They range amongst the upper limbs
like primates encumbered with care,
find parts of trees we’d recognise
as human gestures on the level,
pass rope through crooks of elbows,
bends of knees, and anchor on
to laterals that bear the strain,
the dead weight of the saw
to make their surgery complete.
Down here, we’re squinting at the sun
and, grounded by our lack of skill,
point out the deft incisions we require
to lighten up our lives. They make it so,
disguise it in the cut and pay down
branches, green and dying, each
a stretcher’s girth, a sleeper’s weight.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2011. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2011 was Roddy Lumsden.
A neatly-turned, careful, (almost) whack down the middle poem from Brian Johnstone. I say almost, because the alternation of narrative description and metaphoric imagery takes it a bit more skyward (to continue the somewhat ludicrous golfing metaphor!). A 16 liner in octameter couplets, note how close it feels to being a sonnet (only a few feet shorter than the conventional pentameter sonnet); it even has a ‘turn’ of sorts with that ‘Down here…’ shift.
The poem is based on some radical pruning work done to the mature beech trees in my garden. In trees of this height it is not simply a case of a bit of lopping: the trees have to be scaled using rock climbing equipment and techniques, with the cut branches being brought down in a similar fashion. It was this which gave me the opening image of the primates, with the human gestures and physical allusions springing from the usage of ‘limb’ as a synonym for a branch. In the closing images I use the words ‘stretcher’ and ‘sleeper’ in two senses, of a stretcher being a corner post on which fence wire is braced and a sleeper a support for railway track, as well as their standard meanings. Struck by the similarity of lowering the branches to the ground to getting an injured climber down a rock face, the two words that captured the wood’s shape and volume also being types of cut timber was something of a gift.