Travis Cebula to Hoa Nguyen
Trees might not last. Or, at least, they might not outlast us. I’m still absorbing
I just finished reading your newest volume of poetry, As Long as Trees Last.
I found it to be a very engaging, thoughtful, and loving exploration of perspective
between the human and the natural world. I enjoy such endeavors very much.
I was raised by, quite literally, tree huggers. So, I have to admit I found the title
arresting—and challenging—in ways I hadn’t expected, and ways that have only
increased with contemplation.
In The Heart you speak of a “fossil,” of “a little spiral rock,” and of “3 million
years.” A long time ago, from my point of view, I studied environmental ethics fairly
vigorously, and I still have a strong affinity for the work of Stephen Jay Gould. He
had interesting things to say on the historical lifespan of species—particularly as
observed within the context of geologic time. Specifically, he said that humans could
have a party up to10 million years long if we play our cards right and don’t make
our world, “A sphere I said,” inhospitable.
Essentially, he advocated an environmental “Golden Rule;” treat the planet
how we would like to be treated by it. The flipside of his argument was that if we
messed things up terribly, up to and including nuclear holocaust, humans would die
out but that the planet itself would shrug us off as if nothing had ever happened. The
key factor in the shrug being… given enough time. He claimed that any supposition
that humanity could “destroy” the planet should be considered hubris, and extreme.
This was a strangely calming influence in my life. No humans but nature is fine in
the long haul? Okay, then. Stephen Jay Gould himself has since joined the long flow
Gould’s arguments are still in the back of my head every time I read your
title, As Long as Trees Last. I realize now that I’ve always assumed that, while we
might be directly responsible for the disappearance for numerous species, such
ubiquitous entities as trees would persist long after we have ceased grinding our
species’ mark into the world. I linger here to say that your title has changed that
perspective, and that I feel your book is largely about perspective, and changes
therein—and consumption. As Long as Trees Last implies an ongoing activity,
something that will continue up to a certain point. Someone will be performing that
activity; someone will be observing the transition from a time of trees to a time
without. A human. A poet. The title, then, performs its function as a marker, the
lyrical vanishing point, which you apply to the human presence in the book. Tack the
phrase onto the end… “feel // wind of wing beats / in your face // Face the never-
stumble”…as long as trees last. But the implication is also that the trees are being
used up. As in: Mom, how long will we be eating this bowl of popcorn? For as long
as the popcorn lasts.
Which is all just a round-about way of saying that your book has changed
my outlook. I hadn’t considered that there would be humans still present and
participating in history at the point where trees didn’t last, where that evolutionary line ran out. I hadn’t considered that we might be the cockroaches. Being the
cockroach, it’s not a comfortable place to watch from.
These are vivid, detailed, and exquisitely rendered works. So, I cannot fall
back to my former place of comfort, that perspective. I cannot argue that your
poems don’t see, or argue with what your poems see, and therefore I cannot argue
that they are seeing from a perspective that doesn’t exist—otherwise they could not
be seeing at all, right? Confusing, I know. But the underlying logic feels compelling.
Perspective. I see the speaker is a human watching the disappearance of trees. I see
the speaker is a bird, or a flower, watching the same. “Being outside the world //
needs a ‘spiritual degree.’” Maybe the ability to step outside and look on objectively
is something babies have, as much as humans can, and that we go on to lose. In some
ways, the world started out simpler.
The world you know
began with hunger
Consumption. I see that, too. Everything around us gets eaten, consumed,
disintegrated, used, or useful—up to and including the blood from umbilical cords.
Bees pollinate trees, birds eat the fruit, we kill birds with our cars, we kill trees with
our chemicals. Over years the life grows back. The years turn all the dead matter
into fossils or fuel or chemicals to start the cycle all over again. The sun shines on.
And round and round it goes. Who’s eating who the next time around?
Your book is very much about perspective and consumption, oh yes, and the
relationship between the consumer and the consumed, how one views the other
and how one is viewed—with time being the ultimate consumer of all. This world
is still a rich banquet, and so are your poems. You’ve populated them with birds
(Sandhill cranes, vireos, cardinals, Canada geese, larks, Carolina wrens…), babies,
and trees (elm, cedar, beech, buckthorn, Chinaberry…). You also offer up bees,
those ever-endangered pollinators of trees, and food (yams, chicken salad, bread,
cheese, avocados…). Your poems’ focus flies between them all, as does the speaker’s
perspective, the I. The subject and the object shift fluidly, but not dizzyingly (along
with perspective from third to first person) in Too-Fast Spring Birds:
Fossil piece and dust on me
these things that dust in words
a bird that goes and since a net
I hide or flee
who finds the fossil pieces
a candy for a hearth
as long as trees last
Originally an agent with hands, the speaker becomes the bird, fearful and one
with the tree and the dust. The relationship between birds and trees is obvious:
roost, nest, food, perch; as is the relationship between creatures and food, or fossils
and time. The relationship between humans and trees, or humans and birds, is more
challenging to ascertain. So, I ask you, why does this shift matter so much? Why do
trees matter? Is it because of the instance, in the case of Agent Orange Poem, where
humans not only became determined to eradicate one another, but also tried to
eradicate trees? Can these two be separated now?
