Dear Mr. Sze,
When I first read your poem, I merely caught the imagery and the little things I’m supposed to see when I read through poems in my English class. But reading over it a second time, this time slower, grazing over every line, word, syllable, I was transported from my classroom to the narrow, callused trunk of the dogwood tree in my front yard. It’s in bloom now, smaller than it was before. Or perhaps I’m just bigger. I remember a younger me, swinging from its branches, my feet just feet from where my feet should be. The branches can’t bear my weight anymore. It never provided much shade from the sun or salvation from the rain. It never stopped passersby for admiration or was chosen by the birds for nesting. But I always chose it. It never intimidated me, or judged my messed, morning hair or my cracked skin—and I never judged its cracked skin and brittle branches. Our relationship is a quiet one, but one that comforted me as a child.
Never, until reading your poem did I think of comparing myself to a tree. So naturally, you are able to express your cry for salvation, express your feeling that you just can’t speak. I would ask about your final stanza, but I’m afraid I already understand it too well. I struggle with sympathy, to say the least. I know what people are feeling, what they’re thinking, what they’re struggling with, yet I do nothing. Maybe I’ve spent too much time with trees, or maybe I’m too much like a tree. So like you, I live at the edge of a new leaf, growing, but never feeling.
This poem is not complex in style, which I think is my favorite part about it. You say what you mean, what you feel. It does not try too hard to be intelligent, but it so effortlessly sheds wisdom. Through this poem however, I question what is in your past that connects you so deeply to this poem. What connects you to the trees? What have you experienced with the Norway maple and dogwood that make this poem so close to you? Maybe it’s nothing, but I know it’s something.
It was a pleasure talking with you Mr. Sze, I hope to hear from you soon.
Thank you for your moving and insightful letter. I’m delighted to learn that as you reread “each line, word, syllable” of my poem, you were transported. Poetry asks that we slow down and experience deeply, and it’s wonderful that you were transported to the dogwood tree in your front yard.
The poet Rilke once advised a young poet to write about his childhood. Although my poem never directly talks about childhood, I draw on those images and experiences. In junior high school, I had an assignment to collect leaves in the neighborhood. As I walked around, I was startled to find so many different shapes of leaves, and I placed sixty or seventy in a notebook.
When I went through the collection, I was impressed with how big the Norway maple leaf was and how distinctive the veins were. Like you, I had a personal connection to a small dogwood tree. The dogwood that grew near the driveway to my house was stunted in growth. Each fall I noticed its leaves flared orange before the leaves of other trees did, and this memory found its way into the poem.
I also want to say that I am so impressed with the insight you bring to your own situation in life. When you write, “I struggle with sympathy, to say the least,” your awareness is huge. And if you feel some frustration, at the moment, that you do nothing, I suggest that changes will happen, of their own accord, as you grow and mature. I don’t believe you are “never feeling”: your letter is imbued with deep emotion. And as the growth of a leaf is at the edge, I believe that you are situated well for your future.
With all best wishes,