Tree Talks by Wendy Burk
Delete Press, 2016
76 pages – Delete Press
Phantom Hour by James Meetze
Ahsahta Press, 2016
96 pages – Ahsahta Press
It seems unbelievable
as when there is a tree and you try to hear it
and the sensation of behindness
into the midst of which you have been plunged
shows equilibrium as inimical to life
-Lisa Robertson, 3 Summers
Let’s begin with an idea: language is a means of communication. Under this notion, language functions as a bridge between two people, allowing meaning to traverse back and forth. This is, at least, an outcome we hope for when we open our mouths to speak, or when we sit down to write or read a sentence. But it should come as no surprise to anyone who has written or spoken how rickety this language-bridge is and how rarely it ever successfully delivers our intended and reflective meanings. We say something, and it is misunderstood, and then we misunderstand the response, and respond back irresponsibly.
Poetry takes a unique perspective on these failures. To some degree, poetry is language not meant to directly or successfully convey a specific meaning, at least in the way that meaning is meant in a newspaper article or technical manual. Rather than positioning itself as an attempt to impart a clear meaning to another, poetry positions itself as a writer’s attempt to verbalize a complexity welling up from within and flowing out, to fill up the void with one’s own sound of meaning-making. The outcome is multiple and messy. And the reader who wades into this void is given fragments of language to reconstruct and use in their own way.
Two recent books investigate this relationship of communicator, receiver, and language-as-transceiver. In part, these books pose the question of what is the purpose of this system that fails to do what it claims to do. In Tree Talks, Wendy Burk walks out into the desert of Arizona to interview trees. In Phantom Hour, James Meetze communes with his father as his father slips deeper into dementia, memory loss, and loss of his relatable self. In unique ways, both books put language to an impossible task: to communicate with one who cannot respond back, or who at least cannot respond back with a language of clarity and directness. Despite the impassable bridges of communication before them, both Burk and Meetze pursue their poetic experiments filled with faithfulness, diligently sending their communiqués and accepting the response comes back in whatever form it returns.
The opening section of Burk’s Tree Talks occurs, as the section title informs us, on December 5, 2009 between 5:30 PM and 6:05 PM and is an interview with a Populus fremontii S. Watson more commonly known as a Fremont cottonwood tree in the Sabino Canyon recreation area. This first interview consists of eight questions, all but two beginning with the phrase “Tell me about…”:
Tell me about your experience of time here.
Tell me about your experience of clouds and weather.
Tell me about the dry times. Do you feel the water, below you in the ground or above you in the sky, before it arrives?
Tell me about your experience of people. Do you hear them passing by on the road and, if so, with what part of you do you hear them?
Are they different to you from the sounds of crickets or owls?
Tell me about the flood, and the experience of standing still surrounded by moving water.
Having more than one trunk, do you feel you have only one body?
Tell me about fluttering in the wind. (5-9)
Burk asks each of these prompts and, like a good reporter, diligently records the responses verbatim. The responses, though, diverge from a standard interview, as the interviewee is a tree that cannot speak in our language, that we cannot even know if it could possibly hear us. Despite these challenges, Burk is determined to find an answer, and indeed does hear sounds in response:
Burk records the sounds of the chirping of crickets, which act as a metronome keeping time and marking the passing of each second. An owl hoots to announce the approaching dusk, and the footsteps and broken conversation of humans passing by add background noise. A moth’s fluttering and a car penetrate this resonating silence. The wind blows through and its rushing fills Burk’s ears and causes the tree to move. A car zooms by. And, thus, the question is answered: this is the tree’s experience of time, which is now shared as Burk’s own experience of time, which we now read into our own experience of time.
Burk’s act of transcription takes these seemingly meaningless (in terms of dictionary meaning) sounds and both gives them meaning by placing them against her question and rendering them as language as strings of Latin letters. Burk’s work recalls an origin myth of poetry as the attempt to represent birdsong in a human’s own call. Burk represents the birds, the insects, the weather, and the mechanical making her poem a recollection of all the sounds the surround us.
