But suddenly there it is
right in front of you
bright and vivid
quietly waiting …
These lines are from Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree. You read them and then turn the page, and there is the tree, luminous, and the girl’s querulous face staring at it, uplifted. I’ve always loved this book; I love the movement between these lines and the image of the tree on the final page. Even though I know what’s coming, even though I’ve seen it many times now, it never fails to move me.
And now I have this tree. And every time I pull into my driveway, I hear “But suddenly there it is”, and my spirits lift. It’s not conscious. I don’t think – oh, that tree reminds me of that picture from The Red Tree, what was that line again?, oh yes, I feel uplifted. It’s visceral, associative, automatic; there’s no space between the seeing and the feeling.
And this is something I love about books, about language. About poetry and picture books in particular, because of the economy of language, so that certain lines ring with particular resonance, and linger, attaching themselves to your own experience. For me, sometimes it’s my own lines. So that when I take my daughter to the beach after school, I hear:
These days, every afternoon hums
with our rag-tag westerly pilgrimage.
and the afternoon hums because of it. I can be tired, cranky, sleepwalking through my day, but when I ‘hear’ these lines, I wake up. They place me in the world in a different way, recalling the mood of the poem.
Sometimes, it’s the lines of others: when I reconnected with an old friend recently, I heard the line a space long empty suddenly glows, from the David Malouf poem “With the Earlier Deaths”. Suddenly my experience was bigger than itself; it was connected to the whole web of language, transformed and invested with all the warmth and nostalgia and comfort of the Malouf poem.
I love a good story, yes. But I love this more, these lines and images and fragments that stay with us, that we carry, invisibly, into our lives. And what a marvellous thing, as a writer, to be able to craft these lines for others.
Note: I haven’t reproduced Shaun’s Red Tree image here, partly because I’m not sure if I should, copyright-wise, but also because you need to have that page-turning moment for yourself. That’s how you should see the tree for the first time. Go out and get hold of the book, if you possibly can.