Trees and words branch into mem­oir


CHRISTO­PHER Mer­rill is a highly ac­claimed Amer­i­can poet, trans­la­tor and ed­i­tor. He is also the au­thor of sev­eral books of non-fic­tion, in­clud­ing The Grass of An­other Coun­try: A Jour­ney Through the World of Soc­cer and Only the Nails Re­main: Scenes from the Balkan Wars. He re­cently vis­ited Dur­ban for the Ar­tic­u­late Africa Art and Book Fair where he spoke about his lat­est work, a mem­oir with the ir­re­sistible ti­tle Self-Por­trait with Dog­wood. Pub­lished ear­lier this year, the book is a se­ries of vi­gnettes about cen­tral episodes in Mer­rill’s life, all in­volv­ing va­ri­eties of the dog­wood tree. It might sound pe­cu­liar, but it is a de­light­ful way of pre­sent­ing a life. “The av­er­age life­span of a flow­er­ing dog­wood is 80 years, and at the ap­proach of my 60th birth­day it oc­curred to me that I might cre­ate a self-por­trait in re­la­tion to a tree that from an early age I have re­garded as a tal­is­man. Not a mem­oir, strictly speak­ing, but a lit­er­ary ex­plo­ration of cer­tain events through the lens of na­ture”, Mer­rill writes in the pro­logue. His ap­proach to the project and his el­e­gant prose are rem­i­nis­cent of the work of the great Amer­i­can es­say­ist Anne Fadi­man, whose own mem­oir, The Wine Lover’s Daugh­ter, is to be pub­lished next month.

The in­di­vid­ual chap­ters of Self-Por­trait with Dog­wood loosely follow the chronol­ogy of Mer­rill’s life, but never in the way you would ex­pect. The struc­ture chal­lenges our “way of thinking about the tra­di­tion of writ­ing mem­oirs”. Mer­rill be­gins with a seem­ingly typ­i­cal child­hood story of build­ing “a fort un­der the dog­wood tree” near the bor­der of the neigh­bour’s prop­erty, but weaves the mil­i­tary his­tory and leg­endary hero­ism of the re­gion into his nar­ra­tive. Mr Wright, their neigh­bour, was a Na­tive Amer­i­can and the young Christo­pher played war with his son Michael, their child­hoods in­fil­trated by the re­al­ity of the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis and the Viet­nam War. Mr Wright was re­spon­si­ble for con­sci­en­tis­ing Mer­rill by chal­leng­ing his fam­ily’s po­lit­i­cal al­le­giances and mak­ing him aware about the de­struc­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment and the need to pro­tect it.

Upon re­vis­it­ing his early home as an adult, the ab­sence of his dog­wood tree prompts Mer­rill to note “that in ad­di­tion to our in­or­di­nate fond­ness for shap­ing his­tory by mil­i­tary means we are also adept at wag­ing war on na­ture”. In his life, Mer­rill has been en­tan­gled in both styles of war­fare and, as a pas­sion­ate con­ser­va­tion­ist and cul­tural diplo­mat, has tried to steer the global con­scious­ness to­wards bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the per­ils in­volved. Wars lurk be­hind many of Mer­rill’s en­quiries and mem­o­ries, but none as vividly as the one he finds him­self in the mid­dle of in the early 1990s in the for­mer Yu­goslavia. The mem­oir also in­cludes out­landish sto­ries about dog­woods. Ex­perts have sug­gested that the trees might have been used in the Tro­jan War, per­haps even to build the in­fa­mous horse. A pop­u­lar poem claims that the cross Je­sus was cru­ci­fied on was made of dog­wood. “The dog­wood, then, as metaphor – of the march of civil­i­sa­tion, the Pas­sion, growth and de­cline, love and war.” Mer­ill writes about “dog­wood diplo­macy”, which was “the nick­name be­stowed upon a State Depart­ment ini­tia­tive to pro­mote friend­ship with Ja­pan” and about why he was not al­lowed to visit the only two places in Rus­sia where dog­wood trees can be found.

He calls dog­wood his “totem tree” and de­scribes the role it played as wit­ness to all cru­cial events of his life. In one of the most touch­ing sto­ries, Mer­rill re­calls the pair of kousa dog­woods at the en­trance to a park in Iowa City where he now lives with his fam­ily. The health of one of his daugh­ters be­gan de­te­ri­o­rat­ing rapidly with­out ap­par­ent med­i­cal cause. The dog­woods in the park were in full bloom when she was at her low­est, but “ac­quired tal­is­manic sig­nif­i­cance” dur­ing their visit and al­lowed Mer­rill to hope for her re­cov­ery. When they vis­ited at the end of the sea­son, and the trees were heavy with fruit, she was prop­erly di­ag­nosed and im­prov­ing.

In his mem­oir, Mer­rill pays trib­ute to a few re­mark­able peo­ple who shaped him: a friend who be­came in­creas­ingly delu­sional at the same time as at­tempt­ing to dis­cuss the mean­ing of life via the lit­er­ary greats with him; Char­lie Ed, an African-Amer­i­can who taught him what true dis­en­fran­chise­ment was and with whom Mer­rill worked in a lum­ber­yard after get­ting in trou­ble with the po­lice for drug pos­ses­sion; Jerry Munro, the owner of the nurs­ery in which he worked for many years; and the poet Agha Shahid Ali, his dear­est friend who died of brain cancer.

The words and wis­doms of writ­ers like Her­mann Hesse, Walt Whit­man, Emily Dick­in­son, Rachel Car­son, and Henry David Thoreau dap­ple the nar­ra­tive like light through a tree canopy. We turn to them for guid­ance and so­lace, es­pe­cially in bru­tal times. Mer­rill de­scribes his own ex­pe­ri­ence of the post-9/11 era and try­ing to make sense of the lay­ers of trauma sur­round­ing the event.

Mer­rill ac­knowl­edges the fas­ci­nat­ing idea that there might be a con­nec­tion be­tween trees and lan­guage as their branches at­tract birds and thus per­haps they in­spire mu­sic: “Lin­guists posit that some­time in the last hun­dred thou­sand years our an­ces­tors be­gan to im­i­tate bird­song and mon­key alarm calls in de­light, bore­dom, or ter­ror, de­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances; the fu­sion of these two fi­nite sys­tems of com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the animal world pro­duced a third sys­tem, seem­ingly in­fi­nite, ca­pa­ble of con­vey­ing holis­tic mes­sages. The

A lit­er­ary ex­plo­ration of cer­tain events through the lens of na­ture

in­te­gra­tion hy­poth­e­sis of hu­man lan­guage evo­lu­tion pro­poses that the com­bi­na­tion of avian mu­sic and pri­mate warn­ing, the ex­pres­sive and lex­i­cal lay­ers of mean­ing, gave rise to gram­mar, and the rest in his­tory – which is to say, the his­tory of speech.”

SELF-POR­TRAIT WITH DOG­WOOD Christo­pher Mer­rill (R209) Trin­ity Univer­sity Press

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