Original poem reprinted online here: "Native Trees" by W. S. Merwin
Originally read: September 30, 2013
More information about the Poet: W. S. Merwin
I feel everything in this poem is dependent on unpacking the image of "Trees", but also how the image of trees relate to the idea of "Native" since the poem goes in one trajectory, a straight forward narrative based on on knowledge, but could expand to multiple trajectories of family, past, connection which pervades either strongly or weakly throughout the poem.
"Neither my father nor my mother knew / the names of the trees / where I was born" past me noted, "tying in definition: trees, self" and I think this is me overreaching here too early. What's the most important aspect of the first three lines is the idea of naming and what defines naming for the speaker.
what is that
I asked and my
father and mother did not
hear they did not look where I pointed
surfaces of furniture held
the attention of their fingers
Here the lack of punctuation brings a feel of a memory in which these lines depend on the vague to construct a point. Why did they ignore the young speaker? Who knows, but the focus is on the "surfaces of furniture" and this is where the multiple meanings could be brought in: time, industry, neglect, age, etc. The shift in generalities shift the poem to stir a meaning.
and across the room they could watch
walls they had forgotten
where there were no questions
no voices and no shade
I highlighted "shade" because there could be a reference to the Jungian with the juxtaposition of "forgotten walls" and "no voice and no shade." But these section feels like a conclusion of a train of thought that attributed the silence between the speaker and parents to the overall general.
And since there's no affirmation of the existence of trees through naming, the speaker goes back to the idea of the trees, "Were there trees / where they were children /where I had not been" The images blur between trees and children and in this confusion -- the speaker asks again:
were there trees in those places
where my father and my mother were born
and in that time did
my father and mother see them
Remember this is a continuation of the question: in what extent (time, industry, neglect, age, etc.) can the mother and father figure remember the names of trees -- a time gone by perhaps? Or remember anything at all."
"and when they said yes it meant / they did not remember" note that the inference of the speaker leads to not remembering based on a yes. The parental figures answer the question, but don't open up about it. The funny thing with this line is that "meant" doesn't solidify an answer, but opens more questions.
"What were they I asked what were they / but both my father and my mother / said they never knew." I feel these lines are extraneous and the bigger impact is the inference of the speaker in the previous two lines. However, I find these lines interesting in the fact that they lead back to the parents and not end with the speaker. It's as though the speaker wants the parental figures to state "never" as though to catch them in a lie. "Never" is a loaded word that could refer to the state of forgetting based on those qualifiers mentioned above.