A poet’s memoir finds its form in a tree.
As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Merrill (The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, 2011, etc.) has compiled a long publishing history as a poet, essayist, war correspondent, editor, and translator. Here, he attempts something different: “It seemed to me that an extended meditation on the intersection between personal and natural history might hold interest if for no other reason than to offer a different way of thinking about the tradition of writing memoirs.” This may be enough of a reason for those of a literary bent, but the result is a memoir that is less about who the author is and what he has done than how he writes and what he has read. In other words, it’s a particularly bookish book, which has its rewards. Merrill begins with a boyhood fort under a dogwood tree and then digresses into a conjuring of the area during the Revolutionary War, in particular the heroism of “Captain Henry Wick’s youngest daughter, Tempe (short for Temperance).” Some two centuries later, he writes, “I can still smell the smoke and mold in her house and the log hospital nearby, where so many soldiers died.” The author writes of balancing his academic pursuits with work in a nursery and other jobs that brought him close to nature and, eventually, to the point where, in all his travels, “transplanting had become the story of my life.” Merrill ends with a quote from his friend and inspiration, W.S. Merwin: “On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree.” He also mentions marriage and a family, but there is less on them than on dogwoods in their various manifestations—as metaphor, in diplomacy, and as keys to both poetry and spirituality.
A brief memoir for lovers of writing and reading in which we learn more about dogwoods than about the author.