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Saying the opposite

May 7, 2012

Two Trees by Don Paterson and Ice Cream by Andrew Motion

These poems achieve much by saying the opposite of what they mean. Paterson’s is about everything but trees, and Motion’s everything but ice cream. It’s a powerful trick.

Two Trees

One morning, Don Miguel got out of bed
with one idea rooted in his head:
to graft his orange to his lemon tree.
It took him the whole day to work them free,
lay open their sides, and lash them tight.
For twelve months, from the shame or from the fright
they put forth nothing; but one day there appeared
two lights in the dark leaves. Over the years
the limbs would get themselves so tangled up
each bough looked like it gave a double crop,
and not one kid in the village didn’t know
the magic tree in Miguel’s patio.

The man who bought the house had had no dream
so who can say what dark malicious whim
led him to take his axe and split the bole
along its fused seam, then dig two holes.
And no, they did not die from solitude;
nor did their branches bear a sterile fruit;
nor did their unhealed flanks weep every spring
for those four yards that lost them everything,
as each strained on its shackled root to face
the other’s empty, intricate embrace.
They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about.

Marvellous.

Andrew Motion is not my favourite poet, for an irrational reason –  I don’t think I’d get on with him. We’ve never met and are not likely too – I don’t move in poetry circles. But he’s a public figure, ex poet laureate, so I feel I know him, and he has always seemed too politically correct for comfort. It started with his biography of Larkin, with its patronising attitude to Larkin’s human weaknesses. Martin Amis put it well: “In Andrew Motion’s book, we have the constant sense that Larkin is somehow falling short of the cloudless emotional health enjoyed by, for instance, Andrew Motion.”

But it’s an irrational feeling. The poet Motion still hits the spot, albeit less often than the great man. This does. I just checked and discovered I had misremembered the title. It’s To Whom It May Concern, not Ice Cream. Hmm? It’ll remain “Andrew Motion’s Ice Cream poem about war” to me.

To Whom It May Concern

This poem about ice cream
has nothing to do with government
with riot, with any political scheme

It is a poem about ice cream. You see?
About how you might stroll into a shop
and ask: One Strawberry Split. One Mivvi.

What did I tell you? No one will die.
No licking tongues will melt like candle wax.
This is a poem about ice cream. Do not cry.

It makes me cry.

Jim Thornton

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