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In the poem ‘Planting a Sequoia’ Dana Gioia writes about her and her brothers planting a tree. This tree is of significance to her as it is planted in memory of her dead son, in a way, as a continuation of his short life. The author uses the weather as a metaphor for the sadness of the day, a physical manifestation of her emotional state creating contrast between the idyllic land of her fathers and the harshness of reality. In the poem she comforts herself with reflection on the fact that he is simply returning to the natural cycle which they will all one day join and that will out last the ephemeral human lives they will live.
The author conveys the sadness of the day using the weather as a metaphor for her own mood. She writes how ‘The sky above us stayed the dull grey’. The word grey has connotations of blankness and of unfeeling and this impression is cemented with the description as ‘dull’ suggesting something that may have once been very sharp and poignant but has been worn away.
Cold is often synonymous for unemotional with connotations of hardness. In the same way that the ‘cold winds’ are keeping back the rain that ‘blackened the horizons’ her emotional hardness is keeping back tears that threatened to overcome her. This is important for the readers understanding as everybody can sympathise with the feeling of strong emotion threatening to engulf you in a bad situation.
She uses this metaphor of the weather to create contrast further emphasising the sadness of the situation.
In the second stanza she creates a certain image, a father in Sicily planting an olive or fig tree. Both the place and trees both hold connotations of Mediterranean warmth and create an idyllic, dreamy image. This contrasting sharply with the first line of the third stanza ‘But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native giant’. The image is one of discomfort both physically (kneeling in the cold) and emotionally. At the beginning of the sentence she brings the reader back from the warmth of her day dream using ‘But today…’ today in real life we are here in the cold. She talks of how she is ‘defying the practical customs of our fathers…’ she is planting the tree for a death, not a life and defying that warm and happy image. She addresses the tree and the use of the word ‘native’ seems to suggest that this is where it belongs, in the cold of today not the sunny warmth of Sicily.
In the poem it at first seems that the author is addressing the tree that she is planting but there are suggestions throughout the poem that the tree is a continuation of her lost son or that she is taking care of her son through the tree. This is first suggested with the care she takes to look after this tree ‘…laying you into is, carefully packing the soil.’ She uses words that have a connotation of tenderness; laying, carefully, as well as the use of multiple commas on the same line making it sound slower and softer. She refers to the tree using the inclusive pronoun ‘our’ (‘when our family is no more…’) and yet she refers to her son as ‘a first-born son’ suggesting that she has transferred the familiarity of her son and attached it to the tree now he is gone. She talks of how ‘We will give you what we can- our labour, our soil’ and we can imagine her taking care of this tree as she would a child, caring and nourishing, giving it as much as she can. The imagery of the tree, ‘a slender shot…’ suggest fragility and youth further encouraging that idea of a child.
A major theme in the poem is that of the cyclic and transient nature of life. The author sees the trees life as a replacement, a reincarnation almost, of her sons. In planting the tree it as if she is burying her son, coming to terms with his death and finding comfort in the new life that comes from this. She is literally burying her son, ‘wrapping in your roots a lock of hair, a piece of infants birth cord, All that remains above earth of a first born son…’ and this she sees as the end of her son as a person, he is moving on, ‘a few stray atoms brought back to the elements.’ . She mentions in the first stanza ‘the sky above us stayed the dull grey of an old year coming to an end.’ and again the weather echoing the situation, describing the sad sky to be of a year ‘coming to an end’ reflects her view that this is an ending. The weather again helps to strengthen this theme of new life from old with the fact that the tree shall be ‘bathed in western light…’ the light of the setting sun and, symbolically like a phoenix from the ashes, ‘…a slender shoot against the sunset.’
She finds comfort in that although her son is gone he will in a way live on past any of them, ‘silently keeping the secret of your birth.’ the secret that he is actually, or was once a child. She imagines that he is just returning to be part of nature, ‘a few stray atoms brought back to the elements.’ and that he is becoming part of the cycle that they all must be part of, herself included, ‘…his mother’s beauty ashes scattered in the air…’ and that one day she will join him. He is just joining this cycle earlier than the rest. At the same time as he has moved on from this life to become part of one that will outlast the people that remain part of fleeting human life for a bit longer and even future generations will seem ‘young and ephemeral…’ un-lasting and fleeting to him. She is comforting herself with the fact that he has become part of something much more stable and steady than her human life and that he has just become part of what is natural.
Although the author is filled with sadness at the death of her son she uses the poem as a device to come to terms with this and to comfort herself by presenting to the reader the idea that he is just a part of the same cycle that they are all part of and he is still present if in a different form. The very human emotion of sadness is one we can all understand and is presented to the reader in a subtle yet affecting way with the use of description of physical manifestations of emotions and ideas; the weather mirroring her emotions and the young tree growing from the atoms of the dead son as a symbol of the cyclic nature of life.
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