Let us all be thankful for the wonderful institution of poetry that is the Academy of American Poets, because I had forgotten it was Thursday around midday, and was scrolling through Facebook when I saw a link to this poem, which is part of their Poem-A-Day series. I read it, loved it, went back to work and promptly forgot it was Thursday again, my knowledge of time subsumed by exhaustion, lethargy, stress, and the seemingly unending assault of wants that occupy my mind. Luckily for all, just as I was about to give up on this night and climb into bed with a book, I remembered again, so here we are.
I’m not going to lie, I mainly read the poem because of its hilariously long title – Elegy with Apples, Pomegranates, Bees, Butterflies, Thorn Bushes, Oak, Pine, Warblers, Crows, Ants, and Worms. I thought it might be ironic or at least deliberately comical but it isn’t. I see now on a second read through that it’s actually a microcosm of the poem itself, in that the seemingly mundane details obfuscate the thrust of it, even as it begins so clearly and obviously with the word ‘elegy.’ By the end of the title you’ve forgotten that one word, and that is the intent. But more on that in a bit. It opens:
The trees alongside the fence
bear fruit, the limbs and leaves speeches
to you and me. They promise to give the world
back to itself.
I love the simplicity of this beginning, the way it has seemingly nothing to do with anything else – love too, ‘the limbs and leaves speeches’. It is almost inevitable that a poet will at some stage write about the wind and trees and the dialogue they create, I myself have done so before, be it a song of leaves or some other such phrase, but this line in particular is quite deft in its approach to that idea. The word is so specific in conjuring a type of oratory as well, one you wouldn’t typically apply to that scene, that it shouldn’t really work but it does; you can almost picture each tree as a lecturer, each breath of air a new impromptu speech.
The following line definitely aids in solidifying the oddity of ‘speeches’, in grounding the poem as we enter a somewhat more surreal space, where the landscape is literally speaking, and the poet listening. ‘They promise to give the world back to itself‘ as they fall, such a lovely line, because of course they do, they must, there isn’t a choice in it.
The apple apologizes
for those whose hearts bear too much zest
for heaven, the pomegranate
for the change that did not come
Now the poem begins to gather pace, nature and all it has to offer commenting on us. My favourite part of this quote is the line break toward the end, so dark, ‘for the change that did not come / soon enough.’ It makes its bleakness palatable by showing what could have been, the change did arrive – not when we needed it to, not when we yearned most for it, but ah, it happened eventually at least did it not?
The poem continues in this vein, a collection of lovely images, of life coming to life, so much so that the ending arrives as a distinct surprise – as all endings tend to do, but even more dramatically than that, in revealing itself to have been about death all along, and not just on a conceptual level, but a deeply personal one at that.
My neighbor looks like my mother
who left a long time ago
and did not hear any of this.
Just for a minute, give her back to me
On the second read through, I realised that death permeates the poem not just from the first word in the lengthy title but from the opening lines of the poems too – limbs and leaves giving the world back to itself, falling. Apples feeling sorry for those who went to heaven, the pomegranate with its bitter regret. Even the neighbour leaves before she can hear any of this. Loss is in every line of the poem, but the imagery is dense and tight and lush enough that you might not notice it on first read (unless you are more perceptive than I, which is entirely possible, given my tiredness). On the second read, however, you see just how skilfully the whole is woven together, and it is all the more affecting for that.
As ever, I urge you to read it. There’s plenty I left out for you to savour.