Sunday, August 23, 2009

What's in the beautiful poem "Bonsai"? (An alternative way of interpreting Edith K. Tiempo's poem - for Literature Lovers:)

The speaker in Edith Tiempo’s poem begins by presenting an image of feeling secure by keeping things that she holds dear. In the second stanza, however, she starts to question this attitude of keeping earthly things. In the third stanza, she explicitly mentions that keeping earthly things is an absolute self-gratification. This questioning leads directly into the last stanza, where she implores the readers to share (hand over) material (breathless) things of their control to the needy (merest child) as all material things are but temporary but life and love are real. The obvious tension in this poem is between a sense of materialism and an idea of spirituality. “Bonsai” clearly amounts to more than just questioning the exaltation of keeping material things. It is dealing with more general questions of what we cling on to and what may unsettle us in life.

The first stanza is telling us how good it makes the speaker feel to keep little and foldable things in a box deliberately. The opening images create a sense of security for the speaker. It is not just the images she chose but also the simplicity and regularity of the opening lines, particularly the sense of balance of her monosyllabic lines (Lines 1 and 2). Line 1 and 3 are made up of 4 syllables while 2 and 4 are made up of 5. Moreover, the word “once” is repeated twice (line 3 and 4) in the same stanza and in successive lines showing the intensity of her love for doing such a thing as keeping something.
All that I love
I fold over once
And once again
And keep in a box.

The second stanza, however, repeats the first line in the first stanza but this time the speaker uses a question mark and the question word “why” in the second line. The tension is presented in these structures where the speaker in the first stanza presented a sense of contentment and security in the things she keeps. It is where the tension is introduced because the proposition she begins with in the first stanza is now contradicted in the attitude she presents in the opening of the second stanza:
All that I love?
Why, yes, but for the moment-
And for all time, both.

Then she goes on to name the things she loves to keep. Naming or labeling in literature implies an idea that if we can name the world then we can control it. Then, we begin to think about the kind of order that people create in life (Peck and Coyle, 1995). How this kind of order she wants to create is particularly noticeable in the way she describes the things she names:
Son’s note or Dad’s one gaudy tie,
A roto picture of a queen,
A blue Indian shawl, even
A money bill.

All the things she enumerates are modified (gaudy tie, roto picture, blue Indian shawl, money bill) except the first one – son’s note. If we take a look into the commonality of the modifiers she uses, we can come up with an impression she is trying to create. All these words suggest “showiness”. The first object she names standing alone without a modifier suggests that it’s the only thing worth keeping as it is not as gaudy a possession as the rest. It is the only thing mentioned that does not have a monetary value. It is also interesting to note that shawl here has two modifiers: blue and Indian. Blue as a distinctive color represents excellence and royalty while Indian cloth (from which the shawl is made), particularly silk is considered as one of the world’s finest. The meaning of the “blue Indian” shawl is therefore tied up parallel with “gaudy” (showy) because if we take note, both tie and shawl are being worn to be shown. Furthermore, son’s note which is more generally kept is drawn parallel against Dad’s one gaudy tie which is generally worn. These contrasting objects she first mentions and those that followed with monetary value lead the speaker to question (all the things that I love?) their meaning to her. The theme of the poem is also brought to life by her mentioning of only one object worth keeping (the one she mentions first) but it can also suggest that even the son’s note itself is meaningless except for what it says which can be kept in her heart.

The speaker becomes more explicit of presenting her case in the third stanza. She now depicts the attitude of self-exaltation and gratification in keeping earthly things when in fact it is an attitude we can control if our heart so desires:
It’s utter sublimation,
A feat this heart’s control
She goes on further to suggest that as this fascination of vainly collecting earthly things goes on, it tends to diminish the true meaning of love.
Moment to moment
To scale all love down
To a cupped hand’s size
This is the part of the poem which relates directly to its title. Bonsai refers to a plant which is dwarfed or controlled to render more beauty to its beholder. In the context of this poem, however, it is an irony presented. Bonsai here is “scaling down all love” which could mean that we control our hearts from giving what we can give, making our hearts so small. It’s therefore contrary to the idea of making a bonsai which needs to be trimmed, to be cut its main root in order to show its beauty just like sharing what we can share to make our life worth living.

The last stanza concludes the poem by presenting an imagery of destruction of earthly things and the implied security religion offers. While nature (seashells) presented in the first line here shows human destruction, the second line shows the redemptive power of God during the judgment day (bright teeth):
Till seashells are broken pieces
From God’s own bright teeth,

The use of metaphors (till seashells are broken pieces/ from God’s own bright teeth) tells us that all things in this world including humans will come to an end and in the end we will be judged according to our deeds. The imagery presented about God in the second line (From God’s own bright teeth) evokes a scary feeling on God’s authority. It seems to warn the readers that being preoccupied with earthly things is vain and dangerous. The last three lines thus implore the readers to share what they can to those who are in need (the merest child in this poem) to make their life meaningful because life and love are real considering the associated promised second life after the judgment. It is with God’s authority to redeem those who have done good deeds and, of course, trusting in His divine mercy and grace:
And life and love are real
Things you can run and breathless hand over
To the merest child.

Life on earth is but temporary and whatever we cling on (things we can run or control because they are breathless or lifeless) will all be lost. Notice further the temporariness presented by the author by making the first stanza into five lines but then such temporary happiness brought about by material things is disrupted by the irregularity of the second and the third. Then she goes back to five lines in the fourth (last) stanza but this time she conveys the resolution of the conflict/tension. This poem tells us that the things we hold dear may give us happiness and security but the happiness and security they offer are but temporal yet life on earth is so short. Like the implied meaning of the title of this poem, it takes some sacrifice and pain for the bonsai to be trimmed and to be cut off of its main root in order for it to show its real beauty. Indeed, it is not easy to give up what we hold so dear for the sake of others but as the poem suggests it can make our life sublime like the bonsai.

(P.S. Compare this alternative interpretation with that found at: and you will see that various interpretations may arise so that every Literature teacher should be aware of this. This was submitted as a requirement in EN217 at ADMU.)


Anonymous said...

Excellent review! Now I understand the poem. The first time I read it, I was like 'What the hell is this?', but when I read your review, I really understood it. :)

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