Janni Howker reviews Sue Millard’s ‘Ash Tree’

The Brightness

It is a testament to Sue Millard’s exceptional skill as a poet that the poems in her collection “Ash Tree” have the tensile strength to contain the raw material of their contents.

In these nineteen graceful and crafted works she shares the experience of loving her grandchild, Naomi, through her short life and her death from cancer. It is a tribute to that love and its apparent powerlessness in the face of death that it gives the reader the ability to face and understand the emotional stages she and the child have passed through, but it is her handling of such potent themes as rage, hope, helplessness, loss of faith, fear, the sheer anguish of witnessing suffering and grief in such simple and accessible language and images that is astounding.

The ash tree of the title was and is a real tree felled to a stump in the garden in Sue Millard’s home in Cumbria – a garden in which Naomi and her Grandmother shared many moments together. These remembered times inform the poems right from the beginning.

In “Wild Strawberries” hope appears poignantly intact but already in the first three lines a deep unease is signalled,

“The strawberries are gone. Your nimble hands

seized them with glee when the shadowy side

was still green-white.”

It is the economy with which these lines convey all the desperate complexities of hope in the face of a cancer diagnosis that impresses.

Later, in “Many Waters” when,

“hope is too stale for me to drink now…” Sue Millard again conveys, with breathtaking economy the near impossibility to write about grief:

“Shut up the poems. I can only make

stars that splash into uncontrolled

wet angles, slashed across the white.”

The truth is however, that the formal dignity and control of Sue Millard’s craft are precisely what allows the reader to bear the unbearable with her.

“Missing”, with its unforced rhyme scheme and simple homely points of reference,

“I missed you by a quarter of an hour.

I should have hurried through my morning shower,

missed eating breakfast in the sleepy sun

or read no emails, or replied to none,”

is masterly.

The delicate trotting rhythm and repetitions animate the finest poem in this collection, “Pink”, in which we witness Naomi’s funeral procession,

“that pink box in a white hearse is

too small for you.

A sailing group of pink balloons

Learn flight with you.”

The child though missed is never missing in these poems. That the poet’s attention is so utterly focused ensures the validity of the poet’s commitment.

“I hold the brightness of you here,” she vows in “Putting away the toys” and this she most certainly does. Not since I read Douglas Dunn’s Whitbread award winning “Elegies” in 1985 have I been so moved. I cannot commend Ash Tree highly enough.



Many waters

Silence the birds. Their notes drop
sweet as spring, but hope
is too stale for me to drink now.

Shut up the poems. I can only make
stars that splash into uncontrolled
wet angles, slashed across the white.

Dry up the rain. I can water
deserts with these tears, my face the shore,
each indrawn breath salt as the sea.

Hush the goodbyes. I shall watch
while your river flows to the falls,
and try to smile for you.


 Ash Tree by Sue Millard is published by Prole and is priced at £5.  Order your copy here.


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