Maples: Poem by Donald Hall

Just look at this.


When I vis­it­ed as a boy, too young for chores,
a pair of maples flared before the farm­house.
My grand­fa­ther made me a swing, dan­gling
rope from stout branch­es. I hur­tled
between them high as I could, pump­ing
out half the day while my mind day­dreamed
the joy of no school, no camp, no blocks
of oth­er chil­dren fight­ing childhood’s wars.
With the old peo­ple I lis­tened to radio news
of Japan­ese in Nanking, Madrid on fire,
Hitler’s brown­shirts heil­ing. The hur­ri­cane
of 1938 ripped down the biggest maple.
Then I was twelve and could work the fields.

When I moved back to the house in mid­dle age,
I was no farmer. I was writer and grand­fa­ther,
then wid­ow­er. The soli­tary maple took the sky,
hurling its orange fire in the late-August air.

Six­ty years after the swing, a lofty half-dead tree
drops branch­es on the grass. I call tree peo­ple
to tear out dead limbs for next year’s sake,
fear­ing the wind and ice storms of win­ter,
dread­ing bro­ken trees, and bones, and cities.

By Don­ald Hall in a recent New York­er, this is one of the best things I’ve read, peri­od, in many a moon.

I love how it turns, on its last two words, from some­thing deeply per­son­al into some­thing that speaks to the com­mons and to our time — to this time, and to what he, we, fear may be com­ing.

Look close­ly: it’s about many things impend­ing — the impend­ing fall of a maple, impend­ing adult­hood, impend­ing war, with the impend­ing death of the nar­ra­tor at the fore. But did you catch the impend­ing fall of the twin tow­ers? Am I read­ing too much into this? I can’t read it and NOT see the twin tow­ers in those twin maples, their “fire” and their fall. And bril­liant­ly, it’s coy: it’s not the “Sep­tem­ber air” into which the lone maple hurls its “orange fire,” it’s the “late August” air, the time before rather than the event itself. And look — that’s symet­ri­cal. Just as the first maple fell in 1938, not 1939: fore­shad­ow­ing rather than coin­cid­ing with WWII. Impend­ing.

Until you reach the end of the poem, it appears that the fore­shad­owed event he fears is the bound­ary he now faces in his per­son­al life — just as his 12 year old self faced the bound­ary of adult­hood when the first maple fell, he’s fac­ing his own death as he tries to keep the sec­ond stand­ing. But if WWII descend­ed fol­low­ing the fall of the first, what con­fla­gra­tion looms for a world of “bro­ken cities” when the sec­ond falls?

I’ve read Don­ald Hall since col­lege. I have his auto­graph on a rejec­tion slip on which he wrote a kind “not the­se,” and heard him read once at George­town. I thought of him back then as a great anthol­o­gist, but a lesser prac­ti­tion­er than my touch­stones: Robert Bly, James Wright, Antho­ny Hecht. He’s matured into an authen­tic Amer­i­can voice. This is one of his finest, and now one of my touch­stones.

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