Review of ‘Traumatropic Heart’ by Susan Darlington

I love a new collection. The first encounter is always a privilege because you only get one chance to experience that initial read through. The anticipation, which comes from not knowing what lies ahead, is exciting. I’d already been drawn to the title of this new collection by Susan Darlington, where traumatropic refers to the modification of something, such as the root of a plant, as a result of wounding. Intrigued, I settled down to the title poem, unsure of what to expect, but suspecting I could be in for a treat. I was not disappointed.

Traumatropic Heart begins with an image of a felled oak tree with blackbirds nesting in its crook. So far, so ordinary, then I reached the second stanza.

I swallow them both ~
beak first
and they fly – resolute –
into the heavy chambers
of my traumatropic heart.

I felt in the presence of an imagination I could relate to. Here was something special. The depth and breadth of these poems was fascinating, while the mix of otherworldly subjects, alongside day-to-day reality, ensured going out for a walk would never be quite the same again. From now on, I’ll be seeing the natural world in a different way.

Nature has generative cycles, where everything has a purpose, even when abandoned. Antlers in ‘Dry Velvet’ are discarded by the stag in a process of growth and development. But even though they’re no longer of use to the creature, they still have a function. What we leave behind can be used by others and transformations like these reflect one of the themes running through the collection.

After the storm has passed‘ is full of mystery such as the stranded whale which ‘heaved itself up and into the waves’. I loved the descriptions of sea glass, worn by the tides, the water both polishing and staining its surface and blurring the edges. It made me think of life and how it can batter us at times, still retaining its beauty but continually reshaping it.

I thought ‘It’s said’ was a perfect poem. It introduces the acorn as having a soul, the heart cracking and ‘breaking for those it left behind while its roots are searching for friends who are already on the other side. The poem contains a delicate transition to the personal in the lines I look at the acorns scattered – under the oak tree- and wonder which one is you’. I don’t think there are many people who’d be unable to connect with this.

‘Autumn’ has a stunning first line; ‘Fox carries autumn on her back‘ and later, she pulls the harvest moon into her eyes. It’s an example of the magic and mystery which flows through the collection, sometimes gorgeous but at other times, more malign. The poem ‘Owl’ is positioned across to the first of several line sketches which I thought beautifully enhanced the collection. Owl is sinister; ‘she can take away your fear if you name the right price’ suggesting an otherworldly power, one which needs to be encountered with care, as the final stanza warns the reader.

She opens her other eye, turns her head,
and fixes you with a tunnel black stare
that freezes you with a fear great enough
to take away all you’ve previously known.

It begs the question, what would we give to lose fear, but what is the price of feeling good again?

The sense of something more powerful, and not always benevolent, is another theme. In ‘Magpie eggs (two for joy)‘ the narrator rears the chicklings until they are two weeks old. The strongest pair are then removed and drowned with ‘the rest of the brood within their sight.’  ‘Demolition‘ also speaks of destruction, as does ‘The Trapeze artists’ where one can ‘feel his fingers start to loosen from my grip’, and the ‘Snow Angels’ which are destined to melt ‘over the roots of skeleton trees and into the sea.’

Susan does not shy away from difficult subjects. ‘Hope‘, introduces the theme of the dead or unborn child. who appears again in ‘Ladybird winter‘, ‘Skimming stones‘, and ‘Stone babies‘. Like learning about the word traumatropic, I needed to do some background reading. ‘Stone Babies’ is the name given to a calcified foetus, which can remain undetected for decades. The thought of carrying multiple stone babies without knowing stayed with me long after the first read. I was haunted by lines in this poem such as ‘in one another they have the only company they’ll ever need‘ and ‘they make an unspoken pact – never to be born’.

The sense of difficult loss reaches off the page many times. In ‘Skimming Stones‘, not only has the narrator purposely ‘twisted a leg off the water boatman’ and squeezed the insect ‘between thumb and finger until blood ran’, there is also the creepy presence of the lost village below the reservoir, where the eighth chime of the underwater church bell tower ‘drowned our child’s laughter’.

it’s always hard to pick out favourites, especially from a collection where every poem contains memorable lines, but standout poems for me were ‘Dolls house‘ with its vivid depiction of anger, and the closing poem ‘Translate the notes‘ which has more wonderful images of transformation;

And then one day
I didn’t even need the piano,

I swept its ivory keys
into the concert of my skin

and laid them in the caesura
between my vertebrae.

If I had to pick out one poem, I’d be torn between ‘Vanilla’ with its tender portrayal of love, and ‘Silver Birch‘ which speaks to the reader about a dryad, or tree spirit. The poem suggests an ambivalent relationship between the spirit and its host. There are hints of cruelty where ‘the cuffs of silver birch bind her wrists’ withsplinters of bark scratching flesh. She has the very human ability to feel pain and restriction where ‘The vertical of her body is broken‘ and ‘twigs that were lashed in the gale – have ripped and caught in her tights’. As ‘Vanilla’ was full of soft-sounding words, the first stanzas of Silver Birch are more harsh. ‘Bird song is stifled’ and the ground is parched before a roe deer appears, unheard. There is a powerful  visual effect in these lines where the deer

‘scratches its neck against her hipbone
and lazily nibbles at the ferns
that have germinated across her skirt.

This is followed by the effect of its breath. It turns her blood to sap and the dryad begins to photosynthesize, a biological process for creating energy. She becomes even more evanescent until finally disappearing altogether.

This image of dissipation stuck with me. It’s not hard to believe trees have a unique essence of their own, beyond rational understanding. Although recent research suggests trees are capable of communication, the existence of dryads remains a pagan tradition, but one I don’t find hard to have sympathy for. Trees are special. A walk in the woods or forest can be both settling and uplifting and something about this poem resonated on a deeper level. The relationship between carbon dioxide and oxygen is essential for life, and the meeting between the physical deer and immaterial dryad, creates change. Already spirit, she evolves into the air we breathe.

It’s not dissimilar to the loss of loved ones where our memories from the times we knew them remain. For me, the poem touches on the universal experience of life and death. It made me want to lean up against a tree and in doing so, feel a different lifeform, one we don’t fully understand but is integral to our existence. Any lack of scientific knowledge creates a space for poets and other artists to fill, and I thought this poem achieved that beautifully.

Traumatropic Heart captured me. Not only were the glossy pages a pleasure to touch and turn, each poem invited me on a new journey of discovery. I was sorry to reach the final page but delighted to find the debut collection by Susan Darlington, titled ‘Under the Devil’s Moon‘, which I immediately ordered. It’s another collection I’d highly recommend, but to say any more really needs a separate review!


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