Embracing Earthen Roots, Book Review by Emily Wilson

Requiem for an Orchard by Olvier de La Paz

Manila-born and Oregon-raised poet Oliver de la Paz’s third collection of poetry, Requiem for the Orchard, reveals both his scientific understanding and literary interpretation of the world. Paz walks with the reader past sturdy apple trees of life’s orchard, literally and experientially. We are invited to stretch among the spring blossoms, to fall with the leaves as the seasons change – to remember that life, growth, death, and decay all give way to crisp apples weighing down branches for the harvest. We are asked to build an image of natural identity through a weaving requiem, studies of eschatology, and self-portraits of seemingly non-human circumstances (burning plains, taxidermy, what remains). Just shy of a decade old, this collection remains not only relevant but necessary; we share over half of our genetic makeup with our leaved brethren, and that matters.

In the opening poem, “In Defense of Small Towns,” the speaker describes the sleepy reality of growing up in a rural farm town: “When I look at it, it’s simple really. I hated life there” (1). The reverence for the speaker’s experiences and the slow and quiet beauty of a natural landscape will never leave him,

I shook loose, but that isn’t the whole story. The fact is
I’m still in love. And when I wake up, I watch my son yawn,
and my mind turns his upswept hair into cornstalks (26-8).

Hindsight is not pure, but laced with sugarcane and steeped in nostalgia. Paz prepares the reader to enter this quieter world, for a moment, to work in the orchard for pocket change, to cause a ruckus and grow with him through the darkness.  The first words of the collection’s namesake poem instantly conjure a memory,

The hours there, the spindled limbs and husks
of dead insects. The powders and the unguent
smells. What’s left now, of the orchards? (1-3)

Instantly we are transported between the rows of trees. Once congruent, this poem is broken up and spread out amongst the entire collection. Here, it is important to acknowledge and understand the complicated nature of plant growth; most notably in the resilience of spreading roots. This is to liken the “Requiem” poem, weaving within and among the surrounding pieces, to the stretching and fluid movement of a tree’s underground network. The growth of the speaker is palpable through small memories recalled in the pastime between work – shooting pellet guns becomes stolen tobacco becomes stolen flasks and skin magazines. The innocent work of boys becomes how to cheat the boss, how to do the least, how to become men – “It was stupid and we knew it” (68). The work on the orchard was not glamorous, and reverence for nature was not evident in boyhood. However, as Paz reflects, his respect and connection to these slow, hot days is evident.

Paz utilizes several eschatology poems to highlight the parallels between death and the human soul to nature and the cycle of growth. “Colony Collapse Disorder in Honey Bees as Eschatology” stands out in its spoken and unspoken iterations. The idea that honeybees are necessary in the aid of pollination, or growth, in the orchard is clear. Where the more interesting, and powerful message lies, is in the idea of the dispersal of the hive and the subsequent need for the apple trees to self-pollinate. Paz is able to strike the intricate balance of environmental and personal growth through this one eschatological discussion of the bees. Not to mention, the thought into where our human souls might disperse should we lose our personal ruler, “spreading over the landscape like oil” (31). Self-actualization and identity development are as much dependent on environmental circumstances as personal contribution.

It is in his reflection, through self-portrait poetry, that we are able to deepen our understanding of the experience and identity of the speaker. Paz bridges connections between human and experience by relating himself to inanimate specifics within a memory. In “Self-Portrait as a Series of Non-Sequential Lessons” the speaker seems to take one heaving breath and sigh out this entire realization. He speaks of scattered moments of growth, knowledge and failure, unrequited love, wives’ tales that “don’t do a damn thing except make a lot of goddamn noise,” (30) and eventually lands on the thought: “how little I know, how much I have to fear” (40). Lessons, of course, form identity. Paz acknowledges that the more one experiences the more they have to fear. Stepping outside the safe boundaries and confines of a small-town can rock the innocent or invincible instilled sensibilities while simultaneously opening a world of possibilities.

The collection ends with the “Self-Portrait with What Remains,” which opens with another recollection of the orchard. However, as the speaker continues, we are aware that this time, the remembering is weighted with a darker experience. This moment is tinted with the colorless and pungent memory of a hard time – an injured animal – and Paz uses the moment to call himself and the reader out, “the yellow birds stitched on his plush toy block / are not ghosts and that not everything is a metaphor” (29-30). There is something natural in the poet’s ability to call himself out without pulling himself out of the message. Of course everything is metaphor, this is a collection of poetry. Of course it is significant that he remembers this bird as he sees his son, as he recognizes the connection to earth in everything, as he realizes that “what remains are my son’s outstretched arms / wanting nothing more than to be held aloft” (41-2). This is the cycle alluded to throughout the collection, through death and experience is new life whether in physical blossoms or internal human growth.

We grow increasingly more distant from our natural roots with each passing year. We no longer set our roots physically but in the virtual realm of our manufactured, technological realities. With reflection on his own childhood, Paz allows us to sink our toes into tilled soil, to feel our own roots stretch out and search for life, real life. We weave around the rocks, we grow amongst the weeds, there is life in death and there is beauty in understanding and accepting that which makes us suffer. Paz invites the reader to swim in nostalgia for a town they have never known, to love a time to which they cannot return. Most importantly, Paz asks us to remember that we were born from the earth, and we will live and die amongst the trees.

Emily Wilson studied English at the College of Charleston. She now lives and writes in Jacksonville, driven by her passion for poetry and literary review.


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