The Mulberry Tree

Essay on writing & rewriting short tanka
poetry, criticism
2010-10-122019-02-24 finished certainty: highly likely importance: 0


I lived near a as a child, and on the fringe grew a tree. It was anony­mous most of the time, cloaked in shrub­bery & ever­greens, but come early sum­mer, hun­dreds of lit­tle white fruits sprouted in its branches and slowly ripened to their messy black glo­ry. Pedes­tri­ans de­toured off the side­walk to avoid the layer of pulped fruit.

One day I asked and learned that mul­ber­ries were safe to eat (un­like the other berries that grew so red & invit­ing on our bush­es). I ate them, and they were good.

Every sum­mer after­wards I would har­vest the tree a few times. As the tree was pub­lic prop­er­ty, I be­gan to feel a sense of oblig­a­tion, which I sat­is­fied by rip­ping down all the weeds grow­ing on the fence and clam­ber­ing over to hack away at the plants di­rectly threat­en­ing my tree. This con­tin­ued for many years.

I went back on­ce, and walk­ing the dog un­der it, sud­denly re­called it all. I also re­mem­bered how it felt to re­turn to some even more for­got­ten places like pre-kinder­garten. It all put me in mind to try to write a po­em.

First we try a qua­si­-prose for­mu­la­tion to get the ba­sics down:

The child had tended the mulberry for so many summers
That the man upon stepping into the garden
Froze, just remembering, swiveling, seeking.

Po­et­i­cal­ly, this does not work. The lines are too long and rhyth­m-less, it is too ir­reg­u­lar, and a bit too com­plex. This may pass for , but it is not good free verse.

The con­tent is much too lit­tle for any of the stan­dard rhyming forms like the son­net, but also seems a bit too much for the stereo­typ­i­cal verse form deal­ing with sin­gle mo­ments & na­ture—the . For­tu­nate­ly, the haiku form de­scends from the longer tanka or , which has a 5-7-5-7-7 syl­la­ble count.

The waka is more com­pressed and el­lip­ti­cal than the free verse, and this gives it a sort of a punch line, akin to this waka by :1

"To her house I come,
in vain it seems; and turn to go
when I hear a sound
that makes me, too, fall silent---
just standing there, wondering."

With this model in mind, my first at­tempt at a waka was this:

In spring, the child
had tended the mulberry.
And the years passed.
The man saw a strange garden---
suddenly freezing, looking.

The syl­la­ble count clearly fol­lows the tanka form: 5-7-5-7-7. This ver­sion loses some im­pact: ‘for many sum­mers’ con­veys much deeper fa­mil­iar­ity than a la­conic ‘had tended’, and ‘freez­ing, look­ing’ is­n’t nearly as ac­tive & yearn­ing as ‘just re­mem­ber­ing, swivel­ing, seek­ing’.

To sat­isfy the syl­la­ble-count, we also had to switch the ‘sum­mers’ to ‘spring’. This is a bless­ing in dis­guise: sum­mer is not very as­so­ci­ated with youth or growth, as spring is. The first three lines still seem flab­by, bland state­ments of fact. That’s the next thing to fix.

First, we make them more in­ter­est­ing with some un­usual gram­mar; since we are not Shake­speare, we can only use this method spar­ing­ly:

So many springs he
had tended the mulberry...

This is­n’t quite right. There is a dis­tinct sound to this first line, and it’s a down­ward slope. ‘So’ starts high, and the line con­tin­ues down­ward into a low ‘he’, only to im­me­di­ately pop up again on the sec­ond line with ‘had’. Let’s swap those two words:

So many springs had
he tended the mulberry...

Now we have a more pleas­ing au­di­ble sym­me­try: we start high with ‘So’, end high with ‘had’, and get a nice rhythm with ‘he TENded THE mulBERry’.

(We omit ‘tree’ in all ver­sions. ‘Mul­berry’ is al­ready far too long; ‘mul­berry tree’ would be a dis­as­ter.)

But how do we con­nect the el­lip­sis to en­ter­ing the gar­den? There’s a cer­tain im­plied fol­lowup—‘so many Xs that Y’. He had tended the tree so many years that… what? Well, at some point lat­er, he re­turned and abruptly re­act­ed.

