This odd poem, something between a meditation and a libretto, came to me strangely. I’d finished the memoir/ short story section of my new volume, Spills, in which I’d written, among other things, about my Catholic convent upbringing and my Italian background. I thought I’d finished, and took an evening off to listen to James Macmillan’s Tenebrae. There was an interview with him in my CD notes, in which he states that ‘music especially has always held a candle for the sacred … Perhaps in the other arts they’ve gone down other roads, round corners and even into cul-de-sacs’. I wasn’t consciously taking it in, but the next day I started to jot down some quotations from the gospels. At my convent, the Passion story was re-read and re-lived every year—almost stigmatised on the flesh as we girls stood, arms outstretched, in chapel on Good Friday! And because spills, sticks, twigs, splinters and bones were a leitmotif running through the volume, I found myself picking out references to wood, trees and gardens in the gospel stories. I was surprised at how many there are.
Usually I write slowly, and revise over a period of weeks, months, sometimes years. But these poems came surprisingly fast, almost intact, as if from a place, not exactly outside myself but perhaps from far back. It was as if they’d been gestating without me, for years, and were now ready. Moreover, because it was music that had first tapped them into life, it seemed, as I wrote, that the lines were calling on sounds beyond their own. Maybe, I thought, this is a kind of song-cycle or libretto? I’m not sure.
If I try to think about these poems critically, I suppose I might say that they are about ‘the sacred’, both within and outside the Christian story. They are about the sacred in trees and in the stories we inherit about trees: dryads, nymphs, green men and gardens, as well as the wood of the cross and the Garden of Olives. But they are also about the instruments we make from trees—instruments that revive, even resurrect, the sound the wood contains in its hollows. Perhaps a poem, if it works, might also be a kind of instrument–singing beyond itself, and of course beyond anything a critical commentary (like this) might try to explain of it. So here I’ll stop, and just say: the rest is yours.
Angela Leighton was born in Wakefield, educated in Edinburgh and Oxford, and has taught at the universities of Hull and Cambridge. She is Research Fellow in poetry at Trinity College, Cambridge and has published many works of literary criticism, poetry and short stories. Her three previous collections of poery are A Cold Spell (2000), Sea Level (2007), and The Messages (2012). Spills (click here for details) was published in February 2016 by Carcanet Press.