I purchased Wendell Berry’s latest book, Our Only World, on Sunday at Auntie’s, a small, independent book store since 1978. If you live in or near or visit Spokane, it is a nice location with restaurants near by.
After my purchases, I realized I had not used one of his poems in some time. I chose this one. I think it might be easy to say this is a bleak poem, talking about death. In a literal way, that makes sense. I take it figuratively.
Jacques Derrida contended that in becoming who we are the previous “who” repeatedly dies, but leaves memories and traces to be recalled. I read this poem, similarly. Who I am is metaphorically a grave of memories and traces that belong to me, but I share in various ways with others and the world. The tree is me standing guard over those memories. Guard might be too protective. Instead, similar to a tree’s rings signifying its age and even various years’ conditions, the tree represents the memories and stories about my living.
The tree allows me to recount my story, but not as it happened. My stories contain gaps, uncertainties, and ambiguity. I repeatedly edit them, filling in blanks, recalling events, and forgetting other things. As I recount my stories, they form a fictional account of who I am, where I’ve been, when I thrived, and when I struggled, similar to the rings on that poetic tree.
No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now, and always.
And so you have become a sort of tree
standing over the grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.