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The Tree of Life (poetry)

October 13, 2020

Turnstone Press, Winnipeg, Canada, 2020.

By Sarah Klassen

A book review by Melodie Davis for

First a confession: This is the first whole book of poetry I’ve actually read in years. Decades, even. Does that make me unqualified to write a blog post on this gem of a book? I hope not, for it grabs you over and over with lines and brief sketches that somehow marry the prosaic with the divine.

I used to write poetry. Didn’t every aspiring writer when they were in their teens? Later, I realized my free verse-style poems were frequently able to be cast in prose, and that people in general seem more willing to read—and buy—prose than poetry. How cool that Canada has several arts organizations that help fund the publishing of books and poetry and even magazines, I understand, which this publisher acknowledges in its publication data page.

This short collection is easily readable in a matter of days, not weeks, but restores my appreciation for poetic expression and leaves me in awe, really, of this woman in her late 80s still crafting gems which truly hang with you.

I especially like how you can be reading along and suddenly you realize what the writer is referencing comes straight out of the Bible: texts that most of us longtime Christians recognize—but she molds them into fresh thoughts.

Let’s get specific here with a few quotes from her work that I hope will make you want to pick up the book, purchase it, read it, share it.

One such is a poem which is a description of Eve. Don’t most of us think of the biblical story of both Adam and Eve as never-do-wells because of how they led the whole human race into sin? If it weren’t for that apple … we think.

With the book title The Tree of Life, which most of us know comes right out of Genesis, Klassen helps me see Eve as a mother who grieves over perhaps the world’s worst parenting outcome: having a son who kills your other son. Klassen’s stanza touches me, makes me sympathize:

“Eve weeps for her children: one son murdered,
the other a murderer. She grits her teeth
against temptation to throw in the towel,
falls to her knees, and with wounded hands
wrings from the grieving earth a garden.”

Some of Klassen’s writing may appeal especially to those who enjoy reading about the lives of women in the Bible. A chapter called “Half the Sky” opens with the well-known quote from 20th century Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, “Women hold up half the sky.” The chapter includes numerous poems looking at the sometimes scant descriptions of lives Bible women.

Author Sarah Klassen

Remember Zephathah’s daughter (the Bible doesn’t give her name)? In the book of Judges, this daughter has the misfortune of running happily to meet her father returning from a successful battle. She is not happy for long, as she belatedly learns her father had vowed to celebrate by sacrificing the first thing he saw upon his return to his camp. Zephathah postpones the sacrifice while the daughter and friends mourn and dance their heartache for a period of weeks. 

Numerous poems center on family life. In “The Tick of Time,” children on an outing ask what children always do: Are we there yet? They picnic on folding chairs near a lake. Suddenly the adults realize there are white caps on the water and the children have gone out deeper than they should. Did the children survive safely?? We guess so. It is spare poetry calling forth our own scary memories.

In “The Road,” the author ticks off the many ways humankind travel and somehow her word “containers” aptly encompasses all the methods of travel, but something we rarely think of.

“At any point in time, in one hemisphere or the other,
a significant percentage of our planet’s more than
seven billion people are on the move, travelling on
air, land, water, in an overcrowded Zodiac, firm
or flimsy aircraft, flat on the wind-buffeted top of
a container.”

Some shorter quick lines that struck me for one reason or another: The poem “Name” clearly and provocatively brings up the seashore breakfast after Jesus has risen from the dead.

I’m puzzled by “Rise and Go” in the first chapter. Is she referencing a martyr killed for faith, I ponder? (This one gets answered in the notes at the close of the book, but don’t look there until you need to.)

Other poems that puzzle: “Higher” is difficult to decipher. Is “Refuge” about the author’s own family, or a random arriving refugee family? Does it matter?

Her poem “In Memoriam” is perfect for this child of the 20th century. And I loved “Night” where she refers to the blinking lights of an aircraft coming home to land. I take my dog out around 5:40 a.m. where I often see blinking lights of aircraft making their approach to Dulles Airport in Washington D.C., two hours from us.

“And Yet,” referencing Elijah telling the widow to go ahead and bake bread, is movingly evocative, especially in these Covid times.

Her poem “Arrivals” uses a perfect word for a flock of flying geese, calling it “A wedge of geese.” I loved it! And perhaps you’re like me not having heard of a musical instrument called a theremin. Google it, it’s most unusual.

I like Klassen’s frequent mixing of biblical story with modern day realities as in a poem titled “Travelling with Children,” (humorously subtitled “Sermon Series in a Mennonite Church.”) One biblical reference sounds like conversations between good friends: “Take! Take your unleavened bread and go—just go!” Or this: “In the parking lot we debated: lunch at Perkins or Olive Garden?”

I could certainly go on and on, but if that stops you from reading this volume for yourself, I wouldn’t want to do that.

Just one or two more of my favorite finds: Klassen turns a phrase around to delight the brain and the tongue. This from a poem on the various seasons of the church year: “In ordinary times, those tongues of fire whirl like fervent dervishes and dance.” In another poem, she questions, “By what means can death lose its sting?”

Finally, the quote she opens the book with from Revelation 22:2 is pretty cool at this time of worldwide pandemic: “On each side of the river is the tree of life … The tree’s leaves are for the healing of the nations” (italics mine). The last chapter on trees brings still wider and deeper meaning to the collection’s title: Tree of Life.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t find the notes until after reading the whole collection, where she helps readers (those of us less quick with such things) decipher some of the more hidden personages or words.

Klassen also writes fiction (The Peony Season), and her other books of poetry include Simone Weil: Songs of Hunger and Love, Dangerous Elements, Journey to Yalta. She was born in Winnipeg, a lovely city I’ve had the privilege to visit several times, and currently lives there. She has taught high school English and won many writing awards. I read this book thinking Sarah is a much younger writer than she is. Thus, her writing comes alive with the words and experiences of a seasoned poet.

Viva la collection!

The Tree of Life and other Klassen writings are available from Turnstone Press here. Also found on Amazon and other online outlets, or ask for it at your local independent bookstore.


Any lines or thoughts here strike your fancy?

Make you feel like writing some poetry?

Comment here!

Melodie Davis has written a syndicated newspaper column, Another Way, since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted here at a week after newspaper publication.  

  1. Thanks for introducing me to Sarah today!

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