Rachel Deering’s ‘In the Shadow of Gods’: A Poetic Journey Through Nature’s Duality and Human Connections


This latest offering from Black Bough Poetry, edited by Matthew M. C. Smith, showcases Rachel Deering‘s keen poetic voice. A familiar figure at The Broken Spine, Deering has graced the pages of The Codex and clinched the 2024 Reader’s Choice Award for her poem Birch Tree. In this collection, she invites readers into a nuanced exploration of the natural world, weaving profound connections between life, death, and the essence of human experience.

The collection begins with the striking opener Beech Tree, where the speaker declares, ‘I am honey / and I am poison.’ This duality, a recurring theme throughout the collection, encourages us to perceive nature differently and learn from our surroundings—this is Deering’s foundational principle.

Hazelnut could be described as tactile, with imagery like ‘silver plated belly cradled / by water’ and vibrant descriptions such as ‘the black tongue and teeth / of a king salmon.’ The poem concludes with ‘to life, death is everything / and life is everything to death’ firmly linking it, and the broader collection, to the cyclical nature of existence. Confessions of an Alder Tree reinforces this concept by giving voice to a tree, ‘I whistle for the wind, tremble my green leaves.’ This personification deepens our appreciation of the natural world, enhancing the intensity and immediacy of Deering’s work.

A Silver Birch presents as a contemplation on time, experience, and wisdom. The metaphor of the tree encourages readers to examine their relationships with elders, highlighted by the potent statement, ‘no distant god will save me now.’ Although nature poetry can often be seen as quaint, this is anything but. Whether intentional or not, Deering remarks on aging with ‘Not all relationships are reciprocal, / I have forgotten as much as I am able, / but still my skin bristles’—a provocative reflection.

Dutch Elm Disease opens with ‘Elms make good coffins’; a line as compelling as Du Maurier’s ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ The poem maintains a gripping narrative, exemplified by ‘the green / of love leaves as all things / migrate to their own winters, in the end.’

Astonishingly, there is no slowing of the pace, with Pine Trees whose ‘trunks can grow broad enough / to hide a man in’, demonstrate Deering’s exceptional writing. The simplicity yet profound nature of the poems remind me of Bill Shankly’s impactful use of language. Although not a poet, Shankly knew how to effectively use language, a skill clearly mirrored by Deering.

In Oak, the speaker notes that ‘death keeps no memories’ and admits they are ‘not as strong as an oak.’ Unintentionally, this may be seen as a commentary on masculinity. Indeed, social scientists Deborah David and Robert Brannon (1976) identified the traditional constructs of masculinity which include: No sissy stuff, be a big wheel, be a sturdy oak, and give ’em Hell. It’s curious that this poem also references Adam, perhaps coincidentally, reflecting on gender constructs.

The subsequent poem Yew touches on themes of femininity with discussions around pollen and leg-shaving, which could be interpreted as reflections on hegemonic femininity. This foray into gender theory is sparked by powerful lines like ‘women should reclaim / the holly tree, the bleed / of berries’, encouraging a reevaluation of traditional gender roles.

Spotted Nutcrackers suggests that forests are cultivated by nutcrackers as part of an ‘evolution of love’, prompting us to consider if they also experience mourning. This is followed by Toad and The Dead Want Their Moon Back, which introduce elements of witchcraft including toads, owls, and moons, creating an eerie shift in tone. This segment is seamlessly connected to The Tale of Six Swans, based on the Grimm tale, showcasing exemplary editorial sequencing that establishes the collection’s mood and atmosphere.

St Melangell includes some of my favorite lines: ‘Sometimes I have lived / as though I was dead, / in patience for the remedy / of love.’ This sentiment could resonate with many who are unaware that this reflects their own lives. Crow continues this theme of introspection, with ‘My heart is a crow, […] I try to hush the night / inside my chest’, a raw and honest admission of inner turmoil.

Salamander shows a brackish tone with ‘When it rained, you blamed me, / and when your cattle died or / the well gave up bad water – / it was all my doing’, highlighting the acerbic sarcasm that Deering masterfully wields. The poem Wren laments with ‘such little birds to have hearts / so heavy with song’, a beautiful encapsulation of emotional burden.

Grey Heron starkly portrays the reality of nature with, ‘A heron will not eat a moving meal, / preferring instead the cold and motionless / taste of the freshly dead’, showing that there’s an inescapable rawness in nature, just as in life.

Overall, Deering’s work is never tired or twee but rather a reinvigorating journey through previously trodden paths. Her fresh takes on these themes make In the Shadow of Gods an invigorating read, proving that her profound insights and striking imagery speak to a broad audience, and redefining nature poetry.

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