Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806
Stanza 1 : The poem opens with a man and his neighbors watching bulldozers tear up the man’s lawn. The man is joking with the neighbors, and the event is referred to as a “show.” The man’s upbeat behavior suggests that he has sold the land for a good price....
(The entire section contains 806 words.)
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Stanza 1: The poem opens with a man and his neighbors watching bulldozers tear up the man’s lawn. The man is joking with the neighbors, and the event is referred to as a “show.” The man’s upbeat behavior suggests that he has sold the land for a good price. “Branchy sky” indicates that this parcel of “lawn” has quite a few trees on it, as the branches seem as much a part of the sky as of the tree. Contributing to the carnival-like atmosphere is the personification of the bulldozers as sloppy males on a date, who, “drunk with gasoline,” force themselves on the woman, as they test the “virtue of the soil.” This last phrase is also ironic since the bulldozers are not concerned with the soil’s quality, as farmers are, but with what lies beneath the soil.
Stanza 2: Stanza two begins full mobilization of the language of war (“forays” and “raids”). The bulldozers- as-tanks, having taken out what would be the first line of defense, the privet-row, now take out the second line—forsythias and hydrangeas. But the real “enemy” lies ahead. Bulldozers head for the hard-to-root-out trees, analogous to a nest of machine guns protected by lines of surrounding troops. The trees themselves are monuments of a civilization, and every time an elm fell “a century went down.” In a familiar metaphor the trees are also likened to human bodies, as they are described as having been “lopped and maimed.” This is akin to the trees’ beheading, or the hacking of limbs from their torsos (trunk), an occurrence in humanto- human war. The offensiveness of the acts is heightened because the trees are humanized, referred to as the “great-grandfathers of the town.”
Stanza 3: The war continues as bulldozers and Caterpillars (“hireling engines”) dig up tree after tree. The limbs and tops have already been hacked away and the roots are the last to go. The speaker remarks that undermining the trees also destroys the habitat of soil grubs and moles, a destruction of beings and ecology. Then, as in the previous stanza, trees are again linked to humans: they are kings when standing (they have “crowns”), and subservient subjects when felled (on their “knees,” as if begging). The final personification is the death throes or tremblings the trees suffer before dying, their “seizures.” That is, their leafy tops (“northern”) can be seen to shake before the trees topple and fall.
Stanza 4: From the effect of bulldozers on trees and land, Kunitz now moves to the larger picture affected by both the presence and absence of trees. He imagines children of the past (“ghosts”) playing in the trees’ shade, growing up alongside the trees. The poet also imagines nature (“the green world”) with a book, perhaps its own biography or photo album, turning another worn (“foxed”) page, perhaps reading about or viewing another slaughter in its own history. At stanza’s end, the children disappear into “their grievous age,” which could indicate either crippling old age and death or the era in which the children live, the 1950s, when suburban developments flourished. The word “suburbs,” short for suburban, indicates a kind of environment where trees are cut down and substituted with housing developments. It can also represent a place where people sometimes grow “grievously” into old age because they become isolated and preoccupied only with raising children and maintaining property. This is the suburbs as the breeding place of sameness and mediocrity, to some, a living death.
Stanza 5: In the last stanza, the trees are down and uprooted, leaving behind craters “too big for hearts,” the phrase pointing to the inability of humans to love, care, or protect trees. From being maimed in root and branch, the killing field is now complete— roots are now “amputated” from the soil, exposed for all to see. The poet compares the huge snarls of roots to gorgons, mythological female creatures with snakes for hair who turned those looking at them into stone.
With this vision of a pock-marked landscape, the poet imagines the cornered lot as a cratered moon, a dead landscape. But others do not necessarily see the scene as the poet does. They see it like the joking neighbor at the beginning, or like drivers glancing for a “witness-moment” in their rearview mirrors, giving the scene no more than a passing or backward glance on their way to other scenes and concerns more important, or more subject to their control. By the final line and word, the poem has come full circle: from producers of oil (Standard Oil) clearing the land at the beginning of the poem, to consumers of oil driving over cleared and paved land at poem’s end. For only a moment, drivers might have the opportunity to link their own practice to the unsightly mess on the corner lot.