Wednesday, April 30, 2014


What a delight, in an era when every book seems to require a tome, to hold in one’s hands a slim, nicely bound book whose text can be read in its entirety in five minutes—and asks only for re-reading many more times to come!  And whose illustrations are subtle, sweet and engaging to the eye!  Such a book is Unchopping a Tree...

... a prose poem in several paragraphs by W. S. Merwin with drawings by Liz Ward.  (The text was originally published in 1970 in The Miner’s Pale Children, but takes on a new life here.) 

If you’re looking for a beautiful gift for an ecologically-inclined friend, you need look no further.  Merwin’s text is musical, elegiac, crafty, gently ironical.  Without bashing anyone over the head, it engages the theme of man’s baleful effects on his planet by asking us to undo them in reverse: Unchopping a tree?  Impossible, of course—unless by magic; and who better to prestidigitate with words than this poet, who has been doing nothing less for decades. 

With words, then, he walks us through his meticulously detailed, deadpan instructions, starting with the reassembling of leaves and small twigs and proceeding to the levitation of the trunk itself, until the tree stands again before the reader’s eyes in all its majesty.  Then, he writes, “You are afraid the motion of the clouds will be enough to push it over.  What more can you do?  What more can you do.”  But, he concludes, “there is nothing more you can do.  Others are waiting.  Everything is going to have to be put back.”

Everything!  What a task awaits us, putting back together everything we have undone!  On this solemn note, the poet leaves us, with gentle remonstrance, to contemplate our own responsibility. 

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