Here is a poem that takes aim at our clichés about aging and death. It does so with subtle cleverness, by putting “in tandem” an old spruce tree and the nursing home resident to whom the poem is addressed. Though there’s no stanza break, the poem divides into two parts, each of nine lines. The first part is all negatives: the clichés (like “it had a good life”) that we would not apply to the tree if it toppled over dead. The second part is all positives: how we “would have marveled” at the “pale corona of roots, / like arms uplifted and exposed.” The tree is anthropomorphized here: its uplifted arms make it more human than the nursing home resident of Part One. And more full of rich life: “we would have breathed in / earth smells and the inner life of the tree.” The poem’s final three lines again contrast the responses to the toppled tree versus the nursing home patient. The imagined tree evokes in the speaker and patient a “curious” scurrying happiness, while they know that any “small talk” of the patient’s “recovery” is fantasy. This is a poem that seems simple in its accessibility, yet it draws me into meditation on the ways our culture thinks about human frailty and mortality.
If a winter storm had ever toppled
the blue spruce that towered over
the Tandem nursing home,
you would not have asked how old
the tree was and by that mean
a good life had been long enough.
You would not have said the tree
would no longer suffer indignities
and use that to erase your frailty.
Instead, we would have marveled
together at the pale corona of roots,
like arms uplifted and exposed.
We would have breathed in
earth smells and the inner life of the tree,
the miracle of the woodcore.
We would’ve been as curious and maybe
as happy as squirrels. We who
had sworn off the small talk of recovery.
Fred Marchant is the director of the creative writing program and the Poetry Center at Suffolk University in Boston. He has written three books of poetry: Tipping Point, winner of the 1993 Washington Prize; Full Moon Boat(Graywolf); and House on Water, House in Air (Dedalus). He is also the editor of Another World Instead: The Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947, forthcoming from Graywolf in 2008.