(“The bunya-bunya is a great louse that sucks.” Repeat. Start. Repeat. Start.) Ruth Stone’s career has been recently celebrated in a volume of essays edited by Wendy Barker and Sandra M. Gilbert. The volume, excerpted on MAPS, lauds her poetry via reader response, feminist politics, and the unwinding of the tragic and comic entwined in her poems. Without too much more (deserved, I say) unrestrained appreciation, I’d like to look at the ways “From the Arboretum” is worth repeating, and at the poem’s internal repetitions that, themselves, startle.
“From the Arboretum” makes a double move, from the scientific space of a plotted land to the kinetic and florid interior of “The bunya-bunya,” and from that organic web to the domestic and ordered space of “the front porch.” The first move, like the swift chaos of A. R. Ammons’ poetry, shakes the straight lines of a planned garden, and the straight laced observation which is an arboretum’s reason for being, into the parasitic and regenerative economy of an Australian evergreen tree.
The move’s diction is quite alarming: “The bunya-bunya is a great louse that sucks.” It is a simple, declarative sentence whose surface meaning and syntax are direct, but whose terms are foreign, comically juxtaposed, and frankly visceral. The vehicle an its tenor lack an abstraction that might qualify their equivalence: they differ most noticeably in their sound, the soft alliteration of “bunya-bunya” contrasting with the sharper consonance of “great louse that sucks.”
“The bunya-bunya is a great louse that sucks,” as a first line of a poem, then, invites particular attention to its aural texture at the same time it defamiliarizes its subject. This hermeneutic code, inscribed in the beginning of the poem, animates its investigation of otherwise heftier topics: the “suffering” that attends nurturing work, the pangs that accompany growth, maturation, and self-expression, and the grotesqueness and cruelty that domestication and ‘civilizing’ practices have on the bodies and psyches of the colonized. “The bunya-bunya is a great louse that sucks”:
From its center many limbs are fastened to the sky
which lies behind it placidly suffering.
At its bottom it wears the ruffles of a cancan girl.
Bird dung and nits drip with its resinous sweat.
Its forgotten threads underground are anaerobic
with the maximum strength of steel. For every stretch
upward it splits and bleeds – fingers grow out of fingers.
Rings of ants, bark beetles, sponge molds,
even cockroaches communicate in its armpits.
But it protests only with the voices of starlings,
their colony at its top in the forward brush.
To them it is only an old armchair, a brothel, the front porch.
“From the Arboretum’s” second move, unlike its first, takes a circuitous route, but replicates the forms and sounds of its first. In figuring the bunya-bunya tree as “an old armchair, a brothel,” and “the front porch” of a “colony” of starlings, the poem shifts out of a series of organic metaphors, and into a domestic and global economy. Such a shift depends on the sharp and obvious contrasts that obtain between images such as “bird dung” and “armchair,” “sponge molds” and “front porch”: the persistent, odorous, and dynamic growth of the bunya-bunya’s ecological community reduced to the static and antiseptic geometry of its residents’ abode “at its to.” In this broadly figured set of distinctions, the poem relies on a series of concrete images expressed in equivalent metrical feet: “bird dung,” “nits drip,” “bark beetles,” “sponge molds,” “cockroaches,” “armpits,” “armchair,” and “front porch.” These images, nearly all compound names for single entities, appear in spondaic feet: nodes in the poem that thus make thematic and aural connections. The poem’s sharp repeated consonant sounds, however, cut against a connecting grain. Its s’s, t’s, p’s, and hard c’s work in nearly every line to interrupt an otherwise simple cadence and many end-stopped lines, so that in line ten as “cockroaches communicate in its armpits,” the seamless organization of the bunya-bunya’s lives is expressed in staccato rhythm.
The poem’s thematic and aural dissonance never threaten the poem’s subject, however. Such tension sustains the bunya-bunya tree. Though “it splits and bleeds” from the strain of its expression (in the fictional narrative of the poem and in the time of the poem’s reading itself), such tearing promotes growth and the possibility for new forms: “fingers grow out of fingers.”
The bunya-bunya tree objects to the pangs of growth and the scurry of movement about its trunk through a passive ventriloquism, the unprompted starling’s complaint: “. . .it protests only with the voices of starlings,/ their colony at its top in the forward brush./ To them it is only an old armchair, a brothel, the front porch.” The bunya-bunya tree, like “the sky” to which it is “fastened,” suffers “placidly,” a shared disposition that suggests an unlimited expanse of natural strength and stoicism to which more minute and clamoring self-interest might attach. The “colony” of starlings is such a self-interested junta. Politicized and historicized as a “colony,” domesticated in their armchairs, and sexualized as patrons in a “brothel,” the starlings have imported a sense of the rational and objective world into “the forward bush” of the bunya-bunya tree.
The starlings’ treatment of the bunya-bunya tree reflects an objectivity that science and economy presume. Without a sense of the “placid suffering” that “lies behind” the colony’s presence and “the forgotten threads underground” that “strengthen” its base, the starlings perceive a one-dimensional tree, made for consumption. The starling’s perception, marked by the qualifying “only,” gives the poem’s dissonant tones and discordant images a unifying purpose: to resist simplification of complex or alien modes of being, and to resist commodification in an economy predicated on use and exchange.
The bunya-bunya tree shows the most vulnerability to its colonizing starlings in a commodified, gendered form. Two images in this poem are alliterative doubles: the bunya-bunya itself, and the “cancan girl,” a marker of aural similarity and, thus, identification, given this poem’s hermeneutic code. “The ruffles of a cancan girl,” worn at the trees “bottom,” describe the costume of a woman on display, a woman whose performance, and therefore her value, depends on seduction and resistance, the play of revelation and concealment of legs beneath the “ruffles” of a costume. The starling’s limited perception, however, imagines an erasure of one end of the cancan girl’s dialectical performance. “To them it is only. . .a brothel,” an exchange of money for sex. Such a conflation of modes of relation and consumption on the starling’s behalf extends the arborist’s – as metonymy for science, objective study, and rationalism – misapprehension of his relationship to the bunya-bunya tree in its most signifying form. In doing so, the scientist and colonist, from the falsely constructed position of objectivity, confuse the visual with the sensual, reduce the feminine to the sexual, and nature to its usefulness and exchangeability.
If, in its appearance as cancan girl, the bunya-bunya tree reveals itself as vulnerable – a brothel – to starlings, who see with through a lens marred by “only,” perhaps as the cancan girl it reveals itself to a broader vision as a more maximized strength. One wonders if its florid web isn’t “only” the base of a structure that supports a more ratiocinated network of relations, but also a massive, comic, and shockingly physical threat to that network’s life: “The bunya-bunya is a great louse that sucks.”
Copyright © 2001 by Andrew Moss