Poetry Sunday: “The Nurse Tree,” by Molly Peacock

Poet’s Note

“The Nurse Tree” was one of the last poems I wrote for my new book of poems, The Analyst (W.W. Norton & Company). I wasn’t consciously thinking of my former analyst or the tragedy that ended her practice (she suffered an AVM stroke in March 2012) when I perused the articles of the “Science Times” section of the New York Times on Tuesday, April 13, 2015. But Tuesday had been my “therapy day” for many years—decades, in fact—and it lingers in an almost somatic memory for me, even though my in-person therapy sessions are long over. The section featured a piece by Catrin Einhorn called “A Project to Turn Corpses into Compost” with a dateline of Cullowhee, N.C. I always read things about botany, and I am obsessed with ways to recycle everything, including us. So I read on. The not-so-grisly article was about the natural burial movement. I’m all for it. I’d love to be buried, like a beloved pet, at the foot of a garden.  Where did such an idea come from? I found out at the seventeenth short paragraph about environmentalist Katrina Spade.

Ms. Spade, who smiles a lot, is the opposite of funereal; she buzzes with energy and sometimes has to remind herself to talk slower. She studied sustainable agriculture before going to architecture school. The composting idea was inspired by the “nurse log,” a fallen tree in a forest that grows new life as it decays.

A nurse log! I absolutely loved the idea. The thought of all parts of life in the natural world contributing to other parts seems so satisfying. A dead tree, which seems tragic, like a fallen person, instead becomes useful as a conduit to new life. (Incidentally, the extremely popular Peter Wohlleben, the German forest ranger who wrote The Secret Life of Trees, also talks about the idea of a nurse log.)

Three days later I wrote “The Nurse Tree.” By then the Tuesday Times had been recycled (yes, we still get a paper copy delivered to our apartment door in Toronto, since we pretend we live in New York City), and I misremembered the phrase. I called my poem “The Nurse Tree.”

Logs, of course, are lying down, and I had an image of a quite upright person contemplating that time when she might become a log. The following weekend I must have faxed the poem to Phillis Levin. We have been showing each other our poems for more than forty years—since graduate school at Johns Hopkins University—and the date on the next draft is May 2, 2015.  Phillis and I chatted about it, and she is responsible for my moving that “scarlet fungus cap” to the end of the poem. It belongs right there! Perhaps I would have come to this on my own, someday, some year. But with Phillis to talk to, I leapt to it immediately on her mentioning something about that red mushroom. (We are not so directive with one another that we would openly suggest such a drastic move. We only hint. We only suggest.)

A mere five drafts later, I sent my poem to Don Share at Poetry magazine, and I am very pleased to say that he accepted it. To send a poem out after a handful of drafts is rare for me. My drafts typically number about 35. Phillis and I can toss poems back and forth for years sometimes. But this idea seemed complete, whole, processed. For three long years, I had been processing the devastation of my analyst having been struck down, as if by lightning. (Such a violent stroke does seem like lightning.) I had written poem after poem not only about the instant and massive changes to her life, but about my gratitude for how changed I had become through the analytic process. Later I wrote poems out of my curiosity and oddly newfound post-analytic relationship with her. My former therapist had started to rescue her life by renewing her girlhood talent for painting. She was altering. I altered in response.

The secret to long relationships—I say this about long friendship and long analysis and long marriage—is to rebalance in the face of change. We don’t stay the same. “The Nurse Tree” seems to be the most positive response to that, something I could only come to after many bouts of tears, and an endearing botanical concept from the “Science Times.”

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  • Gail Willis May 14, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    What a perfect choice today. Best wishes to all who write, read, edit or simply
    savor WVFC. Blessings for whatever form your mothering of others has taken.

    • Molly Peacock May 14, 2017 at 4:59 pm

      Thanks so much for this comment, Gail Willis. I realize that so many women’s relationships have nurtured me–and I hope to send that back out into the world.