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Unchopping a Treeby W. S. Merwin
Synopses & Reviews
Theres no mystery to chopping down a tree. But how do you put back together a tree thats been felled? Mystical instructions are required, and thats what W. S. Merwin provides in his prose piece Unchopping a Tree.” Written with a poets grace, an ecologists insights, and a Buddhists reverence for life, this elegant work describes the difficult, sacred job of reconstructing a tree. Step by step, page by page, with Merwins humble authority, secrets are revealed, and the destroyed tree rises from the forest floor.
Unchopping a Tree” appears for the first time in this self-contained volume of the same title. It opens with simplicity and grace: Start with the leaves, the small twigs, and the nest that have been shaken, ripped, or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places.”
Who else but W. S. Merwin could write with such soaring majesty to recreate a tree from its broken parts? The work is a myth for our times, one that holds a place alongside Jean Gionos classic, best-selling The Man Who Planted Trees.
Merwin, like many conservationists--and like poets Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and Galway Kinnell, a fellow student at Princeton University--is quick to say: When we destroy the so-called natural world around us were simply destroying ourselves. And I think its irreversible.” Thus the tree takes on a scale that begs the readers compassion, and one tree is a parable for the restoration of all nature.
Interspersed throughout this inviting, gift-sized edition are Liz Wards eleven delicate silverpoint drawings depicting the cellular life of trees. Ward draws on botanical sources like W. Williamsons nineteenth-century classic, On the Organization of the Fossil Plants of the Coal-Measures. She represents with fidelity the trees interior life at the micro level, from its bark to its vascular system. Many of her drawings were made at the Dora Maar House in Provence, using pigments from the earth of the region in a multilayered process. Her intricate pastel artwork provides a quiet and powerful visual counterpoint to Merwins lyrical and eloquent prose.
Merwin writes from a place of intimacy with trees. Since 1977 he has dedicated himself to reclaiming a deserted pineapple plantation on the rainy side of Maui, in Hawaii, planting a forest that has grown to be about 2,600 palm trees; the property recently became the Merwin Conservancy. Chipper Wichman of the National Tropical Botanical Garden says, The Merwin palm collection is an amazing assemblage of extraordinary palms that have transformed the ecology of the small valley where they are planted.” The worlds foremost palm expert, John Dransfield, and his wife, botanist Soejatmi Dransfield, from South Wales, have joined the effort to catalog the conservancys palms.
Over a career that spans more than six decades, Merwin has published more than fifty books of poetry, translation, and prose. His first book of poems, A Mask for Janus, was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and Merwin has continued to win praise, honors, and awards, including every major distinction given to poets, writers, and translators.
He has been unrivaled in his dedication to poetry and literature. That dedication is matched by his indomitable spirit to conserve the nonhuman world our lives depend on and his indefatigable passion for the power of memory to keep us whole.
Theres no mystery to chopping down a tree. But how do you put back together a tree thats been felled? Mystical instructions are required, and thats what W. S. Merwin provides in his prose piece Unchopping a Tree,” appearing for the first time in a self-contained volume. Written with a poets grace, an ecologists insights, and a Buddhists reverence for life, this elegant work describes the difficult, sacred job of reconstructing a tree. Step by step, page by page, with Merwins humble authority, secrets are revealed, and the destroyed tree rises from the forest floor. Unchopping a Tree opens with simplicity and grace: Start with the leaves, the small twigs, and the nest that have been shaken, ripped, or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places.” W. S. Merwin, like many conservationists, is quick to say: When we destroy the so-called natural world around us were simply destroying ourselves. And I think its irreversible.” Thus the tree takes on a scale that begs the readers compassion, and one tree is a parable for the restoration of all nature.
About the Author
W. S. Merwin, poet, translator, and environmental activist, is one of the most widely read--and imitated--poets in America. The son of a Presbyterian minister, whom he began writing hymns for at the age of five, Merwin went to Europe as a young man and developed a love of languages that led to work as a literary translator. Over the years his poetic voice has moved from the more formal and medieval--influenced somewhat by Robert Graves and the medieval
poetry he was then translating--to a more distinctly American voice, following his two years in Boston where he got to know Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Adrienne Rich, and Donald Hall, all of whom were breaking out of the rhetoric of the 1950s. Merwins recent poetry is perhaps his most personal, arising from his deeply held beliefs. He is not only profoundly anti-imperialist, pacifist, and environmentalist but also possessed by an intimate feeling for landscape and language and the ways land and language interflow. His latest poems are densely imagistic and full of an intimate awareness of the natural world.
His first book, A Mask for Janus, was chosen by W. H. Auden in 1952 for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The Carrier of Ladders received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize. Among his other books of poems are The Drunk in the Furnace, The Moving Target, The Lice, Flower & Hand, The Compass Flower, Feathers from the Hill, Opening the Hand, The Rain in the Trees, Travels, The Vixen, The Lost Upland, Unframed Originals, The Folding Cliffs, The River Sound, The Pupil, a translation of Dantes Purgatorio the critically lauded translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as Present Company, which won the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, Migration: Selected Poems 1951-2001, which won the National Book Award, and The Shadow of Sirius, which received the Pulitzer Prize (Merwin's second). A two-volume set, The Collected Poems of W. S. Merwin, was published in May 2013. Merwin's prose includes The Mays of Ventadorn, part of the National Geographic Directions series, The Ends of the Earth (essays), and the memoir Summer Doorways. Recent reissues of his books are The First Four Books of Poems, Spanish Ballads, translations of Jean Follains poetry collection Transparence of the World and Antonio Porchias Voices, and The Book of Fables, a reissue of (The Miners Pale Children and Houses and Travelers). Forthcoming are the poetry collection Before Morning (Copper Canyon, April 2014) and a booklength essay, Unchopping a Tree (Trinity University Press, March 2014).
Merwin was named poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1999, along with poets Rita Dove and Louise Glück. He has been honored as laureate of the Struga Poetry Evenings Festival in Macedonia and as recipient of the international Golden Wreath Award, the 2004 Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, the Tanning Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the first Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award, in 2013. He was appointed U.S. poet laureate in 2010.
Merwin has spent the last thirty years planting nineteen acres with over 800 species of palm, creating a sustainable forest; the property recently became the Merwin Conservancy (http://www.merwinconservancy.org). He lives, writes, and gardens on the island of Maui, in Hawai‘i.
Liz Ward is a professor of art and art history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and an artist who works primarily in painting and drawing with an emphasis on works on paper. She received her M.F.A. in painting from the University of Houston and her B.F.A. in printmaking from the University of New Mexico. The art included in W. S. Merwin's Unchopping a Tree is from her series "The Cellular Life of a Tree." She lives in Castroville, Texas.
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