Pushcart 2015: Susan Stewart, “Pine” (Poetry) from Paris Review, #207

"Ogham Tree Grove"  by Yuri Leitch

“Ogham Tree Grove” by Yuri Leitch

a homely word:
a plosive, a long cry, a quiet stop, a silent letter
           like a storm and the end of a storm,
the kind brewing
           at the top of a pine,
                       (torn hair, bowed spirits, and,
                               later, straightened shoulders)
who’s who of the stirred and stirred up:
          musicians, revolutionaries, pines.

I never realized “pine” had so many possibilities. If you’d like, read the poem online (thank you, Paris Review), and walk through the pines with me:

My first thought was that a phonetic dissection of the word “pine” was an odd way to start. In linguistics, “p” is indeed an unvoiced plosive consonant. “Aye”, yes, a long cry, aye, cry, changing shape along the way. Since my first connection with the word “pine” on reading this was “pine box” – that is, coffin – a long cry would be an appropriate association. But we don’t run into a pine box until later; there’s much more interesting stuff before then. Where was I – yes, the cry. Then, “a quiet stop”; now, the IPA charts I originally learned from had “n” as a nasal, but then I’ve also read about it as an alveolar fricative; and yes, there are those who define it as a stop. Susan Stewart’s a Princeton professor who won a MacArthur “Genius Grant”; I’m not going to argue with her if she wants to call it a stop. And the silent letter; who doesn’t read that and hear “the rest is silence” ?

But wait: we don’t really start with that at all, do we. We start with “a homely word.” “Homely” on face value means “ugly”, but it has meanings shading towards “simple” or “rustic” as well. Pine is an undistinguished wood. I happen to be very fond of it, as it’s hardy, plentiful, thus cheap, and can be very beautiful, or very plain. What I like most about it is that its knots, its flaws, are what make individual boards interesting and unique. It is, however, very soft, unless treated. I’m wondering if there’s some metaphor here, and for what. For people? For poetry? For life?

Or is pine just pine? In Pine-Sol and in pine: “…one means of knowing the real thing is the fake you find in school.” And we have humor, wordplay: “The air had a nip: pine / was traveling in the opposite direction.” Is this a turn signal? Have we have now begun the descent portion of our flight? I don’t think so; it’s way too early, isn’t it? School has just let out… does it start that early, the travelling in the other direction?

Now out of school, I learned a lot from this poem. I didn’t know the White Pine, aka Japanese Pine, often used for bonsai, grows its needles in telltale groups of five. But that’s just the beginning of what I learned:

An alphabet made of trees.
In the clearing vanished hunters
        left their arrowheads
        and deep cuts in the boulder wall:
                 petroglyphs, repeating triangles.

There is an alphabet made of trees, shown in the header art above: Ogham, where the pine tree is the ailm, something like an “a”: a single horizontal line. This alphabet is found in texts, and is carved on stones in Ireland. And of course, there is an online transliterator, though I have no idea who created it, or how accurate it is.

I also immediately thought of John Ashbery’s “Some Trees”, that poem I discovered through ModPo that creates a sense of interconnectedness even on a passing mention. So much interconnectedness, yet I struggle to find the overall structure of this poem.

The final stanza:

No undergrowth, though, in a pine forest.
Unlike the noisy wash
of dry deciduous leaves,
the needles blanket the earth
pliant beneath a bare foot,
a walk through the pines.
Silence in the forest comes from books.

If you’ve ever walked in a pine forest, you know the spongy feel referenced here. I remember being terrorized by that feeling when I was younger, fearing the ground would absorb me at some point, frozen in place until I had to be carried out. And that last sentence leaves me breathless – an appropriate response, I think.

I see so much in those closing lines: “pliant” is so similar to “plant”; the indent on “floating” gives the word itself a floating sense; is the walk in the pines, and thus the poem, perhaps a life, now come to an end? Is the walk through the pines the reading of a poem on paper? Is there some strangeness to reading it via illuminated pixels instead? Or is it just about pines? I wish I could interpret intelligently.

But maybe interpretation is the wrong approach to this poem, to any poem. Maybe a poem is more than a balance sheet of symbols and sounds; maybe it’s the wind on which we fly, and there’s no need to quantify or characterize. I’m having this very argument, about another poem, with someone right now; the way always presents itself, doesn’t it; it’s up to us to see it, and, if possible, take it. And, by the way, if I see something different in this poem tomorrow, or next year, or in ten years, is it not inherent in poetry that it grow with me, adapt itself to every “me” that reads it, however separated in time and thought they might be?

So what is the poem as a whole, how does it flow, how does it mean? I see the words, but does it make a sentence, a paragraph, a unified idea with a beginning, middle, end? Is it a lifespan: birth in a word, the individuation of sounds and letters, gathering meaning as it goes along, learning to communicate and have useful function, culminating in a pine box, ending in silence of discarded needles, while the tree itself goes on to make more needles? Is the linguistic beginning a layout of the poem: stanzas in turn plosive, cry, stop – the rest is silence –

Or is it just a meditation on the word “pine” and the images it brings the poet?

I’ll admit, I’ve lost the forest for the trees here. But you’ll have to admit, too: they’re pretty awesome trees.


4 responses to “Pushcart 2015: Susan Stewart, “Pine” (Poetry) from Paris Review, #207

  1. It took some time to grasp that the second line broke the word PINE into an analysis of the sounds of the letters.

  2. I think homely most definitely has the sense of simple and unpretentious rather than ugly.

    The sounds of PINE match the burst of a storm and a resultant cry. Followed by the stopping of the storm.

    My Greek books consider the nu to be a nasal, and treat it morphologically as a liquid. NU is not a stop. Yet there is a stoppage of the breath with the tongue at the top of the mouth, a redirection of the breath into the nose.

    So stop it is.

    Neat to compare slowly the change of sound with the tongued nasal NU and the lip closed nasal MM.


  3. PINE portrays and sounds the agitated, the activist.

    The storm, the cry, the stop, and the silence.

    Revolutionary I understand.

    Why the musician?

    This poem. Thanks for introducing me to it.

    I like it very much.

    However, it is not a good example of a poem open to infinite interpretations, dependent on the reader’s mood or time.

    The reader’s mood or time must engage the sense of the poem.

    As Miss Emily, Each Age a Lens

    Not a lens for the age to reinterpret the poem; a lens to disseminate the light of the poem to reinterpret the entire circumference of each age.

  4. Pingback: Goodnight, Pushcart | A Just Recompense

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