Shouldn’t the world pause for at least an instant or two when a poet finds his or her voice and its perfect theme? If so, it should pause at Andrea Scarpino’s new book, What The Willow Said As It Fell (Red Hen Press, 2016).
This such a beautiful, stunning book, that it seems inadequate to merely describe it, to say that it is a single long poem, a meditation on chronic pain and love and nature and words and the impossibility of ever really understanding what ails us and of explaining it to anyone else—inadequate because that’s not where the poetry is.
Andrea Scarpino is Poet Laureate of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and author of Once, Then (Red Hen Press, 2014) and the chapbook The Grove Behind (Finishing Line Press). Shortly you will be able to hear her reading from the book at our Talk About Poetry podcasts pages, which also contain a prior reading in Syracuse, and an extended interview with her by me and Stephen Kuusisto. The links will be at Soundcloud (https://soundcloud.com/bobherz) and iTunes (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/talk-about-poetry/id972411979?mt=2).
The poetry in this new collection is in the technique, the energy, in the craft of the making, and in the joy visible throughout this book, from the opening to the closing poem. Between the two we get a vision of what it means to be human in the visible world when every moment is a matter of intention, of making the choice to live and to find peace against a visible opponent without a name, a disease without a diagnosis.
Here’s what I mean: here’s how the poem opens:
Before the day :
sunrise over the lake, seagull clatter, crow,
sound of glasses stacked, restacked, metal slid
into place. Cacophony of blossoming :
forsythia, lilac, cherry’s pink-tipped sway.
And here is how it ends:
My body in pain. Waiting.
And then I left it. Turned myself to tree.
And between those two places a life moves, beautiful, breathing, remembering, thinking about pain and love, questioning Job-like, why is this affliction brought unto me, frustrated that medical technology with all its knowledge and pills and techniques cannot find its cause only its effects, but the voice still offering love and still coping or trying to cope with the given of the life, and finding beauty in the world around, a beauty become more valuable perhaps, more precious, because of the affliction, because of the stakes of the life that the affliction forces to attention at every moment.
Look at those final lines, and ask the attentive reader’s questions: What tree? We don’t know, we’re not told. It’s a special tree, and it is also any tree—it is the tree that is not this body in constant, chronic pain, the tree that does not feel this pain anymore. But it is not death, and it is not even the wish for death, which has been discussed and dealt with and dispatched in the course of the book. No, the identification with the tree is the hardening into life, the reduction of self to the that part of us that has identical DNA with the tree: to be alive, to feel, to survive but not as victim, rather as this new thing.
And between the opening view of the trees before dawn and the metamorphosis into a tree at the end, we experience with this poet everything: love, medical reports, a Bart Simpson moment with an entire page filled with the same short phrase, stunning descriptions of a beautiful world, and the questioning, always questioning, always the seeking for wholeness, sanctification.
There is no explanation for the pain, only ongoing visits to the doctor. Only discussions, descriptions. She thinks about how we are related to the trees:
Humans share 50% of our DNA with trees ribbons of living tissue epidermis cuticle cortex vascular cambium heartwood root hairs mother cells leaves that breathe male and female hormones : ash changes sex different branches The same substances work on the human nervous system trees can be put to sleep chloroform and ether telegraph system initiates defenses under duress : jasmonic acid ethylene Trees may not feel pity and pain?—
This meditation brings a fable, a memory of the hope and excitement of birth, of “a baby born / with damaged lungs” who is put through the ash and cured for awhile, until the borers come. She asks—any of us would ask—what does it mean, to be afflicted this way, with an affliction that can be felt but not named, that has a result but not a diagnosis. Is pain a judgment?
Pain (n). (classical Latin) :
punishment, penalty, suffering or loss inflicted
for a crime, offence; thought to be endured
by souls in hell; mental distress or suffering;
annoying or tiresome person or thing—
As in :
pain-dimmed pain-drawn pain-chastened pain-shot pain-wrung—
And the meditation, the self-examination goes on: never missed a checkup, never had a family history of disease, did everything she was supposed to do. How is she supposed to react? “Pain changes us,” she says, “and everything we touch.” This is her Job moment, of trying to understand why this has been visited on her.
And what of the willow tree? One hundred years beside the lake.
Girls played in its long-armed cape, braided branches like hair,
mothers turned its switches into pain.
Mallard ducks, Mute Swans, geese built nests with matted leaves.
Night of the hurricane, my child body asleep. Sideways rain, lightning :
one long, loud crack and the willow split in two, one half in the lake, one half
through the roof, broken windows, plaster knocked from the walls.
What the willow said as it fell : Take this body. Make it whole.
And I woke with a crown of leaf and limb, bark-thickened skin,
sap down my arms—
salicin : aspirin—
What is remembered in the body is well remembered—
Mother’s voice through my room’s darkness :
part crying out, part inhaled breath—
She imagines or reports the doctors and others asking, but what does it feel like, this pain? Is it like an ache, heat, lightning, heaviness, swelling, or a hundred other metaphors? No, she says, “Pain feels / / like nothing except pain.” There is no metaphor for pain, a point made by another poet 50 years ago, Randall Jarrell in “90 North”:
I see at last that all the knowledge
I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me— Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing, The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness And we call it wisdom. It is pain.
In her frustration of trying to explain that pain is NOT a metaphor, she writes a full page of “pain begets pain,” not a frivolous exercise given its subject matter, but a needed one: pain makes no sense, it’s not “a concept,” or a metaphor or an argument; it is what’s real. Later she asks, “what if feeling better doesn’t include a cure?”
Depressing, maybe, as subject-matter, but this passage and the book is lifted consistently up by the artistry of it, the technique, the voice: the way that blues perfectly sung transcends the sadness of subject matter, the way Robert Johnson does it, or in a different vein, Joni Mitchell tells us terrible things that make us feel better.
If the poetry’s in the pity, it is also in the hope. And all this loss of faith in cure is followed by an extraordinary moment of transcendence and love:
To love bare limbs, thin arms reaching.
To love new leaves in bloom. To love their death,
layering of brown, orange, too-late green.
To love toppling, growth rings exposed.
To taste sweet pull of sap, bark’s thickening.
Mouth filled with golden light. To want to call my own—
I want to quote so much of this poem, to praise the way the lines cohere and hold to their facts, so that each page is an object, a made thing, not a metaphor for something else. Her nature descriptions are terrific. She says,
In the red pine grove, air heavy, sap-sweet, red dust
through mottled branches, air in my lungs reddening.
All day, building.
Until one long, loud crack :
lightning. And the sky opened.
And there :
entirely white except a stain of pink inside each ear.
Like fog, hovering.
The book is offered as a description and explanation of this unknown pain, a questioning 0f it and not a justification, a learning to live with this unknown malady that is also a part of the poet’s life. There is no wallowing in the pain, but there is enormous restraint. At the conclusion she finds the irreducible, the life that links us to all other life. And in finding it, she finds transcendence, and takes us with her.
An extraordinary book.