In these diligent activities, Burk negotiates the structure of a relationship that links herself to the trees she interviews, as well as herself to the fuller world that immediately surrounds her. And by witnessing that negotiation through reading this book, I as a reader can create my own relationship with the world that surrounds me. All we need to do, as Burk shows, is ask our question and then listen closely for an answer that will come, in some form, and then be open to accepting it as the answer.
Meetze’s Phantom Hour is based around a son’s attempt to communicate with a father succumbing to dementia. The experience of caring for and witnessing the welling up of confusion initiates Meetze’s poems as both an attempt to find understanding with his father as well as to consider the act of understanding anyone using language. In “Dark Art 1” in the opening pages of the book, Meetze writes:
If I discover in wood the light
of someone else’s cool breath
I am magic for it, I am a common fool
in the unmoved world.
My prayer is a ghost, a leaf falling to the ground
the rhythm of what life is and is not doing.
I am told there is a god for everyone
and this is our darkness, our loss:
to know is to wander blind without inquiry.
Look, ghost, you too are legend, madman
a stanza in our larger story.
The words are only echoes returned
both origin and copy, body and shadow.
Eventually, the image wisps away, sings
and listens at each discreet transformation.
My prayer is narrative; it too is a form of song.
These hold together everything we remember. (3)
The poem begins with a possibility: finding the other, and specifically finding the other’s breath. This initial desire, though, never comes to fruition. The other’s potential cool breath becomes a ghost, a falling leaf, darkness, blindness, and loss. By the end of the poem, the encounter with the other becomes Meetze’s prayer into the void, and it is that prayer that “hold[s] together everything we remember.” The poem as prayer, and the prayer as sufficient even if the other person is never realized or reached.
As Phantom Hour progresses, Meetze probes what remains of his father’s deteriorating memory. He poses questions that seek understanding of a man and a relationship, that seek closure of some kind, but the answers cease coming from the mouth of the father and, instead, find their origin in the memory and imagination of Meetze himself:
When I asked, I can imagine
it was a different motive
that brought me to the question.
I can’t magic an answer into being.
Can’t know the family map.
When I asked, I wanted a poem
and not a job.
Built a house around the man.
I was a naval officer, you would say
and, you would say, a Southern gentleman.
I had this house, you say.
When I asked, a caesura
where an answer should be.
This house could be.
You or I were not yet there, were,
in some small way, lacunae
imagined in absentia. (63)
Before asking, Meetze is unable to imagine. By verbalizing the question, he is able to imagine a possible answer. And in that imagination, Meetze’s own memories of his father merge with rationalization, hope, dread, gain, and loss. Once the question is spoken, the answer can coalesce in the nexus of these emotions and memories.
What returns, of course, isn’t his father’s answer. The answer is an accumulation of previous statements and habitual phrases that fills up the “caesura / where an answer should be.” Each self imagining the other, and the imagination only able to create “absentia.” But that emptiness does not remain emptiness. Meaning rushes forth and fills it. The answer, even if it came, would be discarded anyway. The point of the question isn’t the answer; the point is the gesture toward and how that gesture manifests the self, the other, and the space in between.
In “Karmic Trace” from Hello, The Roses, MeiMei Berssenbrugge writes:
At each step walking with her, I discover wider difference between myself and the alder, measured as a difference in feeling, a different way of describing the same sky, same ground, rain, as our relation is a kind of open circuit sparking with things in rain, the way boulders, trees, bushes, hill move and brighten in relation to each other as we walk, trees seeming to continually open a corridor ahead of us. (80)
Whether speaking with the alder or the elder, Burk and Meetze initiate a relation with the other. And as readers, we initiate a relation to Burk and Meetze, to the images of their trees and their fathers, who might be the trees or fathers in our own lives. In reading the tracings of those relations, Burk and Meetze ask us to consider our existing relations and examine these new ones emerging in our correspondence with their books.
And the objective both authors explore is that the point of speaking isn’t whether the intended meaning is properly understood by the receiver. And it isn’t whether the receiver can return their own clear meaning back. The point is the exercise itself, the effort to connect with our world, to connect with each other, to connect with our lineage and our space. To throw out a vocalized sound from our throats, and then to stop. To listen. Then to open ourselves to what arrives.