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Thursday, October 19, 2017

"Black Locusts" by Cameron Barnett

from The Drowning Boy's Guide to Water(Autumn House Press)
"Black Locusts" is found on Verse Daily [link]

First lines:
There are no gardens in my neighborhood,
just three black locust trees


after closer reading . . . .


— a little text added at the end, Nov. 2, 2017


I do occasionally go back to the daily sites to see if there is something interesting to talk about, especially if I have nothing else on the burner (or nothing that I can get finished) as is the case now. This time I found on Verse Daily "Black Locusts" by Cameron Barnett, posted a couple of days ago.

It's an average bit of verse over all. There's nothing spectacular about the versification, but at least he's writing in lines, which is something. I like the general idea being played out, how the verse works two conceits simultaneously: the idea of the three trees as children, and the condensation of a lifetime into the seasons of a single year. But there are problems with the verse. Interesting problems, though, which may be worth pointing out. I'll go through some, one at a time.


(1) Begin with the simile that starts on line 4.

All spring, cream-white petals
blooming like baby teeth,

(I'll quickly say that I like the verbless construction of that sentence.) The phrase "blooming like baby teeth" works very well, giving the idea both of the whiteness of the flowers and of their size. But what about the next line?

nectar drooling from the center.

The movement from baby's teeth to drooling works in the immediate. Reading the lines for the first time I got a touch of the thought of "a clever little jump, there." Unfortunately, the extension falls apart on the other side of the simile. Would anybody ever use baby drool as a simile for nectar? Considering that the idea of nectar is greatly grounded in taste and eating (even in its botanical/entomological usage), it's actually a pretty gross simile. For that, the simile falls apart. The line "nectar drooling from the center" sort of works on its own. But throw in a source of that drool – a baby – and not so much. And you can't separate the one from the other, not as presented in the text.


(2) Jump now to near the end of the verse.

Later, when winter comes,
I watch kudzu creep up their trunks,
wrapping itself over every inch,
stealing away the last bits of sun.

Kudzu can grow pretty quickly. Wikipedia tells me[link] that once established it can grow as much as a foot a day, sixty feet in a season. But that's once established. The kudzu around the trees in the woods behind me has never been able to make such gains. (It seems to die as quickly as it arrives.)

But notice what I said: kudzu can grow sixty feet in a season. In the text, the growth of the kudzu occurs in winter, and kudzu's season of growth, one would assume, is going to be spring/summer, not winter. That's a problem in the text as written.

The winter part of the idea also doesn't work in that kudzu kills the tree by blocking out all the light. But in the fall the tree will have lost all its leaves, so it wouldn't really care that much if it didn't get any light in winter. Plus, on top of that, the losing of the leaves is already a metaphoric death, and the idea of kudzu doesn't expand on that idea. Rather, the idea of kudzu comes off as somewhat redundant, and, even, in the way.

Now, in that kudzu kills a tree by "stealing the last bits of sun," the idea can operate as a metaphor for disease, a 'natural' death as it were. So there does seem to be something that can be played with here in treating the trees as children. But it simply doesn't work when you say it occurs in winter. The verse as written comes off as though Barrett was forcing the two ideas – kudzu and winter – together. And they don't go together at all. He needed to pick one or the other.

There's actually another, more subtle, problem with the idea of kudzu. Look back at the first lines.

There are no gardens in my neighborhood,
just three black locust trees
in my backyard.

The trees are in the backyard, and are presented as being an ersatz garden. Which prompts the question: Why does the person have kudzu in their backyard (in their 'garden')? One does not normally see kudzu sprout at the base of trees in a yard. So it is not quite as natural a thing as first thought.

In sum: the kudzu idea is an interesting idea, but it does not jive with the rest of the text.


(3) Let's go now to the middle of the verse, and one line that should have felt a little like it didn't belong when you read the verse.

They are the children I pray every night to have.

It's an absolutely unnecessary line that should have been cut from the text.

Why? Because it's directly giving the reader the idea that underlies the whole of the verse: that the trees are being linked to the idea of children. If the verse needs a line to explain the primary conceit, then the verse does not work very well. If the verse does work well, then it should not need or have a line explaining the conceit: let the verse do it's work on its own. As I've said before, and it's a good rule of thumb for life in general: never explain your jokes. If you have to explain your joke, the odds are either the listener was never going to get it, or you didn't tell the joke well. And in the case of writing verse, if you can't tell the joke well, you shouldn't be telling the joke. (It could also perhaps work as a rule for writing: distrust all overt statements.)

I will add also I don't like the line on another level: the phrase "I pray every night to have" brings a sense desperation that I don't like at all, nor does it fit the verse. Nowhere else is there the idea that the trees are substitutes for children the speaker wants but doesn't have. If that idea is meant to be important to the text, then it should be part of the text, demonstrated through the relationship between the speaker and the trees. Simply stating it overtly is clumsy, lazy, and un-creative.


(4) To note, there's a second place where Barnett is "explaining his joke." Line 9:

In the summer they stand
as if for a portrait,
lined up like siblings
in the corner of my window.

"Lined up like siblings" is unnecessary and should be cut. Again, the reader should be able to get the idea of trees as children – as thus as siblings – from the text without the verse having to stop what it is doing to explain everything overtly.


(5) Last lines.

Before the first snowfall I'll sharpen a hatchet,
read up on girdling, stand at the window,
and wonder which sort of death they deserve.

That is rather an odd ending in a verse that is equating the trees to children: the speaker is contemplating whether and how to kill his own children? I did myself "read up" on girdling, something that was new to me. And I can come up with no positive way to connect girdling to children, no way for girdling to be metaphoric for how one treats one's children.

If you connect the sentence with the previous, about the kudzu, the last line does garner some sense in that there have now been presented two forms of death: denial of sunlight by the kudzo or girdling by the speaker ("which sort of death [do] they deserve"?). But are we talking euthanasia here? And with girdling it can take years for the tree to die. That doesn't exactly seem like a positive option to being starved to death by the kudzu. In fact, with girdling, as I found out, the tree dies because the roots of the tree are being starved to death. So is it even a true option?

I'm not sure if the reader was meant to connect the kudzu line with the last line. And the odd, murderous tone of the last line is unavoidable. I have a feeling Barnett wasn't really thinking out how the line reads, he just saw it as a way to bring the 'life story' of the trees to a point of death, using something you don't see every day, girdling. The lines read like he had a clever idea and forced it into the verse without paying attention to how the verse reads as a whole. (The lines about the kudzu read the same way.) Because of the idea of girdling, the seasons-as-a-life metaphor falls apart in that last sentence. And, in truth, so does the idea of the tree as children. It ends up a confused, strange ending to a text that doesn't live up to its possibilities:

By autumn they droop
and withdraw like moody teens,
leaving all their trash behind them.

That's interesting, there. Note the guiding rhymes working across the lines: autumn/withdraw/all; and droop/moody. There might also be something to be said for the lines increasing in stresses, 2/3/4. (Although, the third line can be read as three stresses, if you read "leaving all" to echo "and withdraw.") The idea of leaves equated with trash has a humor to it. Although, the lines also show the strain between the two conceits: teen years but it's already fall? Perhaps the two ideas don't work well together after all.

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