Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Dick Davis prefaces his 1996 collection Touchwood with a definition of the title word: “decayed wood…used as tinder.” A close synonym might be “punk,” another sort of kindling. The Oxford English Dictionary elaborates: “Wood or anything of woody nature, in such a state as to catch fire readily, and which can be used as tinder.” The word has an impressive pedigree, with the OED citing uses by John Lyly (1578), Sir Thomas Browne (1646) and Thomas Hardy (1887), but my favorite is from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621):

“As a match or touchwood takes fire, so doth an idle person loue [love].”

Burton uses the word in a rather steamy chapter (“adultery, incest, sodomy, buggery”) devoted to “Causes of Love-Melancholy” and attributes the simile to Aristotle in his Politics. The dictionary goes on to cite a figurative use of the word:

“Said of a thing or person that easily ‘takes fire’, or which, like tinder, ‘kindles’ something else…esp. an irascible or passionate person, one easily incensed. Now rare.”

Davis draws on both senses in “Touchwood”:

“Quirks of lost childhood give
The fears by which we live,
And look – identity
Is like this twisted tree
The lightning struck at there,
Till for a dry, warm lair
The woodlice entered it:
In secret, bit by bit,
They make a mealy bin
Of touchwood sealed within.”

A long-forgotten slight or other thoughtless act, intentional or otherwise, might wound us so deeply it remains “sealed within” and deforms our personalities. “The fears by which we live” become the fuel firing our pettiness and rage. All true, but my first reaction to the poem was more benign, in part because of the photograph reproduced on the cover of the Anvil Press Poetry edition I’m reading. It shows a cross-section of a tree trunk, exposing the annual growth rings. The credit identifies the photographer as Maurice Nimmo and titles the picture “Tree Rings of Larix decidua, European larch.” It reveals no touchwood but the asymmetry of the rings is lovely. They billow to the left in the photo, like solar flares bulging from the surface of the sun. Whatever caused the asymmetry – uneven distribution of moisture? – distorted even the external shape of the larch’s trunk. It’s pear-like, not round.

Whatever the stimulus, the result is aesthetically pleasing. Might not a “twisted tree” – or human personality – produce something quite beautiful and unprecedented, like a poem?

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