the difference between art and craft is not form but purpose. art has a single reason to exist, to convey emotion, typically through a search for beauty and meaning. craft has a different one, to be functionally useful in the moment. while much art effectively tells a story and craft is often overwhelmingly beautiful, art only needs to stimulate feeling to be worthwhile and craft can simply give you a place to put your body when you’re tired.
poetry is art while prose is craft. prose is language for communication. its words may be exceptionally beautiful but rarely are. what is important is not how it tells a story but that the narrative is understood. prose written to be difficult to understand has lost its purpose completely and is not language, simply an assault on humanity. easily-comprehensible common grammar, however, with generalized vocabulary is the gold-standard in prose. it has a clear purpose. communication. poetry doesn’t have to communicate anything — and most rarely does. while it may tell a story or paint a picture, it is its emotional payload that is its primary reason to exist and, once that is present, it needs nothing else.
much like walking into an art gallery or visiting a concert hall to experience a symphony, poetry may be understood at various levels. one of the marks of poetry is its multiple-comprehension potential. not all poetry has a deeper meaning but, if it is well-written by a poet who understands the artform, it has at least two. this is not, however, a jigsaw-puzzle, where each piece has its place and there is a riddle to solve. a poem has a structural meaning, telling a story or painting a picture for the purpose of emotional stimulation. if there is a deeper meaning, which there usually is, this is not something to be solved. it is something to be created as a partnership between the poem and the reader. the poet is no longer involved. they have cast their hat into the ring and what happens now no longer depends on their input or interests. trying to find “the correct deeper meaning” is a fool’s errand and it simply doesn’t exist.
searching for a comprehensible basic first-level understanding of a poem is often cryptic and confusing, bogged-down with complex grammar, language, references to history, literature or even other poetry, culture, religion and philosophy. discovering the “simple” meaning is often far from easy as this is not necessarily obvious. it is, however, a task that can be learned with practice and mastered much like any other skill — anything is possible to develop in time and nothing worth doing can be learned quickly. the deeper meaning is a creative exercise — it is the answer to “what could this signify for me in this place and time and with my experience?” while the simple, plain, structural meaning is closer to “what is the story being told?”. it is important to remember this is never “what does the poet intend?” or “what story are they trying to tell?” — the poet has created a work of art. what it means for them is valid but no more than what it means for the reader. interpretation is a recipient-only task, not a conversation between poet and audience. the risk the poet takes in publication is giving up control of the words. the reward can be profligate and immeasurable. but it is a complete absence of ownership that many poets find exceedingly difficult. it is, however, still very much the case — the reader must process the emotions and images through their own lens and experience or the poetry is worthless. while prose is a conversation, successful only if the intended message is received intact and understood, poetry is a stylized broadcast, emotion poured into the world to fluctuate freely in the minds of recipients, often crafted into things completely outside the realm of anticipation or even understanding of the poet. this is both its magic and its curse. i offer what follows as an example of interpretation at multiple depths but this is not the only way to understand this work. i am well-aware of this, knowing this is my own yet i have given it to the audience and can never take back control. thankfully, i no longer desire it and feel freed by sending my words into the world.
the poem i will use as an example is a standalone work called “fallen”. it is, loosely-understood, the story of a tree becoming furniture. my three passions in life are language, teaching and woodworking — in this poem, i combine all three, something i rarely take the opportunity to do so thoroughly. let’s explore it together, first at the most basic level, piece-by-piece.
we’ll begin with the outline. the tree, given the ability to think and feel like a human, realizes it is being chopped down. it hits the ground and is milled, prepared as lumber, kiln-dried, roughed, joined, smoothed, finished and lives a long life as a piece of furniture, reflecting on its forgotten life as a tree and remembered life as wood.
the first thing to look at when studying a poem is the title. stories, articles and books are expected to have titles. it’s not optional in the modern world. the titles are often meaningless afterthoughts simply because a title is a necessity. poetry isn’t like that. many, perhaps most poems have no titles and are simply referred to by their opening lines, main themes or “untitled” with a sequential number. given how common this is, when a poet chooses to attach a specific title, most frequently a single word, this word tends to carry significance. in this case, the poem is called “fallen” — this is both realistic and allegorical. it refers to the tree having fallen, life having ended and expectations having changed. but it remembers that humans, moving from the innocence of animal behavior to agriculture and tool-use, are considered “fallen”, too, as the book of genesis describes it — no longer just part of nature but enlightened in a dark and dangerous sense, welcomed to the ability to think instead of living lives only of reaction as animals do. this is an early indicator of the fact that the poem can be read at multiple levels — not surprising, given its existence as a poem, however.
