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

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I love the idea of a “nurse tree,” one of those concepts that, from the very first time you learn about them, feel ancient and archetypal. What a powerful, natural metaphor for motherhood, parenthood, or any nurturing relationship between a younger and an older person, the future and the past! And how comforting to imagine that not only are our bodies food for worms (not such a bad thing when one considers the importance of their life cycle to the biome), but that all that we once were and still are, no matter how diminished, persists and can nurture the young ones who follow.

Now a few words about the poem and the book from which it was drawn. The Analyst is a triumph, poem after exuberant, intelligent poem crafted by a master fluent with form and confident enough to depart from it when necessary. These poems remind me of the later work of Donald Justice: informed by form and by a sensibility that understands when form serves and when it gets in the way of the poem. (See especially the poem “Credo.”) Some readers, observing the absence of strict end-rhyme schemes and metrical patterns, might call many of these poems free verse. But look and listen a little more closely and you’ll see and hear shadows and echoes of many fixed forms—sonnet, sestina, pantoum, triolet, to name just a few. As a whole, the poems are rich with repeated sounds, sometimes enacted as word and phrasal repetitions, sometimes as rhyme. Rhyme occasionally does come at the ends of lines in a distinct pattern, but more often is buried within lines or softened into slant rhyme or assonance. The Analyst’s poems are intimate and conversational, but in most of them a distinct, often subtle endoskeleton buttresses their utterance. If you read poems like I do, with a pencil in hand, it is possible to diagram structures that sometimes recall fixed forms and other times defy labeling and thus fall into the category of nonce forms invented by the author.

Another standout feature of the book is its sequencing—brilliant. It would take more room than I have here to figure out exactly how it was done, but the poems feel like Coleridge’s definition for poetry: best poems (words) in the best order. The sequence is definitely not chronological, but we emerge at the end able to reconstruct the narrative of the speaker’s life. One thing I especially liked is how it builds to a subtle crescendo that makes each section feel like the inevitable and resonant response to the one that came before, and the last section the most powerful and satisfying response of all. Reading the book, I was reminded of Robert Frost’s adage that a poetry book should be like a poem, with all its parts marshaled and ordered towards the optimal possible expression.

An important sound technique that recurs in the poems of The Analyst is the use of word and phrase repetition, sometimes in lieu of rhyme. Fans of William Meredith’s “The Illiterate” will recall his sonnet that repeats end words in the familiar pattern abba abba cde cde. Peacock uses a similar strategy in many poems in The Analyst, and it advances and enacts an important trope in the book: the analyst’s actual echolalia after her stroke. Besides paying homage to the author’s beloved analyst and friend, these repetitions transform what we are used to thinking of as a disability into a different kind of strong utterance, perhaps even a song. The technique also enacts one of the many deep truths I found in The Analyst: Nothing is lost, and all we are and were is repeated in the people whose lives we touch and sometimes help along.

“The Nurse Tree” is organized into six quatrains that do not adhere to a strict end-rhyme scheme, but do use rhyme, sometimes internal and sometimes at the ends of lines, to bind each stanza to itself and then knit them together as whole poems. For example, line 2 of the first stanza repeats the long ee sound in “be” and “tree,” and the sound returns again in line 4’s “mushroomeries.” Because lines are short, only a short time elapses between these sounds and so we hear them as repetitions. Another repeated sound in stanza 1, the –d of “dead” and “woods,” returns in stanza 2’s “wood,” “dead,” and “could,” and is more subtly echoed in the assonant “books” of line 6. “The Nurse Tree” echoes with these repeated sounds, and one of my favorites is line 17’s internal rhyme of “dirt” with “skirt.” (Hey, I want a dirt skit! Oh, right, I guess I’ll be getting one of those by and by). I also loved the word play of “compost” with “comp-o / sition” and “decomposing,” and that percussive explosive triple rhyme of “cap / pops up” in the last two lines. This technique of seeding and then returning to similar sounds creates the sonic woof against which the warp of the poem weaves in and out in variations that feel free but also feel connected to the rest of the poem in a technique very reminiscent of jazz improv.

In closing, I want to acknowledge today’s U.S. holiday—Mother’s Day—and to say how happy I am to have found a poem that honors it so well. There are more ways to parent than what biology can offer. We all have important mothers in our lives with whom we share not DNA but things that matter more: spirit, heart, and love. One of my very first teachers, Molly Peacock is that for me and my work. I once heard a poem written by a Unitarian minister who had adopted her children that included this line: “you grew not under my heart but in it.” Yes, it does use us up, this loving and living; it breaks us down into our very molecules and atoms. But as long as those green shoots and red caps keep coming, it’s all good. Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!

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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.