Sweet Cherry Tree (“Stand down”)

Workshop with Tom Harrison House, at Wordsworth Grasmere

Amongst the fields and woods, I see 
A man standing still by a cherry tree
He shouts, “Excuse me please, can you see
The moon shine upon this 
Sweet cherry tree?”

His clothes once military 
Are raggy
In desolation, simplicity
Leaning against a Christmas tree
There’s no joy when his gaze meets me.

You don’t know how it’ll go, with the weather and poetry both being unpredictable. It’s simply a question of luck sometimes.

The plan was to walk up in Wordsworth’s hills with a group of people from Tom Harrison House. (An organisation that works with veterans, and some civilians, who have substance abuse issues.) But the rain came down hard and so we stayed inside, with quill pens and assorted writing implements.

The group have been working on a rewrite of Wordsworth‘s poem The Discharged Soldier. It’s a subject close to the heart, perhaps too close. It brings up an “issues“ around conflict, family, recovery.

Tass, Astrid, Maxine. Wordsworth Grasmere
Amongst the fields and woods, I see
A man moon-lit and eerie
Dancing on his face are shapes of leaves
This man who has seen the
Disaster tree.

“My trust is in the god of heaven
And in the eye of he who passes me.”

Is it my skewed sight
Or is this a man made of moonlight?
Face forlorn
Aura war-torn — 
Wobbling on blistered feet
Another victim of human history.

Amongst fields and woods, he’s
Camouflaged by a Cedar tree
Awaiting his troops to stand down
By this pretty tree
Or under the ground.

The original poem is a mini-documentary about a meeting with a hungry man discharged from the army, so hungry and weak that he simply leans up against a tree, waiting for whatever fate throws his way. In our rewrite, the poem has become a strange fairytale: a sequence of meetings with the same soldier, each time leaning against a different tree. There is a sense that they are one but many, standing for the myriad lives lost in myriad wars.

As I tentatively read the new poem back to the group, worried that it might touch too many nerves, there’s delight at their achievement. They have brought between them something new into the world. And it’s the word “between” that is special here. Because this particular group have been through a certain kind of hell together. They faced their addictions, they’ve opened themselves up to change and they’ve helped one another through. They’ve become a team, the kind of team you join only a very few times in life. The kind of team in fact that gets you over the gap between life and death.

It’s this special connection, this special communication is almost telepathic.Working with them today is a great pleasure. At every turn they are kind, funny, supportive, playful with each other. There’s a gentleness for all the violence of their backgrounds. It’s a lesson in how to be with one another. I come away from this workshop feeling once again that I’ve learned at least as much I’ve passed onward.

Richard and Ian. Wordsworth Grasmere
Moonlight projecting the tree that protects him
Casting silhouette, shadow of a being
Complicit in the life that supports him
Earthly and steadfast with age-old boots
Decaying roots grown within him.

Amongst fields and woods, I see 
Tall and skinny, uniform like me
Couldn’t believe
Couldn’t believe
It is the very oak tree ghost of me 
Who died in battle by an old oak tree.

Group poem
Tom Harrison House
June 2022

By Philip Davenport. Wordsworth Grasmere, June 2022

Photos. Julia Grime

Refuge from the Ravens is supported by the Heritage Fund. In 1798, Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge sparked a literary revolution — poems in everyday language, telling of people on the margins of society. 200 years later, homelessness and social inequality are still with us and even on the rise. This project invited people with lived experience of homelessness and other vulnerable people to meet Wordsworth across time, replying in poetry, art and song in a Lyrical Ballads for the 21st Century.