There may well be other poetry pushers around, people I don't know of, but the best of the ones I do is Garrison Keillor, of Writer's Almanac. I just read somewhere that ye olde saw about apples wasn't wrong: one a day is as good a medicine as any old wives ever lauded. I happen to live by that creed myself, but I also believe--in my case, at least--that it's healthy to read a new poem a day too. Mine comes with the morning's e-mail.
I'm not in love with every last one of them, but then you can't eat Honeycrisp every day either, yet another of Minnesota's gifts to America and the world. Besides, there's no accounting for taste.
A couple of days ago, this one came up, simple enough. Keillor's choices normally offer rugged simplicity. Don't look for T. S. Eliot. Won't happen. That doesn't mean old Tom won't show up; but, with fashioned regularity, what's there is something simple and thoughtful.
"The Trees," a poem by Liane Ellison Norman. It starts like this:
Today they are cutting down
the old maple in the backyard,
a crew of three men, one
on a machine with long neck
that raises him into high branches;
one who has dismantled a part
of the fence that hugs the tree;
one wearing spikes, his chain saw
and other tools hooked to his belt;
high up, cutting thick branches
among dense leaves, working back
towards the scarred and damaged trunk.
Just a few lines in and you got to know it's lament--never met a poet who didn't love a tree. But so far it's just a close description of the surgeons. Simple enough.
Then Ms. Norman backs off a little, sees the old maple for more than the wood it contains, and offers a kind of apology for the destruction--the old tree, home to a world of residents, is dangerously close to coming down on it's own.
The old maple has blushed faint
green in spring, glowed gold in fall,
spun lace in winter, runway and airport
for squirrels, birds--an owl one year--
a pair of woodpeckers who nested,
laid eggs: a starling killed the chicks.
But it's older than we are old
and might come crashing down.
The poem is lament all right, and in that way predictable. No matter. It's warm, even elegiac; and there's this inescapable sense that the old maple isn't just the old maple because it grows into our own lives, as poems will do, and suggests that maybe Ms. Norman isn't a brash young thing herself. Read on.
It's being dismantled, the way
age dismantles, higher branches
cut first, then pruned back
until we can see from the sliced
raw trunk--twelve feet around--an account of age.
Sad. Almost makes you want to turn away. But still, all very simple. And now, at the end, she gives the stage to homeless, who happen to be squirrels.
At dinner time,
three squirrels, tentative, peer
over the fresh stump,
perplexed that their whole world
End of poem. It's something that really happened, something that was, without question the right move--they had to take down the tree; yet, Ms. Nelson can't help but feel for those befuddled squirrels whose world is gone.
"The Trees" doesn't rhyme, it has no peculiar rhythm, and it doesn't deliberately raise a schoomarmish finger. It's just a poem about a dying tree.
Well, sort of.
A few days ago, I walked through a museum in town, a place I'd never been before, a place where a local vet's huge collection of Native American artifacts, themselves astounding, makes the whole place feel holy. There, among the treasures, is a winter count, a buffalo robe festooned with pictures that make it a history text. Beside it is another hide with a hundred sketches of a battle with bluecoats.
I don't know enough Native American history to begin to assess which battle--it could be dozens, I suppose, even more; but somewhere way back when, some community historian drew a scrapbook of pictures to remember what happened, a hundred images just like this one, a buffalo robe of memories not a soul in this museum will ever remember.
Ms. Nelson's poem took me back to where I stood just an afternoon before, in front of that hide, somehow like those squirrels, perplexed and aching at the lamentable fact that a whole world had vanished.