Lorine Niedecker: Friends With Trees

“Nature, last week, including human nature. I had mowed by hand to the river – half way down the middle of the path I found two red dogwood and the sweetest little ash sapling. I knew I’d have to put a fence round ‘em if I ever wanted to keep ‘em from harm but let it go unfenced for a whole day. But in those twenty-four hours my neighbor who has a power mowing machine came over and in his zeal mowed me down my dogwoods and tree.”

           –Lorine Niedecker, letter to Louis Zukofsky, June 1948

     My friend tree
     I sawed you down
     but I must attend
     an older friend
     the sun

My Friend Tree (1961) is the title of Lorine Niedecker’s second book of poems. I came across it in The Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. How did this seed of Niedecker’s T&G: The Collected Poems, 1936-1966, published in 1969 by the Jargon Society in North Carolina, blow across the Atlantic to here, to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorne Press? The title poem suggests an act of sacrifice – an exchange of tree for sun – and offers an apology for “saw[ing] you down.” To a suburb dweller like myself, this is a horrific act, usually performed in devotion to the concept of lawn, and strikingly selfish – what about the birds, the bugs, the shade, the tree itself? In Niedecker’s within it is done to “attend / an older friend / the sun.” The gentle closed-mouth sounds of down and sun, attend and friend that conclude the last four lines of this single-cinquain poem are a sort of salve – the recurring vibrational intensity of “en” not unlike the sacred syllable om. The root of the Sanskrit name for this syllable (praņava) means “to shout, sound, praise.” This is a song of praise to the fated tree and a claim of culpability, and as such it speaks powerfully about the responsibility of a life lived within. It is, finally, an event, a moment in the larger sweep of personal and natural history, and one gets the sense from the slightness of the poem that Niedecker is aware of the smallness of this moment. Yet it is not unremarkable. The environment is a space shared with a collection of “friends”: birds and insects, flowers and waterlife populate Niedecker’s condensery; the poems put forward these things as things in a world content to go on without us, in which we are but one incidental creation among others, for which Niedecker seems thankful:

     Along the river
          wild sunflowers
     over my head
          the dead
     who gave me life
          give me this
     our relatives the air
          floods
     our rich friend
          silt

Emplaced and multiple – our: tree + sun + floods + Lorine + etc.. Silt the very site of many and long in the making.

Niedecker’s poems often give way to natural things and beings that are “over [her] head” both literally and figuratively. They subtly reveal her part in an emplaced ecopoesis through the small poem on the page, or the carefully assembled small book (My Friend Tree collects all of sixteen pages). Through the linebreak she consciously interjects humanity and intellect into the poem; a responsibility undertaken not without affect. In fact, it is the balance of intellect and affect that makes her poetry endearing and powerful.

From “Writing Within: Ecopoetics as Spatial Practice,” originally published in How2: http://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/vol_3_no_2/ecopoetics/essays/russo.html