A cup of fine tea: Phoebe Tsang’s “Song for a Commuting Gravedigger”

Phoebe Tsang’s “Song for a Commuting Gravedigger” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #6 of Cha)

–This post is co-written by Tammy Ho and Jeff Zroback.

In Tsang’s bleak but beautiful “Song for a Commuting Gravedigger”, we see the experience of someone going to work on a winter’s day. Whether this person is actually a gravedigger or whether the title is more metaphorical is uncertain. We tend to fall on the side of the metaphorical. In our reading, the gravedigger seems like a commuter who is slowly seeing his or her life go by through work and travel; he or she is slowly digging his or her own grave. Or perhaps the poem reveals a death wish in the persona, a desire to escape into the frozen wilderness, never to be seen again.

In the opening stanza, we see that the commuter in question is a slave to daily routine. ‘Tethered to track and schedule’ (L1), the individual is sitting on the bus to work watching as ‘the highway rattles past’ (L2). That this trip is associated with death becomes clear in the rest of the stanza. The commuter sees ‘white fields and hillsides scarred / by trees so thin you can see / right through their ashen bones’ (L3-L5). Tsang’s imagery here is beautiful. Anyone familiar with a snowy climate will easily be able to envision the leafless tress of winter, which look like the skeletons of their summer selves.

The commuter longs for freedom outside of the bus and routine: ‘I want to be free of time and machines’ (L9). For the persona, this freedom will take the form of getting off the bus and scattering ‘footprints for snow to swallow later / like signs of rabbit and deer’ (L7-L8). Maybe the narrator longs for a temporary respite from responsibility, a wish to make childish tracks in the snow; a fleeting moment of abandon which would slowly disappear. Or perhaps his or her fantasy is something closer to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening“, a desire to give in completely to death, swallowed by the snow, forgotten like covered footprints. Regardless of the form this fantasy would take, the speaker is too frightened to give in entirely to his or her desires. ‘[A]fraid of just being jobless’ (L10), the commuter carries on to work.

The final stanza thus takes us back to the bus where the commuter is continuing the journey to work. For the persona, death will not come today. Instead, he or she can only fantasise about escape: ‘Only my eyes will cross the frozen / shoulder into the embrace of / leafless skeletons’ (L11-L13). The word ‘shoulder’, presumably that of the road, takes on a nice double meaning when put next to ’embrace’. Again, there is not only a continued sense of the narrator’s death wish in the desire for the embrace of ‘leafless skeletons’, but also an echo of the earlier description of the trees as ‘ashen bones’. As the poem ends, the commuter escapes further into fantasy and a desire for anonymity and imagines a different journey, wandering ‘bough after bough / through sleeping woods like a homeless ghost’ (L14-L15). Tsang’s reference to Frost’s poem is made even more explicit in the use of ‘sleeping woods’. And like in Frost’s poem, the narrator still has miles to go before sleep. He or she does not escape into the cold oblivion of the snow today but will instead continue to watch death slowly approach through the window.

Poet and violinist Phoebe Tsang was born in Hong Kong, educated in England, and currently resides in Canada. She is the author of Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse (Tightrope Books, 2009), reviewed in Issue #9 of Cha. Both her artistic practices inform each other: in 2010 the Toronto Symphony Orchestra commissioned her poem “Passion Dance”, to the music of Osvaldo Golijov, and she is the librettist for an operetta to be premiered in 2011 by the Canadian Sinfonietta, exploring the myths of huli-jing. Tsang’s poetry can be found in the anthologies Garden Variety(Quattro Books) and Not a Muse (Haven Books). She holds a BSc in Architecture from the University of London (UK). Visit Tsang’s website for more information.

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6 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Phoebe Tsang’s “Song for a Commuting Gravedigger””

  1. Shadowy figure Says:

    Fun little poem. I did not find the protagonist to yearn for an escape, as much as he was affirming that there is no escape but death. The landscapes he passes by are just as bleak and desolate as his whole life anyway, and the only escape seems to be to simply vanish to the snow.

  2. Bob Bradshaw Says:

    Hi, I think the analysis is written beautifully. But for the sake of discussion, I’m suggesting a different take on the poem…one that doesn’t put as much weight on a yearning for death.

    As Tammy and Jeff point out, the heart of the poem is deciding this question…”Maybe the narrator longs for a temporary respite from responsibility, a wish to make childish tracks in the snow; a fleeting moment of abandon which would slowly disappear. Or perhaps his or her fantasy is something closer to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening“, a desire to give in completely to death, swallowed by the snow, forgotten like covered footprints.”

    I agree that the narrator longs to jump off and play in the snow.

    However, these two lines don’t suggest a death wish:
    I want to be free of time and machines.
    But I’m afraid of just being jobless.

    If I had a death wish, I wouldn’t worry about being jobless. But the old urge for seizing the day is pretty universal. Who doesn’t want to enjoy one’s fleeting hours? Who doesn’t want, at times, to be “free of time and machines”?

