Sorrow the Past

A review of I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press) by Tiana Clark

As Adrienne Rich suggested, “in times like these, it’s necessary to talk about the trees.” Similarly, the poems of Tiana Clark’s stunning debut collection ask: how will one survive saying what can’t be said? And yet, how does one live without saying?

I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood takes Rich’s sentiment one step further with the tree as symbol, as weapon, and language as a vehicle in which to deliver human experience from a historical perspective, dissecting racism, sexual assault, and religious faith. In addition to the urgency these poems have in light of the Trump regime, they are remarkably relevant in terms of the #metoo movement, women’s rights, #blacklivesmatter, and other contemporary causes and crises. The reader is told to “listen” because “for every pain / there is a longer / song,” and the pain and longing of these poems are both historical and very, very present, when the world toggles between past and present so earnestly in the current political climate.

Though this work is timely, the subject matter is not the source of Clark’s brilliance. Rather, her inventiveness with the line, with language, with narrative, with her use of form, is what makes these poems so brilliant. In “Tim,” for example, as the speaker is “breaking away / from fear,” the line breaks, abruptly. The disruption inside the speaker becomes external, represented by a literal break on the page. As she does late in this poem, Clark uses a columned technique in several poems to mirror the multiple facets of the “truth” in each narrative. The result is the poem(s) within the poem, which is breathtaking.

Clark’s poems are gorgeous not merely because there are so many enviable lines, but because of the use of language to engage in experience in an honest way. To be political, yet produce fierce beauty at the same time. To make pop culture and historical references, from Phyllis Wheatley to Rihanna, the lyric moment fraught with ghosts. To demonstrate insight and alarm, sorrow and praise, while using sound or repetition or short lines with staccato beats or long lines that run quickly from the mouth. To make the reader uncomfortable. To control the speed of aftermath with lineation. To bruise the ear with sound. To sorrow the past. To send “future fears” into the world. To quell them with the shortest of lines, so tightly held together. To braid the future with the past in couplets, “this hurt, traveling home.” To “Bear Witness.” In quatrains. In paragraphs. In loud, long, luxurious lines.

I am bowled over by this collection. How the poems live in my heart, my mind, my ear, my mouth, my bones. All at once. Like a groundswell. The poems themselves “like trees / walking / (on fire).”