I got hold of the definitive study of wrens The Wren by Edward A. Armstrong (published by Collins in 1955, and never bettered), and used his extensive research to structure the poem.

    It is in seven cantos (including Prologue and Epilogue!) in tribute to Sorley Maclean, but it isn’t nearly as long. The cantos are

    • The Bird that Brought the Fire, which sets the scene and introduces the wren marking its territory
    • The Outcry, which is a protest from the earth about the wreck of our environment.
    • Fuga Mundi, which evokes the responses I was hearing from activists and concerned people; the wren in this canto is surviving the harsh weather of winter
    • There are Lights. This canto was originally going to be called Our Lady of Sorrows, and deal with compassion, but the election of Trump intervened, and more particularly, the Women’s March, so now it is about the networks of women who quietly resist destruction. The wrens in this canto are nest building, and it it noticeable that Armstrong sees this process as happening through negotiation and dialogue between male and female birds.
    • Soil and Seed, which deals with both the literal soil beneath our feet, and, metaphorically, with the collective unconscious. In this canto the wrens are on the nest, and eggs hatch. Recent research suggests that chicks crack the egg shell only in response to the ‘whispering’ of a parent bird, and they can recognise their own  parent.
    • A Web of Speaking Beings was inspired by a quote from Colin Tudge which is used as the epigraph. I am very taken by Julia Kristeva’s idea of the human as a ‘speaking being’ whose identity is formed in dialogue with the people around him, but in this quote I saw that this applies to the whole of material existence. The young birds fledge at the end of this canto.
    • In the Silence of Our Hearts talks about the moment of insight which might begin the process of regeneration.

    By the end of the writing process, the poem wasn’t about collapse so much as regeneration. Donald Trump and Brexit may have divided people and caused havoc, but they have also united people who are simply not up for letting this happen. I started writing in despair, and I finished, not only with vision, but with gratitude, courage and hope.

    I do hope you like it!


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