    Certainly the poem suggests themes of mortality. The ashen bones, the leafless skeletons…the narrator senses the passing of time. The body imagery throughout the poem suggests nature’s mirroring of our own mortality.

    But if the second stanza isn’t about a death wish, what is the third stanza saying? It opens with:
    Only my eyes will cross the frozen
    shoulder into the embrace of
    leafless skeletons

    So deciding not to get off the train, the narrator imagines crossing the snow “into the embrace of leafless skeletons”. Who embraces skeletons? It’s an intriguing image. I think of Andrew Marvell’s great lines: “The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace.”

    Only here there is no warmth of a lover, only a gravedigger imagining crossing into a wood “to wander bough after bough”.

    What’s going on? The train in the opening stanza provides the same locomotion for the poem that a chariot did for Marvell’s poem. Time is “hurrying”. Ashen bones and skeletons are part of our world that we’re passing through. For both poets the sun cannot stand still. Where Marvell looks to seduce a woman, to make the sun “run”, our gravedigger looks for a different solution.

    He(or she) chooses to embrace the world through imagining the world, “bough” by bough, to go as deep as he can into it. And this decision echoes the anonymity theme of the second stanza, where he imagines snow swallowing his footprints.

    We all disappear, our footprints eventually disappearing. The speaker recognizes this, and knows that he too, like a homeless ghost, will leave no footprints behind. But he can either enjoy the time through moments of abandonment(as in the second stanza) or through a deeper, imaginative viewing of the world. By wandering “bough after bough” through the world.

  3. t Says:

    From Reid:

    The most intriguing image to me is at the beginning where, if I understand the correct use of syntax, it’s the HIGHWAY that is tethered to track and schedule. The idea of a highway that yearns to jump out of its track is actually more interesting than the commuter.

  4. Chorister Says:

    For some reason, I can easily identify with the persona. I’m also inclinded to read the persona as having a kind of impulse that is reminiscent of death instinct, to borrow Freud’s words. The travel motif is very cleverly used. The gravedigger is literally travelling to his/her workplace. But where is that? Graveyards! So on a symbolic level, the gravedigger is commuting to death.

    The death impulse is particularly salient when the persona says ‘I want to be free of time and machines’. When can we rid ourselves of the shackles of time except after we perish and pass into the realm of eternity? But of course, ‘I want to be free of time’ can also be taken less heavily. It might simply refer to a wish of living an ‘un-timed’ life (not that time does not exisit, but rather it’s existence and the fact that it slides by do not matter to/ fret us).

    But obviously, the persona’s life instinct is more potent than death instinct. The fact that he brooded over being jobless suggests that he is not ready to untie himself from what is worldly. That’s why, in the last stanza, he makes his ‘journey to death’ an imaginary one only.

    I really really enjoyed the poem and the analysis!!!

  5. Phoebe Violin Says:

    First of all I’d like to thank everyone for your insight and inspired readings. Thanks for making the poem talk-back to me as it were. I love how words can react with us all on different levels, to produce different understandings and feelings about the same text. Both To His Coy Mistress and Stopping By Woods… are beloved poems. So whether or not they came to mind while writing this poem, I’m happy you mentioned them.

    The best response I can give is that this poem embodies existential angst. There are several journeys going on here, as has been pointed out in the discussion earlier: the journey to work, to death, and into an imagined parallel existence where the narrator walks off into the embrace of skeletal trees, and whatever else that metaphor conjures. However, none of these choices offers particular refuge or solace. Instead, there is anxiety and dissatisfaction with the chosen path. As a Buddhist, I take that to be a comment on the unsatisfactory nature of samsaric existence.

    Thank you.

  6. Yamabuki Says:

    “A cup of fine tea:
    Phoebe Tsang’s “Song for a Commuting Gravedigger”

    Great Poem, but to me, it did not seem to flow textually.

    Not being the writer, its not my place to say what is correct.

    Still I could not help try changes to the word/line arrangement
    Of the poem, to what seems to me to flow more naturally.

    The words stay the same, the line breaks change.

    This is what I would change it to:

    Song for a Commuting Gravedigger

    Tethered to track and schedule
    The highway rattles past
    White fields and hillsides
    Scarred by trees
    So thin
    You can see
    Right through
    Their ashen bones

    I want to get off the bus
    And scatter footprints
    For snow to swallow later
    Like signs of rabbit and deer
    I want to be free
    Of time
    And machines
    But I’m afraid
    Of just being jobless

    Only my eyes will cross
    The frozen shoulder
    Into the embrace
    Of leafless skeletons
    To wander
    Bough
    After bough
    Through sleeping woods
    Like a homeless ghost.

    In thinking about it,
    It seems like the poem is about the world
    broken into pieces by the undercurrents of death
    How could it not be so for a grave digger?

    I apologize to the author if she is offended.

    Yamabuki

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