There is much to explore in this Almanac of entries, some more sculpted than others, compiled by the poet Gerry Loose as he wandered the familiar and foreign oakwoods of Sunart and Saari in 2007, 2008 and 2010.
An Oakwoods Almanac is arranged in two parts. The first, ‘Sunart’, takes its name from the Scottish oakwood and contains entries made in and around this area from September 2007 to June 2008. ‘Saari’, the second, shorter and more focussed section, contains entries made in and around the Finnish oakwood (from which this section takes its name) between September and November 2010. These two parts have very different qualities and characters. The first, ‘Sunart’, is a fog of place names and organism activity that weave in and out of an oakwood that you may or may not be inhabiting at any one time. There are no maps. Dates are partial. And it feels like Loose is only partly committed to this text as a publishable piece of writing. You are as likely to be treated to reflections on the conflict in Israel as you are to a detailed observation of ants. The mind wanders and the text, correspondingly, disorientates. In contrast, ‘Saari’ has no maps, but the structure is clear. This section provides days, dates, months and place names with which to orient the reader. In ‘Sunart’ you are never quite sure where you are or what time it is. In ‘Saari’ you even get subheadings. ‘Saari’ is a series of highly focussed snapshots and polished reflections. Loose’s entries shine hard and bright, like the ‘diamond pointed minds’ (136) of the raptors he references. If ‘Saari’ is something to share, ‘Sunart’ is for himself.
If I wasn’t interested in the dynamics of writing in and about place, Loose might have lost me with ‘Sunart’. In this first section, Loose is so much a part of his surroundings that he is largely absent to himself and the reader. He forgets that his audience are strangers both to him and to the oakwoods he inhabits. His account is intimate. We find his thoughts and language in a state of disarray. We are mainlined into his stream of consciousness; we inhabit what Loose inhabits, unedited. The partiality of flitting from one thing to another is set down faithfully, in the moment, with the result that the writing may only make partial sense. We are half-blind. Loose is fluent in these woods and takes this knowledge for granted, making no allowance for our ignorance. In this section, we get a sense of our guide more through his patterns of thought than through any direct detail; he is mostly speaking to himself.
There are two entries that, together, give a good sense of what it is like to read ‘Sunart’. The first, written on the 10th October 2007, describes Loose’s relationship to words:
I have too many words. What’s written here is spontaneous, I’ve nothing to lose but the words. It may be a broadcloth journal, from cutout bits from poems; the poems are the holes in the cloth from which they’ve been cut. Like the Jain image of the released spirit, a negative, because they are not yet written. In the surrounding material are many repetitions in pattern, like speech. (23)
This almanac ‘may be a broadcloth journal’, a word hoard, or spontaneous site of notes that fill the store cupboard from which future poems might later ferment. This is both suggested and immediately counteracted as a possibility. It is not that the poems will later be cut from this broadcloth of spontaneous jottings but that this broadcloth is already a collage, formed ‘from cutout bits from poems’. The journal is less a continuous piece and more of a patchwork quilt; a quilt made from the leftover fabric from which these poems have been already cut. Except this is not quite it either because the poems do not yet exist, or exist only in negative, ‘because they are not yet written’. But if they are not yet written, how have they formed holes in the text? I’m pushing the text, perhaps more than is warranted, in order to excavate what it is Loose is delivering for the reader. This excerpt shows how ‘Sunart’ can be both suggestive and confusing, a combination that can be frustrating – it gestures towards what it could give you, but doesn’t. ‘Sunart’ rewritten would be a very different oakwood. There is something to be gained from the honesty of setting down words as they arrive but this act of recording unstructured thoughts and leaving the reader to make sense of them could also be seen as presumptuous; other writers have to rewrite and restructure but this writer doesn’t have to – why? Is publishing a work before it is fully-formed an act of laziness on the part of an author who won’t rewrite or an act of generous vulnerability, exposing prose in its ‘purest’ formation, only just out of the mind? It is these questions that makes this text an interesting work to study, but not always an easy one to read. ‘Sunart’ is a word store, pre clear-out, and we are often lost in its midden.
