With thanks to Temperance Dewar
Taking Down the Tree (from Poetry)
“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.
The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.
With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.
By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.
Those tragic families with their murderous games of power and lust don’t really exist. They’re just excuses for George R.R. Martin to write torture porn. We have to imagine an usurper tormented by a vengeful, single-minded prince and loose women of luxury running as if suffocated by morality. The whole realm they are in is dark. It’s like we’re turning our own imaginations off. We only read this stuff for school, after all.
There’s another way to turn our imaginations off. Just pay insufficient attention to how one behaves in one’s own family. Fighting greedily over ornaments shows a willingness to destroy the memory of your family, and for what? One can say the “jumping jack” represents the place that can be claimed after the spaniel, but I think that misses the import of how arbitrary both evil and desire can be. Kenyon hints at a genuine nihilism in such pettiness, the hateful confusion of fear and pride and whatever else.
To grasp that nihilism does not require a particularly Christian understanding, though the Christological image presents itself well enough. Tearing apart the wood ornament limb from limb tears the family, tears Jesse’s tree – Christ and all that make Him. But I think that more or less renames the failing to appreciate family, to love humanity. There is nothing doctrinaire about this poem. To wit: it recalls Augustine’s lament in the Confessions that infants can show tremendous selfishness, wanting food or attention or both every waking moment. Yet it has no call for immediate conversion or repenting of one’s greed.
Our ten year old speaker feels “depraved.” This may be a moral response, but more likely the product of not getting what she wanted how she wanted it. Simply not getting what she wants can make her more careful packing the other reflectors of light, the lights themselves, the toy containers. Yes, tradition is all around her, with a dying tree central, and she has no awareness of what any of this means. There can’t be an awareness of what this fully means, as the speaker is ten years old in her recounting.
Light is not a desire of the younger self. It is only appreciated by the older one who has grown to somewhat understand Claudius and the courtesans. Still, the ten year old has an advantage in her terrible ignorance. Knowing no better, she mistakes homemade simplicity for grandeur and gladly accepts supper. The darkness now is good enough for the older self, as the light is implicit.