So many springs had
he tended the mulberry,
later, far away,
he stepped through the garden
suddenly freezing, looking.

‘Far away’ fits, but does­n’t make sense. It’s sup­posed to be the orig­i­nal tree. Let’s try again:

So many springs had
he tended the mulberry,
later, long after,
he stepped through the garden
suddenly freezing, looking.

The line at least works, but we want to con­vey that he was a child when tend­ing the tree and is now a man, which brings in all sorts of nice con­no­ta­tion­s—of decades pass­ing, of the per­son chang­ing (while the tree does­n’t), of re­turn­ing home…

So many springs had
he tended the mulberry,
the man he became
walked through a strange garden
suddenly freezing, looking.

The 1-syl­la­ble ‘strange’ re­placed the 1-syl­la­ble ‘he’, but is­n’t right ei­ther. The gar­den is­n’t strange, it’s per­fectly nor­mal; it’s only been for­got­ten. Strange things can be for­got­ten like any­thing else, but most for­got­ten things aren’t strange (s­ince strange things are quite mem­o­rable). ‘For­got­ten’ is 3 syl­la­bles, though, so we need to make dras­tic changes:

So many springs had
he tended the mulberry
the man he became
froze in a forgotten grove
just pausing, looking, looking.

There are some nice as­pects of this. We get a fair bit of in the last 2 lines ‘froze/­for­got­ten’ and the ‘paus­ing, look­ing, look­ing’. The rep­e­ti­tion comes off not as cheap but as in­ten­si­fy­ing the feel­ing, and lets the last line be spo­ken in mul­ti­ple ways. It’s defi­nitely an im­prove­ment over ‘freez­ing, look­ing’.

An­other ver­sion of the ul­ti­mate line:

So many springs had
he tended the mulberry
the man he became
froze in a forgotten grove
just looking, smelling, feeling.

‘Smelling’ re­calls the vis­cer­al­ness of ‘swivel­ing’ from the free verse, and cul­mi­nates more clear­ly. (The spe­cific or­der­ing is ob­vi­ously from most ab­stract and un­in­volved to most con­crete and in­volved; noth­ing is closer and more real to us than our feel­ings.) But is it re­ally clear what is go­ing on to an in­tel­li­gent reader bereft of the back­sto­ry? Per­haps we could make the con­nec­tion be­tween the first 2 lines and the last 3 more ob­vi­ous;

So many springs had
he tended the mulberry
the man he became
would freeze in an old tree's shade
just looking, smelling, feeling.

By chang­ing line 4, we make clearer that the freez­ing bit is set in the fu­ture, that there is a shift of time be­tween the old tend­ing and the new freez­ing. ‘For­got­ten’ is prob­lem­at­ic. ‘Would freeze’ leaves us 5 syl­la­bles, and ‘for­got­ten’ robs us of 3; it is diffi­cult to put to­gether ‘would freeze’ & ‘for­got­ten’ with some­thing about a tree or grove in just 2 more syl­la­bles. We can still try though:

So many springs had
he tended the mulberry
the man he became
would freeze by forgotten trees
just looking, smelling, feeling.

Eng­lish lets us get away with not in­clud­ing a par­ti­cle or pro­noun like ‘the’ or ‘a’ be­cause ‘for­got­ten trees’ is plural and gen­er­al. We could­n’t write some­thing un­gram­mat­i­cal like

would freeze by forgotten tree

nor could we write an 8-syl­la­ble line like

would freeze by the forgotten tree

So we are some­what stuck with the fourth line. With the ac­tion clar­i­fied, I think we can re­turn to the more opaque ul­ti­mate line, giv­ing this fi­nal waka:

So many springs had
he tended the mulberry
the man he became
would freeze by forgotten trees
just looking, pausing, looking.

And with that, let us rest.

My lo­cal mul­berry tree in June 2011: up
From the side
Frontal
Big side
Big frontal
Over­all

Im­ages from 2011, be­fore they were pruned back in earnest; by Au­gust 2013, no branches re­mained un­der 2 me­ters.


  1. poem #87, ‘Love con­cealed from Par­ents’; ; trans. Steven D. Carter, ISBN 0-231-10576-2↩︎