James Lasdun, “Between A and B”

“Between A and B” (from The Guardian)
James Lasdun

The Tree of Heaven’s lost its winter bloom
of plastic bags. The leaves are coming out –
a fizz of reddish green afloat
over the garbage it sprouted from.
You wonder why it bothers. Hasn’t it heard
nobody’s interested in that kind of thing…?
A memory: six or seven, visiting
a dying uncle. Cocked against his sickbed
I flashed my new Swiss Army knife, and fanned
the blades, grinning, as if I’d hauled that shine
out from some pristine darkness of my own.
‘What do you want to show me such things for?’
he muttered. I was hurt! I’d thought the gesture
would please him. I begin to understand.

Comment:

Life over waste, artifice: that is the image of leaves sprouting on an otherwise desolate tree covered with plastic bags. Life is just “fizz,” resembling primordial soup without the terrible majesty of an awakened universe. Two things of note: first, the waste is a product of nature’s power. Nature dissolves artifice, our attempts at something lasting (“plastic”). Of course, nature also dissolves a lot of other natural things. Second, our speaker asks why life bothers, says “nobody’s interested in that kind of thing.” I suspect this is connected with calling the tree the “Tree of Heaven.” Nature works against itself. If we’re going to grant life any sort of self-awareness, we seem to need some notion of divinity and eternality.

That does not make a lot of sense, but that is where we’re at by mid-poem. About to deconstruct and lose not so much belief, but the want to believe in or know anything. The poem does not sugarcoat how much pain we can go through. To be broken is just as much a part of life as being hopeful. To insist otherwise is to deny the unique character of belief.

Our speaker takes us to an utterly unconnected scene. A boy flashing a showy knife in front of a dying uncle. As Josh has rightly emphasized, the boy is hopeful, seeing vitality alone as joy. “As if I’d hauled that shine out from some pristine darkness of my own.” We can only mimic the transformative power, the violence, of nature. This, I think, provokes the uncle’s hostility. There are better things than “such things.” That our power is so meager is not the end of us. The uncle is bitter, but he literally is seeing new life smiling. That doesn’t have to be seen as resentment against life. Nature allows life to emerge and endure, at least briefly. It’d be nice to see joy in something slightly different: a blossoming, something natural, a sense of value.

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