Poetry Review | 'Hierarchy of Needs': reimagining Maslow's theory, bringing plant life into focus
Updated: Mar 28
‘Hierarchy of Needs’ is a collaborative poetry pamphlet by Charley Barnes and Claire Walker. It considers the hierarchical needs of the plant world in an inventive comparison with the needs of contemporary humans in environments shared.
Hierarchy of Needs (a retelling) Charley Barnes & Claire Walker. Published by V. Press (2020).
Cover Illustration, Ruth Stacey.
Hierarchy of Needs is nuanced and skilfully written. Voices of animated plants and those of humans observe their interactions and interdependence from birth, through growth and ageing to ultimate death.
The pamphlet opens with five tiers of needs relating to plants. The structure and headings of each tier are copied from Abraham Maslow’s original 1943 theory for human needs. Maslow argued (in a nutshell) that it is instinctive in humans to first satisfy their most basic physical requirements, such as warmth and nutrition, before addressing higher, increasingly psychological needs, concerned with security, belonging and esteem, so that
self-actualisation (one's full potential)
may be accomplished.
The poets botanical adaption of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, defines self-actualisation in plants as their capacity for ‘making oxygen; being creative’ to sustain other lifeforms.
Understated language conjures the ordinary. In ‘Thorn of the Cross’, a plant with cross-shaped thorns knows that bright colours may tempt but may also poison, and so has made itself ‘the colour of steel / as a fortress to protect' humans. In ‘Lion’s tooth’ dandelions are ‘unphased by many attempts at degradation’; and in ‘A day in the life of weeds’, weeds ‘dodge the charge of mowers, / the shadows of hands hovering, ready to uproot’. This last poem is a palindrome — the form emphasises the tenacity of weeds: both a blessing and a curse in their fight to colonise where humans populate.
A plant that has reached ‘self-actualisation’ in the collection, is the hundred-year-old tree featured in ‘For Agatha, who loved this place.’ Realisation occurs in the second stanza:
I know all seasons of all people,
have taken their stories down
and filled their lungs in return.
and the point is elaborated in the fifth stanza:
I have seen whole family trees expand.
Generations of the same tribe
picnic together at my feet…
The mature tree provides oxygen and shade; it is a structure for children to climb and a gatherer of wisdom. It comforts. This poem is a pivot, marked by a change in poetic devices. Beforehand, personification of plants creates an awareness of humans as other, and also dependents. In the second half, human experiences are voiced using plants metaphorically, thereby highlighting human desires and frailties as they satisfy their needs. In #tribalgathering, the tree planted in a park in memory of Agatha is being photographed for Instagram by a family member at the picnic of the previous poem. ‘Three generations / are gabbling when the camera catches them’. The tree is of course a symbol of genealogy and a signifier of nurture.
Hierarchy of Needs is nuanced and skilfully written.
‘#tribalgathering’is about belonging and connection. In this cameo, the speaker appears more concerned with how ‘the apples [for the picnic]...won’t translate to an iPhone', and how the Instagram filter affects her photograph of the tree, than s/he does about the tree's welfare. The disconnect draws the reader back to the opening poem, “Tending’ (one letter away from ubiquitous ‘trending’ on social media). Tenderness is apparent in the opening line when the ‘kind earth...wraps her soil around the little bulb of [a tree’s] beginning.’ The poem ends with a vision of the trees’s gift to other life: shade, shelter, breath — it is ‘a warrior of sorts’ and as such, foreshadows another warrior: the tree planted for Agatha.
Perilous coexistence of human and plant life is highlighted in the final poem, ‘A Spilling’:
some would wilfully cut us away,
rip land apart for profit…
When the breathing of our careful air
hangs in halted lungs,
their pain is ours.
Although images of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest immediately come to mind, so too does recent footage of the 250-year-old Cubbington pear tree in Warwickshire, being ripped from the ground by humans to make way for the HS2 rail project.
Hierarchy of Needs regards the environment in broad terms. In addition to exterior surroundings, it observes humans, and imagines plants inhabiting their interior environment in an exploration of psychological needs. The emotional speaker in ‘The petals I dried’, experiences ‘no rest, just a sad spiral / of thoughts; the on/off, back/forth / of an online feed.’ The influence of social media is a recurrent theme in the second half of the pamphlet. The penultimate poem, 'I lived, therefore', captures a speaker at peace: he is ‘no grandfather tree’ and ‘will not see a hundred years’ but he is content with his years, his fate and his choices of who and what to love.
Hierarchy of Needs comments on anthropocentrism without being didactic.
Hierarchy of Needs comments on anthropocentrism, without being didactic. By revising an iconic model in this seamless collaboration, Barnes and Walker have distilled the essence of human and botanical existence, and made Maslow's concept modern. The most significant word in this pamphlet forms that title poem, ‘Tending’. As readers we are coaxed to examine and critique our human tendencies; be mindful of the tender, mighty ecosphere; attend to our dependencies and tend our coexistence. #hierarchyofneeds
Charley Barnes has published two previous poetry pamphlets, A Z-hearted Guide to Heartache (V.Press 2018) and Body Talk (Picaroon Poetry 2019), one chapbook of prose, Death Is A Terrible House Guest (The Black Light Engine Room Press 2019) and several crime novels.
Claire Walker has published three previous poetry pamphlets, The Girl Who Grew Into A Crocodile (V. Press 2015), Somewhere Between Rose and Black (V. Press 2017 — Shortlisted for Best Poetry Pamphlet in the 2018 Saboteur Awards) and Collision (Against the Grain Press 2019)
Links for Margaret Adkins Writing:
Margaret Adkins started writing when her nursing and midwifery career came to an end in 2015. She become a full-time student at the University of Worcester. She gained a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing & English Literature and an MRes in Theatre & Performance. Winner of the inaugural University of Worcester V. Press Prize, her debut poetry pamphlet Mingled Space is published by V. Press (2019).