- reaching for the dawn i suddenly collapse
the tree is doing two things here but before looking at what they are it is significant to pay attention to who is speaking. the tree is not simply the subject of the poem and the topic of the sentence but the subject. the tree is speaking. this lets us know this is going to be a poem more deeply-rooted in a fantastic suspension of reality than most — a human tree isn’t something you find in the forest when you go for a walk but it is an interesting symbolic impossibility to contemplate. the other thing is the tense. while most poetry is written in a reflective way, this included, it takes place in the present. given the length of the poem, it’s obvious that the entire thing doesn’t happen in that moment so it tells us there is a progressive approach to the present tense. this poem will be stream-of-consciousness rather than past-tense reflection or present-tense description. there is action happening in the present and each new present will have new action — or at least new states of contemplation.
the two things the tree is doing here are reaching up and falling. when the tree reaches up for the sky, it is doing the same as every yoga class you’ve ever seen begins with — a sun salutation (सूर्यनमस्कार) or devotional promise and prayer to the sun that combines gratitude and desperate necessity. this, of course, is actually derived from seeing how trees and other plants grow in the direction of the sun. if the sun moves, the plants shift to follow it. while trees don’t typically have the ability to get up and walk around, the shifting position of the sun day by day and year by year can be plotted by the stresses in a tree and the shape of its trunk and leaves. it follows the sun and, metaphorically-speaking, sings its praises every day with its complete attention. the sun is the source of the tree’s life, much as it is ours. the tree is doing exactly what we do every morning, stretch up and wake in the light of dawn, realizing the sun is our only hope for continued life.
this reaching is not simply a physical reality, though. it is hope. the tree, to continue to live, needs to get through the night, another day, another year. we humans look forward and reach for archetypical dawns, not the physical one that comes tomorrow without any doubt or change except in terms of timing — it’s what we call “seeing the light at the end of the tunnel”, an artificial, symbolic dawn that isn’t the sun but a reason to keep living. the tree isn’t just a plant reaching for sunlight. it’s a human reaching for hope.
much like humans in the modern world, grabbing for hope usually results in disaster. the tree suddenly collapses — is this the destruction of hope or simply the absence of being able to physically take continued life and existence from the sun? both apply in this case. because of outside forces, the tree’s life is cut short and its hopes are, if not decimated, certainly changed to new ones — and only if there’s an afterlife, which is a fiction for humans but a definite possibility for lumber.
- as i feel the carpet pulled from below my feet
“carpet” is literally what we call the soft surface of the ground in a forest covered in leaves and bark and other organic detritus. it’s what makes a natural forest so different from a prepared hiking path. forest floors are soft and it is easy to walk through them silently on a cushion of moist remnants of trees. there are rarely small bushes — they don’t get enough sunlight between the trees. this is a human expression, though — “having the rug pulled from under your legs” means something unexpected and bad has happened to make success impossible. your life has been unquestionably shaken by something. in this case, it’s both physical and metaphysical — when a tree is cut down, it is usually done by cutting an angled notch then sawing from the other side, allowing the bottom of the trunk to “kick-out” in the direction of the notch, looking exactly like a person standing on a carpet that has just been pulled without them expecting it. in theoretical terms, the tree’s expectation of continued life until nutrients disappear or fire comes to consume it while still alive has suddenly disappeared. with the trunk severed, life stops. it doesn’t have any expectation of continued or renewed life — no new testament of ridiculous promises of salvation and resurrection. for the tree, falling is the end much as for humans falling is a one-way-street with a brick wall somewhere in the future.