“The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous”
and so stripped the leaves to bone
This is a moment of very human tragedy, told from the perspective of trees,
offering that trees might have memories that we would prefer to forget: “trees
be the church.” Our communal wine, history, is the “toxic juice” we sip from. I am
fortunate to know you (a little), and your background (a little), so I also know that
this particular history is very personal. The horror of the Vietnam war left scars on
forests and on people alike. Some scars gouge deepest into those who feel not just
for people, but for the world.
It’s not always simple to be a lover of trees. I remember coming home from
college one summer and discovering that my mother had cut down all the Siberian
elms around our house, calling them trash trees and stating that she was tired of
cleaning up after them. I was incensed. How could she do that? So I understand, a
tiny bit. The presence of trees can become an expectation, the trees of home doubly
so. I have a tendency to link trees with permanence because of their slower pace
through time. When the trees do disappear, will it matter if we’re there to see it?
Will anyone want to find out what comes after? You’ve juxtaposed trees with birds
and insects, which move so much faster through time than we do, sometimes in the
space of hours or minutes. Humans fall, then, somewhere in the middle.
In the middle is where these poems live. Today falls somewhere in the
middle of our story. yesterday we came from the trees, so the anthropologists say.
And your poems here always return to them. And tomorrow? “You wrote in your
apple / box.” Your mention of an apple [tree] reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s oft-
adored and equally oft-maligned The Giving Tree. In that book, too, time passes. In
the end there is no tree and an old man sits on the stump of his former friend. She
offers up her corpse kindly to rest his weary ass. I think that if this is the
contribution we require from a tree, then, yes, there’s a very good chance that trees
will not last. Or we, as others piece us out into roles—shelter, nest, material, mother.
We will be wanted, and we will be unwanted. We will be cut apart. “You don’t want
me as instrument.” Perhaps, then, something will want us as food: time. If we are to
share our perspective with the trees, the bees, the babies, and the birds, to learn to
live as they live—“It’s the bird-hurt you feel”—then we must also share sustenance
with them before we are all consumed by the mouth of time.
just open the door
to the sun
And elsewhere, too. Perspective. The sun is the only energy that has kept
us all alive: humans, bees, birds, and trees alike, for billions of years. As long as
we last, or until we don’t. Some will live. Some will get eaten. Some will die of
drought or other forces that may or may not be within our immediate control. In
the meantime we can mourn their passing, the poignant passing of trees, or bees, or
rain—“I would like to see it rain again”—or we can feel something more ambiguous,
something we’re more a part of.
Thank you, Hoa, for offering the option of participation.
The tears confuse
The tears are not tears
but opening the window
Take a deep breath. It’s air that has been breath before. The consumer
eventually becomes the consumed. So be it. When my father dies he wants to come
back as a bird—a, raven, I think—a strong flyer, he says, smart and gifted with
language. I suppose this makes sense. Given the choice, I’d like to come back as an
otter. Or a willow; something near water. I’ve always hated the wind.
Travis Cebula: I love the notion of reviews as an epistolary form—I feel they are, naturally (when they are naturally) an offering to an author. A review is one small way of saying thank you, a small way of acknowledging the gratitude a reader feels for a poet’s toil and attention to art. Crafting such an offering in the shape of a letter is one means to precision. I mean this, now, and I mean to say it to you. Someone is meant to receive the note, and it’s obvious who that someone is. Dear ________. Crafting an offering in the shape of a letter removes the patina of disingenuous form too often imposed by academic rigor. If what I really want to say is, “Thank you, Hoa, for gifting the world with such a beautiful book. Here’s what it means to me,” then there should be a forum to do that in—and do that without the review having to perform its personal function through implication and artificially-maintained aesthetic distance, as a more traditional review would. The forum I speak of is manifesting here. So. Dear Jen, and Mike, and Horse Less Press— thank you, too.