An erasure poem of R. Sanford Martin’s How to Prune Fruit Trees, Frank Montesonti’s Hope Tree (title an erasure of Martin’s title—see cover picture above) is interested in growth, procedure and wonder at accepted societal constraints. This is not merely a cute pruning of an instruction manual, but an investigation on humanity through precise cutting.
The opening page illustrates how Montesonti snipped words away. A single page of Martin’s text is present with the bold chosen words which appear in the subsequent page harboring only those words and blank space. Already the question forms concerning word choice: were words erased or chosen first? By definition, it may be assumed that erasure is the primary function of this type of poetry, yet quality erasure poetry is judged only on what is available on the page. Thus, the argument for choice to provide growth through deletion prevails. Perhaps this is too bold a statement, for as Montesonti points out, “There are no set rules” (44). Still earlier, he acknowledges his presence as writer/constructor: “The writer has witnessed // this book is devoted to / average / instructions / confined to methods” (18). All this to say that indeed there are agreed upon methods to erasure poetry, but they are not as strict as many other formal poetics.
With this in mind Montesonti chooses to direct the content toward humanity through the careful selection of procedural tree pruning. Much of this direction is highly successful. Although there are a few small sections I was unable to follow, I am not Frank, we are not the same person or tree. These sections did not subdue my pleasure in following the trajectory of training. In fact, because the original manuscript by Martin is not specific to a single climate, there are varied approaches to when and how pruning a fruit tree is most successful. Thus, as Montesonti suggests, there is not one appropriate way to live. Although this is not blatantly stated, many passages defy logic and expectation: “Remember that / for many years, / the coarse / frameworks / may be very beautiful // as they // choke off the circulation” (32). Beauty by death or progress through removal, when related to the human form becomes something else entirely. The relation to humanity is subtle, but present: “the young / erect and slender to open and spreading. / Observe your particular tree” (11).
Scattered throughout the book are drawings which interpret the original sketches in Martin’s book. These drawings too do not provide in-depth understanding, yet are intricate. It is through the repetition and accumulation of text and drawings that the reader pieces together the disparate meanings. Because there is ample white space, one may read a page as standalone or a continuing section for several pages. There are cues given to the reader on how to read much of the work (headings, bold titles, end word on a page), though there are times when the space provides the break in flow and movement to another thought or description. Also, the drawings are not spaced evenly throughout, thus sometimes they will break up a would-be continuance (though the reader decides what page to look at). This pace is in place to let the reader consider the ideas and images presented, to not rush through the book.
It is through this precise ordering that Montesonti achieves depth. He grows his own tree through words that are hopeful, in that they express the opportunities available to each person. This is a training manual of an entirely different breed. Instead of following a step-by-step list to improvement, the reader is given many concepts to mull over. This book demands attention be paid to placement of words and space, as well as, why a procedure is followed only to its most useful point: “few / will stand, and be better for it // this must be thoroughly understood.” (57). How does one navigate the system of expectations inherent in civilized living? There is a science to most organisms including properties that enhance and detract from optimum functioning. Should we follow the trusted path to greatest fruition or would it be better to attempt an unorthodox existence? These choices are not clear regardless of intelligence or study: “ornamental / our gardens today / if not usually ignored. // only / the dead / noticed.” (75).
Overall, this amazing book plants itself securely in poetry (great line breaks, subtle rhyme, sneaky sibilance) while challenging the convention of manual learning: “consider / the dead / crossing branches, / rubbing one another // in an overcrowded manner. / This cutting / into the main body // from old age or disease // become too tall for convenient picking,” (62). Simplicity in understanding oneself and how to proceed through life is not as easy as training implies. One can train themselves to do one thing and re-train themselves later to do another. Is continually pruning trees through intervention and sometimes questionable procedures the proper care needed to grow? Maybe it is best for each of us to inspect ourselves; that we each thrive in different environments. Maybe we should look fear in the mouth and smile (knowingly or unknowingly). Any way a reader decides to absorb this book is alright. However, Montesonti might advise: “The main thing to remember / is that / though one summer / will not set another / will appear” (23).
Hope Tree is available from Black Lawrence Press
Matthew Schmidt is pursuing a MFA at the University of Arizona. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Asinine Poetry, Down in the Dirt and Eye On Life.