Split-Leafed Maple

This is the tree I did not want to cut.
That shone on my adolescence, stooped
in reddish light. The tree that kept on
growing until, returning after half a year
away, I found the room dark. And yet
I loved it still, and told my father that, and that
was the mistake. This is the tree
whose roots were dangerous.
He’d have to cut it—now I’d made him
culpable. (No help the flowers
he’d plant there; no help the light.)
This is the tree he would cut, come fall.
Come my return to elsewhere. I was home
but away when it happened. I was
on Salt Spring. He woke to water,
running. This is the tree that startled
the plumbers: so big, near the house.
They cut the problem roots; enough
for now. This is the tree that still stood
as our car backed out, as the plane rose
and the world wavers, for what won’t
be there when I return and for
what else one day won’t.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Split-Leafed Maple”?

This is one of those poems that is “based on a true story.” Two days after my wedding, which took place in Vancouver although I was living in Montreal at the time, the roots of the tree that grew outside the window of my old bedroom at my parents’ home broke through the pipes. My father had anticipated this and I had in fact written about the tree and its rampant, potentially destructive roots in “Window,” the opening poem of Pavilion. I initially hesitated to write about the tree again – it felt a little self-indulgent to echo my own work—but ultimately the occasion seemed too good to pass up. As my wedding solidified the fact that I no longer lived in Vancouver (having moved away seven years earlier to live with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, first in Quebec City, then in Ottawa, and then in Montreal), the timing was propitious. The tree, it turned out, still had something to say to me.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Split-Leafed Maple”?

“Window,” the poem in Pavilion that was a source poem for this one—for it talks about the same tree—was inspired by the childhood verse, “The House that Jack Built.” I have always been drawn to the cumulative strategy of that poem, the way it builds and builds on itself, and in “Window” I sought a repetitive structure to convey a sense of inevitability. In “Split-Leafed Maple,” I’ve again adapted that repetitive pattern. The syntax at once builds up, through repetitions, and breaks down, through fragments, just as the tree grows and then eventually breaks the pipes and is itself cut down. Throughout the poem, I end many words with “t,” which, in terms of sonic groupings for consonants, is a mute and thus suggests a finality, as it stops the breath; “not want to cut” in the first line introduces the pattern quite forcefully. Later, there are also echoes of the “cu” sound of “cut” in “culpable” and other key words. I mean the repetitions of “that” in the sixth line to call attention to themselves, suggesting the power of my declaration of love for the tree, a love that can no longer be uttered afterwards (it becomes “that”) because of the attachment that it reflects. Later in the poem, the word “it” in “I was home / but away when it happened” functions similarly. The tree becomes such a potent symbol of the speaker’s attachment to home—almost a stand-in for the speaker herself—that it cannot be spoken of directly. There are also a few faint puns here: in “the tree he would cut, come fall,” where fall suggests the season but also, peripherally, the image of a tree falling, and in “Salt Spring,” an island named for its springs, where the image of the spring foreshadows the running water that appears later in the same line. Finally, there’s a tense shift in the poem’s third-last line, when we move into the present tense. I meant here to suggest the pervasiveness of that moment of departure, that each departure embodies all previous and future departures. The final few lines are rather cryptic, so I should perhaps declare that the “what won’t / be there when I return” refers to the tree, which will be cut down, and that “what else one day won’t” refers to the house (my parents’ neighbourhood is rapidly changing and most older houses are torn down when they’re sold) and, more importantly, to my parents themselves.

This poem “Split-Leafed Maple” originally appeared in Literature & War. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 179 (Winter 2003): 9.

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