Tree Space by Maria McMillan

(Victoria University Press, 2014)

Reviewed by Arielle Walker

Modern-day saints, summer flies, eerie cherubs and an enigmatic character named Irena — all walk the pages of Tree Space. Reading these poems is kaleidoscopic, pieces shifting to create new wholes. The disparate characters are all engaging, even beguiling — narrator included.

In the titular poem, McMillan tells us that, “To understand tree space you must search all tree space which is / impossible”. This beautifully succinct observation can easily be applied to this collection itself. Despite frequent ventures into a recognisable world — one of kitchens and street-lamps, and farms with wire fences — the poems in Tree Space explore places and emotions as varied as the characters who inhabit them. It overwhelms, especially on first reading. Fortunately, we readers are given a starting point on the map: in an explanatory note at the end of the book, we are told “tree space is the vast mathematical terrain occupied by ancestral trees of groups of species”. From here, each poem slots into place — related, perhaps, but not all of the same genus.

There are deeply emotive poems that deal with grief and love, and pure human expression:

 

All loss is about imagination,

or did I make that up? That

strands of grief, hung in a room

like streamers, are not so awful

in themselves but awful

because they are always there.

(“Meditations”)

 

…and then, following on from such a poem, there may be another that deals with loss and connection but this time, lightly conversational:

 

One visit my tall friend spent all his time

With a piece of card and a jar capturing the flies

And taking them outside.

Did they understand glass?

Did they understand out?

(“Summer Flies”)

 

Other worlds are explored, universes converge, and always there are small links threading each disparate piece together. Whether she is hitchhiking rural highways, witnessing suburbun growth and decay, or figuratively exploring the depths of the unknown, McMillan takes on both the impossible and the mundane with an analytic eye. This is all science, after all:

 

Try this. The sea is not liquid. Fish climb it. Tiny animals swing

on tiny monkey bars. Or ride upon them upturned, grasping

whatever is available for a mast, clinging as drifting sailors cling

through nights of hideous stars. The ocean is never

the same twice.

(“Abyssal Plains”)

 

The poems slip in and out of coherence, shifting from storytelling (‘So, last night I did that thing of throwing / out all the postcards I never sent’ — from “Girlfriends”) to more abstract word-weaving (‘Moved in waves we. / Dispersed the things we. / Filtered we. Wawaed.’ — from “The baby is on the radio”). The first time I read through Tree Space in full, I found myself whispering lines aloud on the bus, to the disconcertment of my fellow passengers. I couldn’t resist: McMillan’s words simply beg to be read out.

Written into being over the course of a decade, before publication in Tree Space, the characters who inhabit these worlds may never meet — Irena in particular feels isolated in her own universe: ‘She was blind, binding wire to wire, / crawled from one to the next and through the night to the next’ (“Irena builds a robot with her bare hands”). Yet each poem still feels hauntingly local, close at hand. After all, the branches of a tree will all meet up eventually, if you go back far enough.

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