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The Turpentine Tree: Lynne Hjelmgaard, Seren

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Not to be confused with the turpentine tree in the Eucalypt forests of Australia, the tree in question here is Bursera simaruba, commonly known as gumbo-limbo or copperwood, a tree species native to the Caribbean. To Hjelmgaard, it is a lasting symbol of memory that endures the ravages of time, and a specific tree that is known to her personally, in the British Virgin Islands on the island of Jost Van Dyke. In the title poem, she describes it as “a coppery faux god / with wildly twisted branches … flying into the eye of a storm”.  The tree was in the backyard of a house destroyed in the hurricane of 2017.

American-born poet Lynne Hjelmgaard moved to Denmark in 1971 where she studied at the Aarhus Art Academy and graduated from Frøbel Seminarium in Copenhagen. She taught creative art for children in various schools and institutions before becoming a full-time sailor. At one point she crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat with her husband. She now resides in London. This volume builds on her two previous collections with Seren, A Boat Called Analise (2016) and A Second Whisper (2019) where references to the sea and sailing are frequently to be found alongside meditations on love and loss.

This substantial collection brings together 56 poems in four sections covering childhood, personal relationships, recollections in tranquillity and life at sea, although such divisions are only approximate since all these subjects are woven into a seamless whole. There are poems addressed to her late husband, children and grandchildren and close friends from the author’s past. Within the space of a few lines Hjelmgaard draws lively portraits of family, friends and acquaintances giving us an insight into a life spent on the edge of adventure. 

Hjelmgaard writes with warmth and intimacy about specific moments in her well-travelled life. These include summer camps in childhood, road trips with friends, journeys at sea, travel through the night on a greyhound bus and a coach journey in Wales. There is humour in ‘Grandma Mary’, ‘The Copenhagen Hair Salon’ and ‘A Love Affair Between A Border Collie And A Wire-haired Sausage Pup On A Small Building Site’ and nostalgia in poems created from photographs, journals and the ship’s log. Hjelmgaard’s nostalgia is never cloying, and rooted more in the present than the past as she questions everything she sees and projects it into the future.

Her evocations of loss are particularly moving. She interrogates everything with fresh eyes having moved beyond the grieving process into new territory. In ‘On The Atlantic Coast Of Spain’ she asks herself


     How far back does grief go, what is lost, what can be found?

     Is memory transferred between us without words –

     years later, is the unsayable felt?


It is end-thoughts like these that pull us up and bring us to attention as Hjelmgaard turns the personal into the universal, giving us something that we can all relate to in our own lives. Her adoption of the predominantly long line in many of the poems in this collection leave room for thought on a meditative level as opposed to a fast-paced and somewhat dislocated narrative.

She writes with honesty and consummate ease, finding in the process a new strength in her vulnerability. There is something precious and also fragile about being alive. In ‘Fragments, The Sea’, for example, our passage through the world is “a lifetime of gifts / contained in a few hours”. Like Lamoë’s painting described in ‘A Sailor’s Lament’ these are poems that suggest more than they speak, “with enough room to think and wander in …” Highly recommended.


Lynne Hjelmgaard, The Turpentine Tree, Seren,  £9.99



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John F Keane

Sun 5th Nov 2023 10:11

Excellent study and review, that.

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