“The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall” by Mimi Mondal (6094 words)
No Spoilers: A woman, a member of a forest folk who live much of their lives in trees, accompanies her son to a city when the land they were living on was sold out from under them. City living doesn’t really suit her son, though, and soon she has to decide what to do with herself, and how to survive when the city seems a hostile place indeed to live. The story unfolds a bit like a tree, growing upward though not without complication. Where it finds resistance and blockage, it bends around, further and further from its roots. Despite how far it must grow to find what light and sustenance it can manage, though, it’s always connected back to its base, to that place among the trees that exists only in memories. It carries with it a deep patience and strength, and the beauty that, from that waiting and quiet yearning and surviving, can finally blossom.
Keywords: Migration, Trees, Cooking, Climbing, Family, Separation
Review: I love how this story deals quietly and intimately with the main character and how life takes her away from everything that is familiar—away from the forest and the family/community that she new, aware from way of life that made more sense to her, away from even her own name, which no one really calls her once she moves with her son to the city. And how, displaced, she must seek to find a way to move forward, seeing as how everything backward has been cut off. It’s a story to me very much about going with the flow of life, seeking to live and to find small ways to get by but not obsessing about wealth or about meaning. The main character, who it turns out is named Parmila, is not interested in much. What she wants, to be among the trees, is both free and not available for any price. She cannot live the way she wants, and she has already lost a husband, then loses her son, and what remains is to move forward, not sure of what to hope for, but sure at least that she doesn’t want to die. She takes up cooking, and through that is able to find some borderland of meaning, where she can feed people and do something people enjoy. But it’s lonely, and it’s not something she can do forever. And it seems to me to be a story about not betraying yourself in a rush to get something you’re not sure of. Parmila is calm, and collected, and moves with growing confidence but mostly with a growing knowledge that she’s an old tree that hasn’t been cut down. That’s still there. And that she is still strong, not in all the obvious ways but in the ways that sinks her roots where she can, and refuses to give in to despair. It’s a touching, wonderful read!
“Penelope’s Body, Looming” by Penny Stirling
To me, this poem plays with and twists the romantic image of Penelope (of The Odyssey) in order to reveal the great pressure put on people to fit into neat roles and, in the case of some people, erase and suppress themselves for the benefit of those who have power over them. The poem revises the reality of Penelope’s dutifulness, making their situation much more complicated than the one traditionally depicted in the story. Here they weave day and night, yes. But there’s another layer to their actions, another layer to the weight pressing down on them, threatening to consume them. And it is that they are not a wife at all, are not a woman, and so this action, this playing the part for the benefit of their husband, is harmful in ways deep and disquieting. What before was a romantic gesture and act of self-preservation, with Penelope trying to hold onto her own autonomy (through staying faithful to Odysseus’ place over her) becomes something that to me reads different. Because there’s the core question of why they are doing this. Out of love for a husband that might accept them? There’s little to say whether or not Odysseus knows about their true identity or embraces it. So for me I’m left with the feeling that this isn’t something they do for love, but out of obligation and expectation. That they have become used to not expressing themself, to not being open about who they are, to bending to how others want them to be. Because of the danger involved. The weaving and unweaving are a way of staying stuck in the pattern of maintaining the illusion and cover that they are a woman. And I love that the poem takes them to a place that maybe they will break that cycle. It’s perhaps not a sure thing, because the poem questions if it will happen tomorrow, not today. But it seems like it’s coming close, the time when they will finally refuse to be the person in the story everyone assumes they are. To inhabit fully their own power and refuse to play the games forced on them because everyone assumes they’re a woman. It’s an interesting poem very much worth spending some time with!
“Questions on Re-Reading Oz” by Jane Yolen
There’s a lot to this poem for me in particular because I’ve gone back and re-read the Oz books (or a number of them) well into adulthood. Though perhaps my experience in doing so is rather different than the one I feel is depicted in this poem, which finds the quasi-portal fantasy to be flat and thin, the dialog gray, the experience not the same as the one remembered. And I like the way that this poem challenges nostalgia, or at least reveals the sort of shock that comes from revisiting things that were important when you were young and finding that what you liked back then, what you in fact needed back then to cope with the pressures of being young and dealing with stuff...wasn’t all that good. And finding that your relationship to it has changed, that you identify with other characters, that you notice things that you didn’t. And that sometimes there just isn’t as deep a well as you wanted. At least, I feel like the poem is rather disappointed with this return to Oz. It feels like the narrator wanted more to come back to, something to justify their nostalgia. And that’s such a complex thing, because as kids people often find themselves latching onto things that just...aren’t all that good. But that are there, and that perhaps act as a canvas onto which the children can project something useful. And they can get something out of something mediocre. And there’s perhaps an added disappointment at work here that the narrator hadn’t found something that was better. That there didn’t _exist_ things that were better. And that, coming back, it seems part of that belies the corruption the poem gets to in the end, that nostalgia excuses shoddy storytelling, and that unless we cast a critical eye back, we might be complicit in passing along yet more meh stories to the newer generations. And I have tons of opinions on that, but for now I will say that it’s a quick poem and one that definitely worth checking out!