Tuesday, April 13, 2010

`And Dogwood'

At the far end of the athletic field at the high school where I work stands a tall but scrawny dogwood, lost among the surrounding conifers most of the year. Over spring break it blossomed and for a few weeks it will remain the loveliest, most conspicuous tree on school grounds, though even in its beauty the dogwood is a modest wallflower at the dance. As we walked our students around the track Monday morning I pointed out the flowering tree to several staff members, all of whom remained polite in their indifference.

Two dogwoods grew in the woods behind our house when we were kids. In a book of woodlore I read that the tree contained traces of quinine and that American Indians consumed it as a treatment for malaria. I ate a handful of the bitter petals and leaves, and never contracted the disease. Later I learned the Indians ingested a tincture brewed from the dogwood's bark.

In no conventional sense was Edgar Bowers a nature poet though his eyes and ears were like a hawk’s compared to the blurred myopia of poets like Mary Oliver or Gary Snyder. In “Elegy: Walking the Line” (For Louis Pasteur, 1990), Bowers returns to the rural Georgia of his childhood in the nineteen-twenties and -thirties. As always, loss is near-at-hand. His first book, published in 1956, was The Form of Loss. (Much recent poetry, of course, might be titled The Loss of Form.) Even when celebrating, Bowers’ lines turn elegiac. The portion of the poem's title after the colon I take to be a military reference. Bowers, an Army veteran of World War II, is referring to sentry duty. The poem’s speaker returns to a vanished childhood to review and secure his memories, walking the line of his family’s property like a sentry. Throughout the poem, one of the longest he wrote (135 lines), Bowers catalogs what he remembers – trees, flowers, garden vegetables, relatives, teachers, friends:

“On the sunnier slope, the wild plums that my mother
Later would make preserves of, to give to friends
Or sell, in autumn, with the foxgrape, quince,
Elderberry, and muscadine. Around
The granite overhang, moist den of foxes;
Gradually up a long hill, high in pine,
Park-like, years of dry needles on the ground,
And dogwood, slopes the settlers terraced; pine
We cut at Christmas, berries, hollies, anise,
And cones for sale…”

The poem is lovely, sad, bitter and sweet, written by a man approaching his seventies. In memory, albeit less poetically, I walk the line of my childhood landscape daily, noting the trees and flowers, the now-dead relatives, teachers and friends, the watermelons I grew beside the garage in 1959, one of which I gave to Miss Esson, my second-grade teacher, that Christmas. In memory, I can taste the sweetness of the melon and the bitterness of the dogwood.


Maria said...

I remember coming from my native country to America, more specifically to the desolation of the Texas Panhandle, and, longing for natural beauty, fell in love when I saw a synthetic dogwood branch at the store. This motherless duckling was hooked, the image of these beautiful flowers irreversibly stamped in my mind. I had to have several right away, which I displayed for years in an old ceramic crock pot. I was proud! Then one day I saw a real one in Baltimore, in bloom. Its beauty moved me to tears. My synthetic branches had become real after all, a sort of Velveteen Rabbit transformation. To this day, along with the lilacs I planted as a child, the dogwood remains a 'remembrance of things past' - yes, sweet and bitter. Thank you for your lovely post.

Shelley said...

I came here to respond to "walk the line of my childhood landscape" and was going to mention that I go back twice a year to my home in..."the desolation of the Texas Panhandle"! That's where my work is set: what a strange coincidence. I was going to make a comment that the older I get, the more I wonder if we are drawn forever to the topography of our origin.