Poetry Review: “Casting Deep Shade” — On Humanity and the Beech Tree

By Eric Fishman

C.D. Wright has woven a poetic text that mirrors the tangled intimacy between humans and the beech, in all of its violence, its confusion, and its beauty.

Casting Deep Shade: An Amble Inscribed to Beech Trees & Co. by C.D. Wright. Copper Canyon Press, 160 pages, $32.

In Casting Deep Shade, completed just before C.D. Wright’s unexpected death in 2016, the poet examines the history of the beech tree. In a tumbling series of associations, she intertwines fragments of memory with an encyclopedic and at times jarring natural and cultural history of the beech. The result is beguiling and unexpectedly moving.

Wright strings together a dizzying array of perspectives. At times it feels that she is channeling a beech zeitgeist, a collective consciousness surrounding this genus of trees. Fragments collected from across time and space are assembled into verse:

In a dream it signifies wisdom, else, death.

Is brittle.

In aromatherapy, a confidence booster.

Windfirm if the soil is not shallow.

Limbs low.

Wright pivots strikingly between detailed observations of the trees themselves and the stories and associations of the humans that interact with them. Beech trees emerge both as characters in their own right and as poetic mirrors: reflections and refractions of human society.

Interspersed with networks of prose poetry are photographs of beech (and other trees) from every conceivable angle and scale. Viewed from up close, the crusted scales on a tree — one which has been attacked by beech bark disease — become a beautiful, dappled landscape. A photo of a tiny beech seedling is followed by one of a dead “ghost” beech. Wright’s verses carry similarly disorienting juxtapositions:

The nuts are a touch toxic, yet edible …
Heat kills the toxin. Or a good soaking leaches the tannins.
The first bread from beech flour.

I have never heard it defamed as a hanging tree.

The intimacy of preparing bread is pushed up against the violence of lynching. The tree’s gentle aggression faces human brutality. The tree can also serve as a witness: “I think of a witness tree as one that stood its ground, when something happened, possibly something no human was meant to see.” Trees are artifacts, carrying with them visions of history — visions we may or may not wish to forget. Wright knows the beech too closely to succumb to blasé Romanticism about the innocence of nature.

Throughout this collection, the poet uses the beech as a tool to bear witness herself — examining both personal and historical vistas. These acts of witnessing are by turns appalling (beeches along the Trail of Tears), intriguing (Celtic tree cults), and funny (the time Wright’s brother was told the warts on his hands came from frog urine). Although the cascading tangents can feel arbitrary at times, there are two conductive threads that guide Wright’s “amble.”

On the one hand, we have Wright’s personal development of “tree consciousness.” The verses often read like a memoir, as the fragments progressively fill in segments of Wright’s life. The other through-line is environmental, and concerns the possible extinction of the beech.

Yet Wright manages to convey the direness of the situation without sounding preachy. Her verse is often explicit. For example, we are given detailed descriptions of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, set ominously next to scientific perspectives on beech bark disease. But Wright avoids overt didacticism. Instead, she points the reader obliquely towards the consequences of environmental destruction:

One of my early tree infatuations was associated with a sternly
aristocratic white stucco house on Hwy 7 … The drive lined with
a dozen imposing oaks. A tornado took each one of them out like
soda straws. Without them the house looked like an asylum.
Exactly like an asylum.

Elizabeth Rush, in Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, asserts: “I believe that language can lessen the distance between humans and the world of which we are a part.” And this is what is most remarkable about Casting Deep Shade. Wright has woven a poetic text that mirrors the tangled intimacy between humans and the beech, in all of its confusion, its violence, and its beauty.

Eric Fishman is an elementary school teacher, writer, literary translator, and cellist. You can find out more about his work at www.ericjpfishman.com.

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