- an unexpected noise woke me yet i imagined myself safe
whether the tree is being chopped down with an axe or saw or something far more modern and fueled by electricity or gas is irrelevant. you can’t cut a tree down without sudden loud noise. if the tree was asleep — trees do, in fact, sleep every night, their cellular processes slowing down in the cold and diminished sugar production as photosynthesis pauses when the sun disappears — this is certainly enough to wake anyone. while the tree couldn’t possibly have imagined anything of the kind, a human tree would have thought each day would be much like the last with little variation — perhaps a new bird or fox appearing, finding new pockets of nutrients with the ends of the roots but likely nothing significant to change daily life. with this noise, though, the whole world changes.
that’s how it happens in human life. we continue every day and expect our lives to be predictable. like a newtonian physics problem — movement continues in its current path and direction unless something significant acts on it. but something always does. yet we are shocked when our lives come crashing down around our ears with no more warning than a sudden sound and impact in the dawn — change is something no human enjoys and most are terrified by. change usually signifies whatever we were doing has suddenly failed. the tree was looking forward to a new day of growth. that’s certainly not in the cards.
the other thing to remember here is that we’re not talking about a natural process. it’s not a fire. while those are fast compared to what they are imagined to be, they can be seen coming and expected from a vast distance. when someone intentionally destroys your life, though, that’s often something you’re completely unaware of until it happens — until there is a sudden noise and the world falls apart.
- only to search for balance and find nothing but fresh bruises
when things go wrong in our lives, we scramble to try to get things back. whether we like the new situation or not, we almost always try to return to the old one. it doesn’t matter if the new situation is inevitable or even improved. we are creatures of habit. the tree is much the same — it searches for balance, both physical and idealized. this is what the buddha spoke of, living a balanced life. remember, “dukkha” is often translated as “pain” or “suffering”, leading to horrible versions of buddhist doctrine as “all life contains suffering” or even “life is suffering” — this is inaccurate. while life does involve suffering, that’s not what he was saying. “dukkha” is “imbalance” or “unpredictability”, which is certainly a function of human life. it is, however, also a function of the life of a tree, especially one that is going to be turned into lumber.
it’s interesting to take a moment to think about how trees are selected. while all trees in an area may be cleared for construction, the vast majority of trees cut down and turned into lumber aren’t clear-cut in the modern age. they are specifically selected. that means the most successful are chopped down, not the weak or dead or vulnerable. strength leads to death. is that how humans treat their own, too? who are the ones on social-media, for example, on the receiving end of the most aggressive hate and criticism and judgment? the most successful of our peers are the ones most often targeted for pain and suffering and so many people believe they deserve it, that they have a right to attack those who are successful simply because that’s what they’ve achieved — something like a status of target accompanying the status of celebrity. the most beautiful tree within view is suddenly ripped from its life. perhaps you can think of humans who have experienced much the same, while being judged as deserving that type of treatment if for no other reason than jealousy.
remember that when a tree hits the ground it really is bruised. this damage can often mean some of the wood is unusable for working — it’s important to make sure a tree falls where it will impact the less-desirable part of its body. but when we humans fall much the same is true. i shelter my face by putting out my hands if i fall. i risk breaking my fingers and arms to avoid shattering my face on the ground. the risk we take in that moment means we know we are about to be hurt and try to select the least painful of results. a tree is built with cushion and protective armor — bark. humans have a protective armor, too — self-repairing skin and padding flesh around our bodies, especially the parts that usually contact objects, an evolutionary result of millions of years of harm. but why “fresh”? because life is full of bruises. a tree in the forest or on an urban lot encounters pain and bruising on a constant basis. these might be minor, what we think of as microaggressions — insults and disrespect. it might be major. like us, the tree tries to repair itself but those bruises never truly heal. do yours? now at the end of its life it has no more chance to repair itself as the last set of bruises remain fresh forever, encapsulated in whatever the tree is used for. like the bruises we take to our graves.
- my limbs ripped from their sockets while i lay dazed
the first thing that typically happens to a tree once it hits the ground is for its branches to be removed. still “dazed” from the impact and suddenness of its falling, the tree can’t react to this the way it normally would, trying to heal its wounds. its life is over and now the process to tear it to pieces begins. as humans, when we fall, whether it is terminal or simply one of the many falls we encounter, those around us take exorbitant pleasure in tearing our dreams, hopes and thoughts apart. our limbs may remain physically attached but our lives are certainly no more cohesive when we are attacked and damaged than the tree’s, lying on the ground losing its leaves and branches to a chainsaw. a tree does, by the way, have “limb-sockets” the same as a human or animal and the connective tissue linking them for nutrients and exchange of moisture are startlingly similar.
- yet my life somehow extends as i am torn to nothing more than slices of myself
when a tree is milled, this is usually done in a process called “flat-sawing”. it is put on a surface and sliced end-to-end using a saw, turning it into boards of approximately-equal thickness — usually, for modern lumber, about fifty millimeters. the important part of this line, though, is the beginning. the tree isn’t left there on the ground. it is suddenly aware of the fact that its life isn’t really over in the way it expected. yes, it’s definitely dead in the organic sense. but its life is about to be given back to it, possibly for hundreds of years. this is a shocking development. being torn to slices of itself, physically, is usually how a tree is resurrected. for a human, these slices are usually memories — actually, they’re often memories recorded on physical slices of trees, paper, representing cross-sections of their life. memories fragment over time but records remain, brief glimpses of life, especially if the person has written for public audiences. but those are nothing more than tiny slices of an existence that was a life and suddenly stopped being it. is that resurrection? in the case of the tree, it’s bodily. in the case of a human, reanimation is an idea that died with the egyptians of the middle kingdom, though it is startlingly-commonly-discussed today as if we didn’t know better. what will you be remembered by after you die? what have you left? i have left this poem. how’s that for meta?
- only alive at the edges though soon to become rived from the past
these glimpses in a human sense are only snapshots seen from a single perspective, like looking at the edges of a thick piece of wood. this is a play on words, though. a board with its original, organic shape from the tree rather than a straight edge is called “live-edge” and this is often used in modern furniture. wood was historically not cut with a saw at this stage but “rived” or split along its grain. instead of the roughness of a saw, a tree can be encouraged to fracture along its organic fault-lines (its yearly shift between soft and hard growth is a natural boundary). humans do much the same. as past becomes present and that becomes new past, we amass fractures where, if pressure is applied, we often break. we can call this post-traumatic stress, triggering or simply being fragile, something all humans are. but it’s no different from the visible lines in a tree signifying it has lived for years and can be easily broken as a result.
this is the end of the first segment (verse is an odd way to look at poems structured episodically like this but it’s an accurate technical term for it).
- the touch of steel against my face resurrects me
we should probably imagine that this tree is being worked by hand in a woodworker’s shop. sure, it could be machinery doing these things but the care and precision described in the poem is closer to the slow, methodical hands-on process of handtool work. that being said, the work of a plane could be done with a jointer and a saw could be electric rather than handheld and much the same allegorical situation would present itself. it’s probably just easier to picture this being done very slowly and relatively-quietly for the purpose of imagination.
the first thing done to a piece of lumber about to become furniture is generally that it is planed roughly smooth and flat with a fore or jack-plane. this is simply a sharp piece of steel held in place at an angle and rubbed across all the surfaces of the wood — it’s an extremely simple tool that has existed and been used by humans for thousands of years. it was so common in the roman era it was depicted in art without comment as a typical part of daily life. the steel rubs against its face (a piece of wood actually has two but humans tend only to have one unless they are dishonest) and this is the first sign of “resurrection” — unlike trees destined for firewood or simply being eliminated for construction and set to become fill for garden beds and paths, a tree with a future life as a piece of furniture is going to be touched with steel rather than burned or shredded or boiled into paper. what was the sign of the afterlife coming that was spoken of in your religious childhood? the sound of a trumpet calling you out of a grave? this is the tree’s trumpet voluntary played on the edge of a blade.
- and i drink in new reflections caressed by hands able to tear yet gentle
touched by a woodworker who has the ability and strength to simply tear the wood apart — and usually the tools to do it if they’re not careful or patient — the tree is treated gently and its surface is reflected in the polished steel of the plane’s blade (its “iron”). after a disastrous fall, destroying at least a part of our lives, are we given this treatment? if we are to be returned to life as a fully-functional human, it’s likely necessary. gentleness, even just for a few moments, being touched by careful hands that are strong enough to hurt and simply choose not to may be the only way to restore a human to life — to resurrect after a fall, you could say.
- my bruises have healed and i no longer drink
the physical bruises are healed because they’re simply not a part of the tree that will be used. they are sawed or planed away. in the case of a human, those bruises may heal in time, too, especially with the help of that careful yet strong supportive force. but remember a tree can only be returned to life if it is dry. it can’t drink. in the same way, this is a cautionary tale for humans. after a fall, many turn to alcohol and other substances but recovery is only possible for someone “dry” — and the longer we allow ourselves to stay saturated by self-indulgence the longer we will remain stuck in the land between fall and resurrection.
- though sunlight feels closer and more raw with each day
as the tree continues to dry and the sunlight is hitting it more “raw” as the day continues… in the case of a human, this is likely the case, too. with each passing day since a fall, awareness progressively becomes more and more present about what has shifted. whether this is good or bad mostly depends on plans and actions, those around them. in the case of the tree, the progression can be either hope or disaster. if the tree dries properly and remains cohesive, it will become furniture and live a long, happy life. if the drying goes wrong and the tree cracks, it will become firewood and the hope of an afterlife is shattered before it begins.
- a welcome distraction yet i find myself returning to the hands
those who help us often become the ones we return to. in the tree’s case, day after day and joint after joint returns it to the same hands turning it into furniture. it’s distracted by the progression of moisture equilibrium approaching more and more permanently but nothing really changes the ministrations of the hands turning it into its future self. after a fall, though, a distraction is almost always what we welcome, whether it’s good or bad — like dehydration or recovery from substance use, dryness potentially signifying destruction or salvation.
- their blade not tearing but returning me to life with each contemplative movement
in the case of the tree, the blade of the plane (and that of the chisel and saw) is the conduit to future life. in our cases as humans, we are often given the ability to recover not by the application of self-care and self-gentleness and self-forgiveness, things prescribed to us by the internet in its completely-absent, delusional wisdom, but pure force and commitment. if we want to recover, we must make a conscious decision and not allow ourselves to soften in our resolve. the blade we hold to our own lives is necessary and we are either broken more by it or restored by it — of course, it must be a logical blade of contemplation, not one of desperation or emotion or it is guaranteed to hurt us.
- a shock yet somehow to be expected as i once again join my lost friends
the tree is shocked by the fact that it is being stripped and torn but that is the way to new life, much as we discover the path to recovery is painful yet necessary. the tree encounters its lost friends, other trees from nearby, similar, usually from the same species. a single piece of furniture is rarely made from a single tree, usually many pieces sourced from trees in a single area or several different trees — frequently growing in the same forest, though, as this is what keeps the cost down. it would be expected yet shocking for a tree to realize it is reunited with its childhood friends in the afterlife, don’t you think?
- a trip through an unpredictable looking-glass
in “through the looking-glass”, alice is transported to a life completely different from her own but that reflects both her hopes and fears. that is often what happens to us after a disaster — a fall. we are taken to a place we deeply fear but know all too well that is at the same time shockingly different from our expectations and inherently familiar. a tree on the table with the ability to think might be shocked by the appearance of those friends it grew up with treated the same way suddenly becoming its neighbors as part of a table or box again — a reunion with the addition of glue.
- reshaped yet unmistakable
as the tree is reshaped, it never loses its inherent “treeness”. in much the same way, we continue to be ourselves regardless of what changes we undergo to recover from our disasters.
- perhaps destiny is more capricious than i had imagined
of course, destiny is simply an arcane idea and our futures are simply the result of our presents and the choices we and those around us make. but we insist on thinking of it as being prewritten — destined. that makes it seem unpredictable, capricious. there is an irony to having lost friends then being reunited in the afterlife. after a human disaster, we often find much the same thing, that we are brought back together with those we loved before and drifted away from. is that situational irony or simply the nature of desperation? hard to tell.
- though it appears design may yet be intelligent in the afterlife
this is, of course, a commentary on religion. while there is no intelligence and no afterlife in human existence outside humanity, the afterlife for a tree does have a god, a designer and a logical system — the woodworker is deity in every sense for wood. yet the tree is shocked because, living in the real world, it discovered what all humans must eventually accept — nothing is “meant to be” or “decided”, only the result of previous actions, a process loosely understood as “karma” — every action is the result of others and causes new results that are beyond prediction and myriad in their components and complexity.
- i had forgotten the joy of drinking my fill
the tree is now being finished — the application of shellac, oil or varnish to the completed project. after months, perhaps years of becoming more and more thoroughly dry, it is given a drink and encouraged to soak in as much as it can for its own protection and to make it look beautiful. after a complete lifetime of drinking constantly every day, it is shocking how quickly only a few months or years have made that past completely inaccessible. that is how shifts happen in our lives, too. what was your life like only a few years ago? what were your daily patterns? how foreign would those feel if you acted them out today? after a long time in the wilderness of self-destruction, the buddha was given a drink and rice and allowed to finally be full again, the beginning of the path to true enlightenment and happiness. jesus was rescued from the wilderness by the application of water in a desert country. returning to health is usually about consumption. even for a tree.
- the purity of liquid flowing through my every pore
if that consumption is meant to help, though, it must be real. perhaps it’s water or oil or even just truth and compassion. in the case of a tree, it absorbs into every physical pore. in the case of humans, it infuses our awareness and mood.
- reaching deep and darkening my impulses to echo the years i no longer count
most wood darkens with the application of finish — the deeper it penetrates, the darker the wood becomes. the darker and richer, that is. it echoes its life as the figure of its stresses and patterns and experiences comes to the surface. for a human, is that any different? the past feels more and more distant. how long has it been since you were in kindergarten? since high school? since the first time you rode a bicycle or sang in public? how many years can you remember clearly? or are they simply echoes that come out only when we are polished and indulging ourselves in the mirror?
- whether heaven or hell i am still unsure
the tree has no way of knowing what its life will become. it is being prepared, groomed for a new existence. as are we when we try to recover from disaster, from falling. will the new life be heaven or hell? of course, this is a play on the idea of the tree being in the afterlife. is it heaven or hell? how can you tell. well, literature gives us a way but, as you will see in a moment, it’s inaccurate and unhelpful, nothing more than confusing. the future is unpredictable and attempting it is nothing short of painful and useless.
- baking in the fire yet never smelling a single flame and suddenly
- as if a god had been waiting for a sign within me to shift just slightly
- lifted from the oppressive warmth and laid again on an altar for my sins
this is a reference to danté’s “divine comedy” but it’s more than just a reference — it’s a physical description of the drying process of wood. first it is put in a kiln, a hot, dry place to suck out the moisture by evaporation and dehydration then, once an internal sign has changed (measuring internal moisture in this case, quite literally a sign from inside the wood), it is suddenly taken out and again returned to the regular, unheated environment, whether outside to await use or in a shop or home to live.
the altar that appears here is one that could be used for veneration (worship and adoration) or sacrifice. the tree has no idea but the tools that surround it are probably close to the knives of ritual killing and dismemberment that were common even in the days of the bible.
- yet after careful preparation i am not sacrificed
- venerated and touched with love and painted with attention
the tree, much like us in such situations, expects to be destroyed. in this case, it doesn’t happen. but there is a very thin line between worship and sacrifice. it’s hard to tell where we will discover the future takes us. “painted” in this case may be literal but, for humans, it is often the application of a new personality as a mask.
- reunited and brushed by glimpses of forests in the distance
- where my children surely must play
with the application of a glossy coating, the tree can now reflect what surrounds it. through windows in its new home, perhaps it can even see its old forest and its children, the trees that have grown from its seeds, may still be alive, even for centuries there. for us, when we have returned to live, it is shocking how much has continued without us being aware, as if the destruction in our lives was felt as a pause for the rest of the world. but we are usually startled to realize those around us have changed, grown up, adopted new pieces in their lives that we have to reacquaint ourselves with when we return to the “land of the living”.
- forgetting for the moment my absence in the sounds of birds playing between their fingertips
trees, of course, don’t think or remember. but a human tree child might have the same experience of a lost parent, remembering yet forgetting at times, living their life without necessarily focusing on the past every moment and returning to it from time to time to contemplate where they came from. if a tree was a human, it would hold birds in its hands every day. as humans, we do this with our hopes and dreams and loves. these distract us from the disasters that have happened to those around us, even our parents. returned to life, it may be shocking to see just how well the world has continued without us, how quickly it has smoothed its surface, no longer showing the ripples of our fall.
- and my sacred duty is fulfilled not by knives plunged through my heart but devotion
ritual sacrifice is usually done with a knife through the heart or throat. this is startlingly close to the deep devotion of worship, learning to know the devotional object’s “heart” or “nature”. in the case of a tree, of course, this is even more physically-realistic, with the knives being not just symbols of destruction and salvation but the actual tools used to craft a new literal existence for it. “sacred duty” is a thinly-veiled reference to our task as humans to help each other. it is what was prescribed by great religious leaders and thinkers since words began to be written but that we almost constantly ignore — our duty is to serve and care for the humans surrounding us. if we focus on ourselves, we are not human, only worthless. the tree is devoting its new life to service with the help of the woodworker and their tools — a life as useful furniture. can we say the same after our falls or do we become even more self-indulgent and simply drain society and culture for our benefits, ignoring our duty to our communities?
- aesthetic metamorphosis from rectilinear reshaping yet i remain myself losing nothing of the grain of my soul
this is a literal description of the transformation that happens as the woodworker turns the tree into furniture — shaping from organic curves to rectangular joinery and finished products with straight lines and clean edges. this reminds us of the line earlier in the poem, though, that no matter how much changes the “grain” or depth of self within the tree (or the human) doesn’t change. we are ourselves even after disaster as long as we continue to bounce back and live. grain, here, is a play on words as it is the pattern in the tree and the allegorical reference to the rhythm of our thoughts.
