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.