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