- uncountable years twist my dreams from memory
we are shifted far into the future, likely hundreds of years as the tree reflects on its new life as furniture and what it’s experienced in this last segment. the years become uncountable over time as tends to happen in life. our memory fades and we only remember a few details from the past — often only a few from the present, too. the wood, though, does more than just forget. like an aging human, aging wood, warped by time, literally twists. dreams are harder to sustain as sleep becomes difficult.
- yet with each moment i drink more sunlight against my face and smile more deeply
- skin shimmering more with age despite what the young would have us believe
- perhaps only the effect of careful preparation
young people tell us youth is valuable — it’s like the person with diamonds extolling the virtues of a diamond ring, rather more self-servingly than we should believe yet, as humans, we are often taken in by this silliness — our whole culture values diamonds and gold despite them having no real functional value in the way we use them. as the boards warp, they smile and frown more — twisting with time. the more sunlight that hits them, the more they move, much as happens to our faces as we spend more of our lives wrinkling in the sunlight of our daily existences, each new fall teaching us to smile or cry more and more. remember, the surface of a board is called its “face” so the reference isn’t just theoretical but literal. the careful preparation of finishing protects the furniture but our “careful preparation” has prepared us, too. what our parents and teachers taught us has meant the sunlight passing (days and years of life) have left their marks but we continue to live.
- though that altar is so long ago i feel its touch only with the most tacit of feathery thoughts
- though no fire came for my burned heart
- and i was given new life in the sun
how strong are our memories? this is a reflection of what has happened. a “life in the sun” is a new chance at happiness. there is always that option, of course. but can we grab it? will we be given it by someone strong and careful like this tree was?
- listening carefully to the voices surrounding me
- unguarded as if i couldn’t hear
a piece of furniture that’s lived for centuries would be fascinating to talk to, the fights and loves and discussions it’s heard. we talk as if nobody can hear us. usually nobody can. but what was so important about those strong words?
- and in this instant i relive that falling day
- when i thought myself pulled down to hell
- and shiver
memory of dark times and falls never really leaves us, even if it is dulled by time.
- knowing no more of the afterlife now than all those moons ago
the afterlife isn’t real. but the future is. in its reality, though, even for a tree now become a piece of furniture, tomorrow is unknowable. we can’t predict it. will it be cherished for another century or broken into pieces and burned in the morning because it is no longer desired? will we be happy tomorrow or torn apart again with a new, unexpected fall?
having come to the end of the story, we must then look at the deeper meanings, though these are often far less significant than the story. here are a few meanings that can be taken but you are welcome to find some of your own.
- what we think of as disaster is often an opportunity for a new life in a completely new way if only we embrace it rather than fighting.
- the afterlife is an unpredictable result of failure but it is inevitable so whether it’s bad or good there’s no reason to try to avoid it as it’s impossible and no more than a waste of effort when we could be using that time to try to adapt.
- beauty comes with time and is not dependent on never having failed or fallen, only from how we recover and the help we manage to find.
- we can be rebuilt in new ways but only when we accept the old forms are gone forever.
- we never lose our inherent selves, though we waste incredible effort and time trying to preserve the authenticity that is going to be there anyway without us needing to think about it, no matter how much we change — we’ll still be the tree even if we become the table.
i hope you have enjoyed waking through the life of a tree and the fall of a human with me today. perhaps this will be useful the next time you look at a poem for the first time — or for the hundredth. there are many right answers. many things a poem can tell you. don’t let anyone tell you there’s only one. there are many things that don’t make sense, of course. it’s not that there are no wrong interpretations. but to be correct it must only be internally-consistent — the author doesn’t get to decide what’s right. your teachers don’t, either. if it makes sense, it is valid. so stop being afraid of poetry and drink in its beauty. at least, drink in its beauty where you find it. don’t force yourself to read poetry you don’t like. or anything you don’t like, for that matter. life is too short and there are far too many books out there to suffer through ones you don’t enjoy. there are ones out there you’ll derive great pleasure from. look for them. i promise they’ll come if you try. thanks so much for your eyes and thoughts today. may the peace of the forest wrap you in its birdsong and sweet blossoms.