Poetry often looks to the less obvious, the forgotten, meek things. This is what Michael Mark does here. He glides past the more obvious subjects of elephants, jackals and vultures, making a beeline for trees that stand like dumb monuments which can’t defend themselves.
Likewise, the speaker of the poem is powerless. But he/she is crippled by fear, not by his/her physical nature. It’s this fear that haunts him/her when he/she returns home. It’s the haunting that we all experience from actions we didn’t take in life.
It can be hard to fit rhetorical questions into poems well, but Michael manages a question that slips in nicely, relatively unnoticed, like all the best rhetorical questions. Unnoticed like trees, you could say. Trees are around us all our lives. Even those who live in the concrete oases of cities usually encounter/see a tree nearly every day. They’re like bones rising up from the earth. We all have skinned trees somewhere in the back of our minds.
For Me it was the Trees
Stripped to their sap
by rhinos needing to scratch an itch,
dismembered by elephants
marking their existence,
left leafless by the insane baboons.
Broken and more beautiful,
they stood in defiance of death,
Even more than the too-close nightly roars
that shook our tent and made me leak pee,
then worry until light
that whatever predators were out there
would pick up the scent
and track it to us,
beyond the three giraffes
in a solemn row,
watching the jackals, hyenas and
cloud of vultures eating
the remains of their fallen elder,
it was the trees
that impressed me most
on our summer vacation.
Monuments to nothing I can name.
Were they even trees anymore?
From the crowded plane home,
I saw the skeleton sculptures
waving their tangled arms, frail,
skinless fingers clawing at the vastness
and me, not to forget.
In my bed, haunted.
I should have gotten out of the jeep.
I should have walked over to one of them
and sat down like Buddha.
I’m a hospice volunteer and long-distance walker, gardener, husband, son, brother, father, former business owner, misser of our dogs. I have written two books of stories, Toba and At the Hands of a Thief (Atheneum). I’ve been writing poetry for three years; some have appeared or are forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine, Paterson Literary Review, Poet Lore, Prelude, Rattle, Spillway, The Sow’s Ear, Sugar House Review, and Tar River Poetry. My poems have been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and the 2016 Best of the Net. michaeljmark.com.
Fear seems to have a major role in this poem. Do you think fear has much of an influence on your writing, and on writing in general?
Busted! Fear has been a driver in my life, my little friend. Guess it happens when you believe in everything. On my desk now is Edward Hirsch’s book Wild Gratitude. His poem “Commuters” is a stirring example of everyday fear which he struggles to name: “It’s the vague feeling of panic/ That sweeps over you/ Stepping out of the #7 train”. He feels it, he knows where it happens, but he can’t name it. Fear is like that for me. I use writing as an investigative tool. In this poem, it’s confessional, journalistic as well. It’s set in a place where I don’t know the rules, where I’m vulnerable and physically at risk (my wife and I are sleeping in tents, needing armed people to protect us, shaken by the roars), so, yes, I feel threatened. And then, as I examine the poem through the lens of fear, even in my own bed, I regret not acting instinctively, intuitively, like the animals, I suppose. I see fear’s fingerprints on the scene; that this inaction could continue in my normal life, when I get home, and I’d be too much of a spectator. Interestingly, in the plane, where I have the least control, there’s no fear. Fear is one of my top writing stimulants; it’s also an effective alarm that goes off when drama’s near. And, of course, I head towards it, on tippy-toes.
Similarly, focusing on things that are usually less well-noticed is prominent here. Does this act have any significance in terms of your writing?
Well, that’s tricky. It’s always been an issue with me. “Michael, stop looking over there – the blackboard is here, the ball is here, cars are coming!” Even in college, my papers would return with notes from the professors commenting that, while I missed the main point, what I featured was interesting and sometimes insightful. This always surprised me, since I wanted to follow the rules, just couldn’t. So what is obvious to others I often miss, and what I see rather plainly might be overlooked or disregarded by others. That’s a good reason to read and use a GPS. In this poem, you caught the pride coming through from the title and the shame in the end. I do believe in the power of the hidden in the obvious: William Carlos Williams’s The Red Wheelbarrow teaches us that, as do those often overlooked white chickens who squawk about not getting in the title.
Even before you mentioned Buddha in the last line, I got a sense of religion or spiritualism from the scene playing out before the speaker (the animals feeding, etc.). The idea of sitting down like Buddha is a fearless one (assuming the feasting animals are nearby), so I’m wondering if you wanted to convey any connection between religion and fear here.
Yes, exactly. Africa is said to be a spiritual place, but, of course, no more than the local gas station, the shopping mall, butcher shop. When we really see, connect, we experience a charge. By that, I mean life (easier to do when witnessing an older giraffe being consumed by other animals as the fallen giraffe’s family stands in reverence). We are awakened to our place, our role in a bigger plot, time, interconnectivity. The stuff we don’t see or feel everyday for many good reasons, like stop signs. But when we do, we are in touch with being, its glory and its mundane chores. So the idea of Buddha sitting under a tree in Africa with wildness all around does touch on religion, bravery, hunger; it’s a romantic image. In this poem the narrator is connected to his spirituality (paying homage to the tree – its spirit), his desire for something beyond a tourist’s experience and his fear of being food. The three are tightly wound in hopes of making an image that vibrates.
Your question “Were they even trees anymore?” implies the possibility of a whole identity changing due to a physical change or an event. Are significant changes such as a change of identity relevant to writing and reading poetry, do you think? In other words, can/does poetry change us, and has it changed you in a very significant way?
What makes a thing that thing is of great interest to me. Africa was a stunning stage to play it out, as it seems all is even more fluid there, changing so quickly we can’t accurately know and name it. So, in one moment, you come across an animal which we identify as “leopard” who has cubs, who they would call “mother,” and is, therefore, a “protector” and a “hunter,” and is “prey” – all visable against the starkness – and so, being all these, she becomes a blur. Same with the trees: wood, shelter, shade, fire, weapon, food, back-scratcher – all, fully, simultaneously. I think it’s fair to say seeing the blur is seeing in focus. Poetry, for me, (and I reserve the right for it to change), is like a super fast shutter in a camera a tourist brings along to catch glimpses of what is going on as it happens, click by click, and then, later prints them out and sees what they nearly saw. Poetry defies time, slows it down to show something vividly enough that the reader is moved, you could say changed, and also gives them a moment to re-recognize themselves.
Why do you write?
I was a poor student; “slow” was the term. Writing was the one thing in the classroom I was most consistently praised for. I write to see and live deeply, to make sure I don’t miss the miracles. Of course, I would very much like my writing to add value to people’s lives the way so many writers have added to mine.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Write. Fall in love with the process of writing. Rejoice when you’ve written well. Rewrite.