A Taste: a review of TreeTalk by Ariel Gordon with illustrations by Natalie Baird | Louise Carson


At Bay Press 2020

I like to read the introduction and end matter of poetry books first, and for understanding TreeTalk, this proved helpful. In the intro I learned the ‘what,’ ‘where’ and ‘how,’ and in the appendix discovered the ‘why’ and ‘who.’

     What is the book about? Just a tree. An elm tree. And the poet who set up beneath it on the patio of The Tallest Poppy restaurant at 103 Sherbrooke St, Winnipeg, next to a pawn shop. Or, as Gordon fancifully puts it, and in reverse order: on Earth, in the Solar System, in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way, itself a part of the Virgo Supercluster. (!) Which pretty much covers the ‘where.’ As I said, the book is about a tree.

     And it’s also about the poems, which brings me to the ‘how.’

     Sitting at a table during the hot last weekend of July, 2017, with pieces of green cardboard, yarn and writing implements, the poet wrote about a hundred poems, solicited another hundred from passersby, and lifted some info pertinent to the elm tree from other sources. The poems were hung from the tree. Then, at home, she had fun snipping and rearranging all these fragments.

     Gordon’s poems are mostly prose. Some are lists and some are lyrics. I wasn’t quite sure at the beginning, but later I guessed that her poems are flushed left, while the poems by others and extracts from books are slightly indented. The first poem that touched me was this one:

          The breeze redeems the street. The shadows deepen.

          I can’t get over people reaching up to refoliate the tree.

          People bending & thinking tree, instead of morning, cream for my tea

     A list poem appears on the next page.

Leaves & paper. Wasps’ nests. Manuscripts.

          Parasols. Cones & flowers & seeds. Napkins on the


     In it, Gordon veers around, up and down, celebrating different kinds of paper: from the wasps’, homemade; to used napkins. And we all know where paper comes from, don’t we?

     Here’s one of the poems written by a member of the public: “I’ve been waiting for years for someone / to poet-tree.” Har.

     Gordon watches the people on the street and the people who stop for poetry. “A Filipino girl writes Peace and Serenity / then runs for the bus, her lip quivering.” And

His shirt open, a scar stands out on his belly,

          showing the trajectory of a blade

          as he bends to write: This bird can sing.

     Gordon includes a few dry extracts from textbooks about the elm’s growth habits, appearance, uses. It is the context in which she places them which make them resonate. For example, one street-poet, celebrating at an elderly friend’s memorial, writes,

          We had a “Mom”

          who lived down the street,

          and she was so sweet

          We are here to remember her

          Her life was like this tree. (heart)


followed by this note from Plants of the Western Boreal Forest. “Elm wood is used for dry goods barrels, boxes, crates, furniture, flooring, panelling, caskets and boat-building.”

     Sometimes, in Gordon’s words, she is experiencing something close to what the tree might experience. Here they are early on the first day.

          I’m as slow as sap, mid-summer.

          I’m as still as a leaf in the breeze: fixed

          but vibrating. I oscillate like a fan.

     Tree, or girl? That’s part of the fun – we don’t know.

     That’s not to say, that there aren’t sombre notes in the book. The poet quotes an urban forester. “We may never see trees of this size in Winnipeg again.” And, at the end of Saturday, it rains and the poems tied to the tree bleed. Then comes this redemptive line: “Errands are run like dogs on a leash.” You can see people dashing through the rain.

     On the second day of the project, Gordon’s words become more lyric to my ear. It’s hot again and she’s getting tired. “People pour secrets into the tree. Images. / Ideas. Penetrate the bark like beetles & feed.” And

          Across the street, a man with a bare chest, white &

          hairy with a red face, flexes his muscles, like he’s a

          Sunday strongman. He turns slowly, like he’s on a cake,

          preening in the window.


Lights hung in the trees. Wires. Nests.

          Garbage bags, shredded by updrafts. Homemade kites.

          Every word ever muttered under its leaves,

          every breath.

     Once more, she conflates herself with the tree.

          I am in leaf. I am sugaring.

          My skin itchy with sun, my fingers curled

          around a pencil. I have learned how to breathe exhaust.

          I am a filter feeder.

     I’ll conclude this taste of TreeTalk with a final quote. “Floral dresses move like flowerbeds in the breeze.” Love it.

     The ‘why’ for the book is revealed in the appendix. Infested by worms and caterpillars, Winnipeg’s trees were under attack the summer of 2017. Sadly, the critters ate a lot of leaves, so the trees had to grow more. All of which stressed them and left them vulnerable to DED – Dutch Elm Disease – which is transmitted by beetles.

     Gordon, who is described as an urban-nature poet, felt moved to take on a witnessing, a supporting of the trees in their distress. And, as Regina poet Bruce Rice in his Life in the Canopy did in 2008, Gordon and her publishers chose to include artwork in the collection. Canopy used the photographs of Cherie Westmoreland, while TreeTalk included sketches and, I’ll guess though I’m no artist, watercolours in sepia tones by Natalie Baird. She also designed the cover, which I love. A silver embossed sketch of the corner of Sherbrooke St. and Westminster Ave., where the tree lives, is displayed on a forest green hard cover. Other simple illustrations of groups of leaves, groups of hanging poems, lend charm to the book.

     Deceptively simple, this is a book I would read again.

Louise Carson has published three collections of poetry: The Truck Driver Treated for Shock, Yarrow Press, 2024; Dog Poems, Aeolus House, 2020; and A Clearing, Signature Editions, 2015. She also writes mysteries and historical fiction. Her most recent books in those genres are The Cat Looked Back, Signature Editions, 2023; and Third Circle, land/sea press, 2022. Louise lives in the countryside near Montreal where she writes, runs and gardens