The second entry I want to look at, written on 29th December 2007, describes Loose’s perceptual approach to Sunart oakwoods:
There is a need to approach Sunart oakwoods obliquely. Like sitting. Sitting very still, alert and relaxed, waiting for something to arrive: a deer, maybe, or an owl. If I look at trees in the dusk directly, they dance in vision; it’s the way our eyes are physically made. Look to one side and the tree is clearer. I approach the tree sideways, a little nervous of their history and presence. I count geese, deer, list mosses, enumerate spiders, look out to sea with my back to the woods, holly and birch and alder all around. It’s as if to look directly is somehow to obscure a latency, a voice that I want to listen to; but it’s not enough to be attentive, scientific; it’s necessary to be receptive. I’m impatient. I’ll not live as long as an oak. (61)
This entry provides the rationale for ‘Sunart’s mode of delivery. It also sheds light on Loose’s decision to leave this section so unreconstructed, and potentially offers a guide to the reader. Loose’s approach to understanding this oakwood is oblique, perhaps our reading method should be similar? Loose is wary of disturbing the oakwood’s fragile voice with the violence of direct attention. Perhaps the violent kind of truth-searching to which I subjected the word-store excerpt is an example of precisely what Loose is trying to avoid. I can identify with this feeling. It is something I felt when working with a tree for three years in Cornwall. There is a different logic among trees. A human cannot contain the expansiveness of the relationships at work there. We have to insert ourselves into the network – to be rather than do – in order to feel how these relationships work, and even then we have already disturbed something. The counting of geese and deer, the listing of mosses, the enumeration of spiders are gestures, fine-fingered attempts to store fragments from which to reconfigure a whole. Loose has tried to capture a sense of these threads without pulling a hole in the fabric, but the oakwood is no clearer as a result. In response to William Carlos Williams, Loose writes that ‘Things have their own ideas, they’re […] an event, walking their own way’ (39). The event that is this oakwood evades capture in ‘Sunart’, despite Loose’s best efforts. ‘Inside a wood, it is hard to see it for the trees which overwhelm with their forms, twisted, broken, growing one in the other […] I find it hard also to see the trees for this reason’ (22). Loose cannot see the woods or trees, and neither can we.
‘Saari’ is a different species. As a stranger, Loose is more attentive and committed to his note-making; he is more focussed in Finland. His prose is a poetry: alert, more consciously placed, more settled. Here, Loose writes, ‘I go to the woods because they do not need me’ (111). He is clear-sighted and precise. After enduring the fog of ‘Sunart’ (for almost one hundred pages), ‘Saari’ sparkles and all forty-eight pages are equally brilliant.
And so we are left with the question, should Loose have made ‘Sunart’ sparkle in the same way as ‘Saari’? Or is there more for the reader in the unfinished, warts-and-all structure of ‘Sunart’ than in ‘Saari’s polished prose? Or, finally, does the value lie in their comparison? This Almanac poses many questions, the responses to all of which will be different depending on how and what you like to read. For myself, having braved the wilds of ‘Sunart’, ‘Saari’ was a welcome reward. But Loose’s Almanac certainly offers much to think about.
An Oakwoods Almanac is available from Shearsman Books.
Camilla Nelson is a language artist, researcher and collaborator across a range of disciplines. ‘Tidal Voices’, a collaboration with Welsh poet Rhys Trimble, was short-listed for the Tidal Bay Swansea Lagoon World-First Art Commission (Cape Farewell) and her first full collection Apples & Other Languages (forthcoming with Knives Forks and Spoons) was long-listed for the 2015 Melita Hume Poetry Prize. Camilla completed her practice-based PhD in Reading & Writing with a Tree: Practising ‘Nature Writing’ as Enquiry, funded by Falmouth University, in 2012. This research involved working intensely with a series of trees over a three year period, with particular attention paid to an apple tree in the walled garden of Tremough Campus. Excerpts from this and other projects can be found on her website. Camilla is the founding editor of Singing Apple Press, contributing editor for The Learned Pig and poetry editor for The Goose, the official publication of ALECC (Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada).