It’s Emily Bronte’s birthday, and Garrison Keillor marks the occasion appropriately. I want you to notice, however, that today’s entry in The Writer’s Almanac is more artfully done than usual. Leading off, there’s a truly fine work of verse, called “Tree Poem,” by Paul Hostovsky, that takes a searching look at the hardest issue any of us will ever face: the end of our lives; and the page closes with Bronte’s own poem on the subject–filled with the Romantic spirit, yes, but with a hard edge of its own, as Bronte’s considers the possibility of nothingness.
As good as her work is, and as much as this day ought to belong to her, though, I am drawn to Hostovsky’s poem. It’s as clear and sweet as an elegy can be, with a lovely metaphor: a tree that surely must have grown at least a few branches in every thinking human’s heart by now. That’s why our hearts are so heavy; the tree of which Hostovsky speaks, the tree he wishes us to see, takes root slowly within us, as it always does, everywhere, given experience and time.
But, oh, that turn: “But because his children / would never live it down.” How utterly human. He fears the shame he knows his children would feel, so he stops. He climbs down from that tree in the garage, surely, the Tree of Life; but I wouldn’t be the writer I am or the man I am if I didn’t tell you that I thought of another Tree as I was reading–the cross upon which Jesus hung, and how often in His most terrible hour He surely wished He could climb down, willing sacrificial lamb or not. Our mortal man climbs down, as most of us do, and walks “back into his life with a few.” That’s all any of us have, no matter how rich or full a life we may lead: just a few family members or friends, and the friends may be close enough to be family. That’s all we have time for and, for most of us, that’s all we need.
What a superb line break between the final two lines! The double hit of “with a few” connects us to both his family and to the “leaves and twigs” sticking to his head, our head. We carry that tree within us; we climb it in our moments of despair; we long for it to end our loneliness and suffering; and whether we will it or not, we bear the scratches and marks of all those leaves and twigs every time we shamefully, or bravely, climb down from that tree to resume the lives we have, and see what the following days will bring.