Mary Jean Chan's "Wish"
Thoughts on simplicity and enchantment.
I would like to live like the trees
my lover often says look up!
as she admires a canopy of green
her tree-like behaviour astounds me
if you looked within me now, you’d see
that my languages are like roots
gnarled in soil, one and indivisible
except the world divides me endlessly
some days I dare not look at the trees
they are such hopeful creatures
if the legislators of our world
looked to their trees for guidance
would they reconsider everything?
lately I’ve been trying to write
a poem that might birth a tree
a genuine acceptance of the self
continues to elude me
from Flèche (Faber & Faber, 2019)
The first time I read this poem, which was approximately eight days ago, the final two lines stopped and held me completely. Yes, I said, me too.
There’s something remarkably wide-eyed and honest about this poem that, I think, is what keeps me coming back to it. It is in some ways deceptively simple. It offers no real punctuation other than the occasional question mark, or a thought ended at the end of a line. It is almost staccato, moving quickly from line to line, thought to thought.
In many ways this is a poem of wonder. It’s there in the first three lines:
I would like to live like the trees
my lover often says look up!
as she admires a canopy of green
There is wonder in the desire of the first line and wonder in the lover’s actualized wonder — the way she looks up, the way she admires. It is perhaps a simple way to begin a poem, if you define simple as something based in that phrase I would like. But simple language does not mean an absence of complexity, and it surely does not mean an absence of wonder. I think of one of my favorite poems by Raymond Carver — he, too, a poet of pared-down diction — and how it begins:
Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
And then ends:
Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.
It would be impossible to convince me that this is a poem utterly absent of the depth of the human spirit. It is the opposite of that. It is depth and complexity delivered in the kind of language that occurs when the world has hollowed out the faux-surface of a life, whittled it down to its barest bones. It is want and desire and questioning and life, offered up so bluntly.
I see that same want and desire and questioning in today’s poem. Chan writes that “the world divides me endlessly,” so much so that the gap between how her speaker views herself and how she views nature is so great that she “dare(s) not look” at the trees within such nature. In her body, roots are “gnarled,” but trees — roots and all — are “hopeful.” She is astounded by her lover’s “tree-like behaviour,” but can’t find the tree in herself, the tree that is compassionate, accepting, loving. Within this poem of whittled-down lines and language is a heart that is heavy and beating and wanting.
So yes, despite the diction that is pointed and direct, despite the simplicity of liking, the simplicity of trying, this is a poem of utter complexity, a poem that asks the question: why can’t we be like the world we live within? Why have we isolated each of ourselves so completely?
In her book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes:
We are not used to reading stories without human heroes…We forget that collaborative survival requires cross-species coordinations. To enlarge what is possible we need other kinds of stories, including adventures of landscapes.
I love that phrase — To enlarge what is possible.
Similarly, in his book Feral, about the potential “rewilding” of our collective world, George Monbiot writes about the “commonplace astonishing” that is present within nature. Later, like Tsing, he writes:
My hope is to expand the range of what we consider possible, to open up the ecological imagination.
That kind of enlargement of possibility is at play in Chan’s poem today. Earlier in her book, Tsing questions “if our time is ripe for sensing precarity.” In the same way, Chan’s poem senses the precarity of the self, particularly a self that notices the vast contradiction between the way we are told to view ourselves and the way in which we perceive and treat and learn from or fail to learn from the enchanted world, which is the natural world. There’s such a sorrow in the final three lines. The desire to want to write a poem that might “birth a tree.” The way, despite this overwhelming wish to reconsider everything, the speaker’s acceptance of her own individual self feels so distant and perhaps even impossible. And yet, despite that sorrow, Chan’s poem still, to use Tsing’s phrase, enlarges what is possible. It questions. It wonders. It asks us to reconsider, even if it’s hard, even if it’s elusive.
I’m thinking of the relationship between diction and wonder. I’m thinking of why we stopped asking the “simple” questions, the kinds of questions like the one Chan poses in her poem today: if we looked at the trees for help, would we reconsider everything? I say simple because it’s not a simple question. I say simple because simple is the word that someone would use to disparage the question, to refuse the opportunity to use such a question to reimagine the world, to, as Tsing writes, enlarge our sense of what is possible. Someone might respond to such a question with a scoff. They might ask for evidence or specificity. Such people are lost in the great void that comes when you live in the world of extraneous uses. The world of capital. The simplest questions are the most powerful because they deal with truth at the most universal level. It’s the simple questions that are big, filled with wonder, wanting more from life. It’s the simple questions that are most deserving of an answer.
So often, simplicity is thrown back into the faces of our individual selves in this life we live under capitalism. I mean that sincerely. We are told to love ourselves. We are told to accept ourselves for who we are. We are told to be the best versions of ourselves. We are told to tell ourselves that we are beautiful. I look in the mirror and say you are beautiful and it doesn’t work. And then I rethink the delivery and look in the mirror again and say I am beautiful and it still doesn’t work. In the same moment that the world has rejected our most simple questions — Why can’t we be like trees? Why can’t we forgive our debts? Why can’t you pay me what I am worth? Why can’t we just share? — it has demanded that we view ourselves simply and privately. It has reduced us in such a way that we must learn to accept ourselves simply, to love ourselves simply, to live, simply, between one moment and the next. All the while, the complexity of the world we live in is being whittled down to its barest essentials. We are moving toward a world, as Monbiot writes in Feral, where “every landscape or seascape…performs just one function.” Every day is an act of moving through this constant, endless patronization.
In The Undying, a book I would describe as essential, Anne Boyer writes:
Enchantment exists when things are themselves and not their uses.
Most things and people are viewed and assessed and thought and talked about for their uses these days. I think of enchantment when I think of today’s poem. I think of the speaker longing for something more than this. Longing for a way of thinking of both the world and the self that has nothing to do with use. It’s why those final lines resonate so deeply. What does it mean to genuinely accept one’s self when, so often, the world implies that such acceptance must ultimately be related to one’s usefulness for the world?
There’s something beautiful about the fact that Chan’s poem is titled “Wish.” Every day, as a kind of self-check-in, I wonder about the ways in which I have become more cynical. Almost every day, I wonder about our collective relationship to hope, a word used in today’s poem. These trees that are so hopeful that the speaker can’t bear to look at them. The further we become defined by our utility, the less room or time we have to become amenable to the complexity of simple words like hope. We view things as inconsequential when they don’t immediately relate to the urgency of our moment. When our time is parceled out, when we are paid by the hour, when we are rated and when we rate, when we become alienated from various forms of labor, including our own, then maybe objects only serve to remind us of how we can be better versions of our individual selves, rather than better, more imaginative versions of our collective selves. Planting a bunch of trees isn’t the same thing as not cutting down a forest.
In her essay, “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard writes:
From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.
What happens if we don’t hurry back for home? What happens if we use mystery and its sister in language — enchantment — to reconsider what is possible. I turn toward today’s poem because it reminds me of how important it is to look, to notice, and to witness. For too long, the very act of noticing has been a kind of elegy — all this out there that is capable of being loved, and we are always saying goodbye. There is a world we all live within that reminds us of new possibilities for solidarity and the self, if only we are willing to look. To be like the lover, forever saying look up! When we look up, we risk the simplicity of enchantment, which is inherently a simple thing, which means it is beautiful, and also necessary. It is the kind of thing that occurs, as Anne Boyer writes, when we strip away the ways of viewing the world that have to do with use, with the extraneous desires of product and progress. We have spent too long resisting the opportunity to answer the simplest of questions, thinking they were useless. Well, perhaps what is useless is what is important. Perhaps what is useless is what is enchanted.