Bryan Thao Worra’s “Zelkova Tree” [Read the poem here]
(First published in issue #1 of Cha)
I vividly remember reading “Zelkova Tree”, the very first poem we published in Cha, for the first time. It triggered my memory of reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Book IX of that book, the nymph Dryope unknowingly plucks a flower of the lotus tree, which is actually another nymph (Lotis). Because of this crime, Dryope is turned into a black poplar. Before the transformation runs its full course, however, she has enough time to utter a message for her son, warning him to be cautious: ‘let him fear the pool, pluck no blossoms from the trees, and think all flowers are goddesses in disguise!’ (Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book IX, 380-81). Apart from pointing out the changeability of all life forms, one can also say Metamorphoses is highly eco-conscious. All these plants and animals are incarnations of others; you are imprudent to poke, pluck and part them, for you cannot be sure what they really are: they may be someone you know!
Dryope plucks a flower from a tree, and is in turn changed into a tree. However, Worra’s poem seems to suggest that ‘writing’ is enough violation to bring about punishment: ‘A friend warned me the other day / Not to write about the zelkova // Or I might come back as one / And find myself cut into furniture’ (L1-L4). Here, the power of writing is asserted – writing is not simply the act of writing but may cause unthinkable consequences depending on what is being written (this is even beyond “speech act”). But is it that bad to be a tree? The tree thinks not: ‘The other day the zelkova warned me / Not to worry about my friends // Or I might stay human // And find myself cutting furniture’ (L6-L9). From the tree’s perspective, ‘worrying’ is the misdeed, and it is a form of punishment to ‘stay human’. Now, either ‘writing’ or ‘worrying’ is a crime, depending on who you side with. And these two states of being seem to define man.
The poem is remarkably well-structured. Divided into two parallel parts (each with five lines), the first is a friend’s warning and the second is the zelkova’s rebuke. The two parts are connected by the uncanny repetitions of lines with subtle differences. ‘A friend’ (L1) is replaced by ‘the zelkova’ (L6). Likewise, ‘the zelkova’ (L2) is replaced by ‘my friends’ (L7). All this time the persona stays the same: the unchanging ‘me’. This not only highlights the collapsing of differences between the persona’s friends and the zelkova tree (his friends are trees, trees are his friends), but also implies that ‘me’ is at ease with identifying with both life forms. The repeated line ‘Just as things start to get interesting’ (L5, L10) is slightly perplexing, however, as it suggests that the fun happens outside of the poem and the reader is not allowed to take part. But perhaps this is better; we are left to wonder more.
For me, the poem is not merely philosophical or a thought experiment. The ‘cutting into furniture’ (L4) and ‘cutting furniture’ (L9) are rather concrete and violent. The idea that our body can be cut into something else while we ourselves can cut something reminds me of how similar we are to the components in this world. After all, we are all made of similar elements (are we all made of atoms?). As Northrop Frye says, ‘The eternal world is one mutual co-operation in which all forms of life are nourished and supported by all other forms, as in the economy of the individual human body.’ Seen in this way, Worra’s poem is a fable with a morale: be careful how you treat others, we are all one.
P.S. When reading Yeat’s “The Celtic Element in Literature”, I am reminded of Worra’s poem. Yeats writes that the Celts believed that ‘trees were divine, and could take a human or grotesque shape and dance among the shadows…’ (174).
Bryan Thao Worra is the Laotian American author of On the Other Side of the Eye (Sam’s Dot, 2007), Winter Ink (Minnesota Center for Book Arts, 2008) and the chapbooks The Tuk Tuk Diaries: My Dinner With Cluster Bombs (Unarmed, 2003) and Touching Detonations (Sphinx House Press, 2003). He holds a Fellowship in Literature from the US National Endowment for the Arts. His new collection, Barrow, will be published by Sam’s Dot in 2008. He has won support from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Loft Literary Center and the Playwrights Center. Visit his blog for more details.