Saturday, March 03, 2012


A poem written for my writing group. Notes follow the break.

We put you in the back yard of my parents' house
near the woods where you and I used to play
when I was a kid
and you were already an old dog

I cried at your grave
and promised to plant you pretty flowers

But I didn't

I forgot
over time
And there were other dogs
(and cats too)

The corner where we buried you
and stuck a stone on top
became overgrown and forgotten

No one noticed the acorn
that some squirrel tucked away there
which sprouted
and became a sapling
and is now a tree

whose branches are filled with the birds
you used to love to chase

I'm putting these notes after the break (for those reading this on the main page of my blog) because I don't think poetry should be explained by the person who writes it. But I do want to say a few things.

This is the first poem I've written in twenty-five years or so. The last one was written for a student literary publication from my college. I thought it was pretty good. It was an e.e. cummings pastiche called "the Mayflies."  ...Oh, what the heck. Here it is:

the Mayflies

to the floodlight of probability We are drawn
to singe Our wings and worry not
and We live for but a day
doing much and learning little
and those who come after Us
will remember Us
as We recall the hollow husks that were Us yesterday

I might have thought it was good, but the faculty adviser - one of the senior members of the English department -  thought otherwise. She had me come into her office to go over suggestions for improvement. She changed every single line, "correcting" nonstandard capitalization, striking out chunks, and finally rewriting the last line as "we remember our dead." I was dumbfounded. Had she missed the entire point of what I had written? The pretentious first-person voice, the notion of grandiose self-importance, the sense that what you and your fellows are doing is memorable, historic, vastly significant, when in fact it's all for nothing? So much that we think is important, reduced to the historical insignificance of a pile of mayfly corpses under a streetlight in late summer?

"And what's a 'mayfly,' anyway?" she asked.

I withdrew my poem then and there and walked out. If she didn't know the identity of one of the most prolific insects in the region, just...

Fine, whatever, I thought. I'll leave poetry to the Poets. Let them praise each other and give each other awards. 

I stewed over that for a while. Never really forgot about it. When I started to meet with the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective a few months ago, I was intrigued when one of the first readers presented a poem, and then the other members offered suggestions for possible changes. Structural changes, language changes. How can you do this?, I thought. Making changes to prose, that's one thing. But making changes to a poem - well, a poem is already an integrated whole when it's presented, and...

...and it worked. The poet took the changes, applied them, read back the modified poem, and it was better than it had been, Never anything so drastic as the complete rewrite of my poem by someone who did not understand the basic image behind it. Instead, a gentle nudging in a different direction that made things work better.

I did receive one note on "Monument."  The fifth line was originally "I watered your grave with my tears," and the suggestion was that it was too much of a cliche. I don't know if "I cried at your grave" works as well there.

"Monument" was written to a prompt from the group, an older prompt brought up last week: "So, you're a tree now." This immediately brought to mind a story I once read about the tree that ate Daniel Webster. (I think it was Daniel Webster, but it might have been someone else.) (CORRECTION, 3/4/2012: it was Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island.) He was buried not too far from a tree, an apple tree I think, and when he was to be exhumed years later for some reason - possibly to be re-interred elsewhere - it was found that a root of the tree had penetrated his casket, grown around his body, and essentially consumed him. I don't recall if the appropriate chunk of root was exhumed and re-interred in his stead. (The answers are yes, and no!)

"Monument" contains various true things, though they were rearranged for the sake of a poetic narrative. We got our first dog when I was seven. He lived sixteen years, and lived to see us take in another dog and a cat. He died while I was away in Delaware. My brother buried him in the side yard of my parents' house, near the base of the unkillable "thing" tree, which grew from an apple core tossed in my grandmother's garden by my aunt. My grandmother tried to kill it several times, but it kept growing back. So I decided to transplant it to my parents' yard in 1987 or so, whenever the Oliver North trial was going on. It grew into an apple tree of some sort that gave yellow-green tart apples that were covered in a waxy substance and usually made me throw up if I ate them. After a few years it developed a recurring blight that turned its leaves brown in mid-summer and made them fall off, so we chopped it down. It then grew back yet again, this time apparently as some variant of a Bradford pear, based on the wretched dead-fish odor of its flowers in early summer.

My mom planted various flowers around the thing tree, where the birds would gather in the branches and sing raucously. But none of these flowers fell into the category of "pretty flowers" that I had promised my dear departed dog. About fifteen years ago I finally kept that promise by planting a butterfly bush on his grave. The butterfly bush reaches a height of about ten feet each summer and has hundreds of panicles of sweet-smelling pink flowers. I don't know whether the thing tree or the butterfly bush, or both, have consumed his remains.

Sometime early in my life we discovered that a maple seed had fallen into a hidden corner of our yard (which is hard to do on a square corner lot in the suburbs), sprouted, and grown into a seven foot tall sapling. This wouldn't be the last time something like that happened.

In 1977 the city of Nanticoke decided to line Main Street with oak trees. The young trees were planted in small openings in the bricks that edged the sidewalks. When all the necessary trees were planted there were a few left over, and my family wound up getting one, which we planted in our front yard. It was beautiful and grew large, though it had the disturbing habit of dropping whole branches - apparently these acts of self-pruning are a feature of the tree. It outlived and outgrew all of its street-planted brethren. In late 2010 my mom and I decided that it was time for it to come down. The tree-removal service made quick work of it. Had it been around when Tropical Storm Irene blew through last summer with its tree-toppling winds, I have no doubt it would have come down - catastrophically.

So. The seeds of the poem are there, sort of. It started out as an elegy to both the dog and the tree, but crossed over into fiction when I decided to rewrite both of their life stories.

One other thing. The original version of this poem was vomited out in about thirty seconds and hit me with a heck of an emotional punch. After a while I took a look at what I had written and realized I had made some of my characteristic mistakes, like using the same word repeatedly throughout ("buried") and starting every third line with the word "and" (which is the way I often talk, especially when I talk quickly.) I turned editing it into a game: how many different ways could I say "buried?" It turned into "put," "stuck," and "tucked" - "planted" never made the cut (actually it did, in the line "and promised to plant you pretty flowers.") And I reduced the word "grave" to a single appearance, which subsequently got cut and reworked. But as I made the edits I found myself becoming emotionally distant from the poem. It was reduced to a mechanical exercise, a game of sorts. And so I learned an important lesson, emphasized by the group today: Always save your first draft.

1 comment:

Brian fanelli said...

Harold, I'm glad that you were willing to give poetry a try again, and thank you for sharing the two poems on here. It also seems like you are part of a solid writing group that gives sound feedback to writers involved. Good writing groups are tough to find, but you've found one!

Brian F.