That Shape of Branches

Walked out of a postcard writing event into a balmy mid-March evening. Sky light with a pinkish gray, high and cool, clouds drifting off absentmindedly. Buds in the trees, green in the grass. Felt a pull, a sweetness. In the air, in me. Old springs stirring in me. Made me sad and a little afraid. Bittersweet. Hard to take comfort in the beauty of nature when you know that we’re wrenching it out of alignment, destroying the rhythm that’s kept things going for thousands of years. And a little twinge of something I once would have called spirit. I can do without the anthropomorphizing that even the most abstract religions impose on life. But I didn’t want to reject that feeling. Looked up, and there was a tree reaching for the light, its bare branches bud-tipped, arced in a palmate skeleton, spreading and branching and converging again at the tips like an abstract vase. Form: now there’s something I can reverence. Especially form that emerges unthinking from unplanned processes. A thing in which I can recognize myself, and something alien, and something greater, and far too other to receive my paltry projections, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Asked recently what one word I might use to convey what’s important to me about literature, I immediately said “form.” When I teach poetry, I’ll sometimes start by drawing a short diagonal line on the board. Just that, a simple line: /. And I’ll say: it’s just a line. But make another, and another, and another, and you have a pattern: / / / / . It starts to look like something. This is half the secret of poetry, painting, music, fiction, sculpture, dance, drama. It’s rhythm, it’s pattern; it’s built from simple repetition. And the tree was doing it too, putting out a branch and another and another, all within the constraints imposed by gravity, by chemistry and physics, by other trees and humans, by oxygen and H2O. And in so doing creating form.

I thought then of Douglas Kearney’s “Floodsong 2: Water Moccasin’s Spiritual.” I suppose just because I’m really taken with it, have been so since I first encountered it in Black Nature. I love the song it’s based on, and Kearney’s done something breathtaking with it, which he’s achieved almost entirely through subtraction, as though he’s somehow stripped away the extraneous even from what seems already like a profoundly simple expression to get at its innermost core—and reveal something else entirely. I read that poem and I start humming the tune and I am exhilarated all over again by something I cannot put my finger on. Like a snake in a flood it slips away, its undulations under the surface bespeaking muscularity and mystery and suffering in equal measures.

This, I want to tell my students—I’m always, in my head, talking to my students—is a very high expression of form. But it relies so heavily on other texts, knowledge, conventions. Its sparseness and seeming simplicity are deceptive, because they invoke volumes. It is familiarity with all that—the music; the tradition out of which the music arises; the forms of versification and its much older relation to music, the ways visual poetry is and is not aural, musical; the flood and the snake and whatever it is he’s getting at by carving, whittling this lyric down to its gnarled, twisted essence—it is, I say, familiarity with all of that that makes this sparseness possible. And what makes this seemingly arbitrary slide across the page, with its fits and starts, its gaps and lunges, in fact form of the highest order. Not regularity, not any obvious rhythm but rhythm nonetheless. And so kin to that tree, and to the rotting anemones in my front yard, their stalks long past brittle, soggy now with winter’s wet and sinking back into the earth, black with slime which is itself another kind of form.

So I walked up the hill, humming “Wade in the Water” with Sweet Honey in the Rock backing me up in my mind, seeing in my mind’s eye that shape of branches against the sky like hands folded in prayer, and so home.


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