A Gyroscope Review Review: Becoming a Tree: Poems 2007-2015 by James Graham

One of the ongoing discussions in poetry is whether poems are accessible, a word that has become despised. But Billy Collins put it well in his introduction to 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day (New York: Random House, 2005) when he wrote about how he chose poems for that anthology:

….a preference for…poems that are hospitable toward their readers, poems in which a human voice is clearly sounded—poems with the front door left open.

As the anthologizer, I tended to choose “accessible” poems, as defined above, not because I wanted to gather into this bouquet only poems that are easy to consume…my preference has more to do with the pleasure that is to be derived from a poem’s power to convey a reader from one place to another, its capacity for imaginative travel. (p. xvi)

Scottish poet James Graham’s work presents the reader with these kinds of poems. In his own introduction to Becoming a Tree: Poems 2007-2015 (Leicestershire: Matador, 2016), he opens with a quote from Carol Ann Duffy:

You can find poetry in your everyday life, your memory, in what people say on the bus, in the news, or just what’s in your heart.

Those two poetic philosophies come together beautifully in Graham’s work. Becoming a Tree, which is dedicated to Graham’s late wife Jean, begins in deeply personal territory. Graham plumbs his earliest memories, dissects them to reveal the nuggets that are carried forward through his life.

James Graham was born in Ayrshire in 1939. This collection reaches back before that, in the taut thread of, “Autobiography,” which introduces his mother, father, and Scotland, along with the realization that, “We are accidental,” that there is, “Almost time enough.” It pulls the reader into the collection without wasting a moment. The invitation is unmistakeable: Be here now.

Graham was a teacher for 30 years. He admits to having wished to be a journalist. He actively campaigns against war and injustice. His poems demonstrate these skills and interests in their breadth, their depth, and the research that lurks behind the words. The reader is forewarned in the second poem, “Inheritance,” when they read the last two stanzas:


But I wish I could tell you, Mother:

somewhere along the dangerous years

I have come to know this too:


you gave me one kind of poet’s gift,

an ear for the world’s disharmony,

even the will to go out and meet it.


And meet it he does. Graham’s ear misses very little. Whether the topic is something as close to him as receiving his late wife’s ashes in, “Ash,” or one on the other side of the earth in, “The Miners of San José de Copiapó,” Graham teases apart the emotions while looking deeper at how we are changed, whether we look at mining gold or mining a beloved wife’s very being.


I try to find a metaphor

that is more than a mere trinket:

She was a mile-deep mine.

Seam below seam of priceless ore.

from “Ash”


While the rescue engines worked, I fired

search engines, gouged through strata

of inflated pieteies – Another healthy year, growth

better than expected, strength to strength – 

and finally unearthed, six hundred metres deep

in the mine of petty information, two names:

Alejandro Bohn, Marcelo Kemeny.

from “The Miners of San José de Copiapó


Why do we value what we value? Who profits and who makes those profits possible? What is laid to waste in our efforts to gather gold and gather love?

Graham has a remarkable ability to become the other in his work. The collection’s title poem, “Becoming a Tree,” with its nod to Walt Whitman, reminds us that it is not just the poet’s ear that must be attentive. It is also necessary to retain a child-like ability to imagine: what if I were a tree? What if I were one of those miners in Chile who was trapped? What if the earth spoke directly to us? What if we believed in ghosts?

In spite of the seriousness of topics offered here – not just the Chilean miners, but garbage cities in Cairo, factory workers in El Salvador, the end of the Russian Tsars, loss of faith – there is also a breath of whimsey near the end. It is as if we are allowed to return to childhood for a moment, recover from the stresses of the world and allow a glimmer of happiness to sparkle on our foreheads. There is the possibility of a thousand elves in, “Isle,” the humor of, “Can’t Count,” and the fairy-tale that is, “The Saga of Torvald Longtooth.” Torvald is an otter who makes a pact with a bunch of Canadian beavers to make things better for the otters. It’s a long poem and a surprising inclusion; just when the reader thinks they might have a handle on James Graham, they realize they don’t.

Becoming a Tree is a collection worth your time. Be here now, remember what it is to really pay attention, relish this time you’ve been given. Allow yourself to become the other.

Kathleen Cassen Mickelson, Gyroscope Review Co-editor

Becoming a Tree and Graham’s previous collection, Clairvoyance, are both available from Matador, an imprint of Troubador Publishing Ltd., www.troubador.co.uk.

The poems, The Hurt Beech, and, A Poem About Maria Teresa, were published in the inaugural issue of Gyroscope Review.