‘Speaking Tree’ by Joy Harjo describes how the poet senses and understands the natural world, her place in it, and the place of all living things.
The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that there are some things she finds impossible to think about. These are broken lifelines, genealogies, and losses. As an example, she cites brewing coffee without anyone to drink it. Taking the poem wider, Harjo considers the losses of the natural world and the conversations some people are and are not having with trees.
Those who are like her, have learned to speak tree. If one listens closely they can hear the trees in their joyous and most desperate moments. Harjo expresses her desire to become one of these sentient beings, rooted in the same spot from sunrise to sunset. By the end of the poem the desire is reversed and it is the trees who seek out a new realm, one of knowledge and movement.
Harjo also makes use of several other poetic techniques. These include alliteration, enjambment, personification and zoomorphism. The first on this list, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “deepest-rooted” and “dream” in line fifteen and “drink,” “deep” and “drinkable” in line twenty-one.
Personification and zoomorphism are similar. The first occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, when Harjo speaks of trees being able to sing and utilize their senses as a human being would. Zoomorphism is the exact opposite. It occurs when a writer gives animal characteristics to humans. Harjo comes close to utilizing this technique in its full in the middle of the poem as she describes herself as “a woman longing to be a tree, planted in moist, dark earth”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. Harjo consistently uses dashes at the end of her lines. There is no single reason for this choice, but in many instances, the dash emphasizes the enjambed line. For example, the transition between lines six and seven as a reader is finding out what “Some humans” do and do not understand.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Speaking Tree
I had a beautiful dream I was dancing with a tree.
But they do not understand poetry —
Harjo begins this work with an epigraph or a short quote or phrase at the start of a poem or book. In this case, she quotes Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros. The quote is very closely related to the content of Speaking Tree. Both Cisneros and Harjo express an interest in the lives of trees and what it means to connect with nature.
When the poem text begins, Harjo starts a list of things that are “unspeakable”. These things all belong to the “genealogy of the broken”, or a line of descent that has been interrupted. First, the reader will think about human lives and loss. Harjo emphasizes this association through the description of “the smell of coffee and no one there”. This scene speaks to loneliness and solitude. Someone who should be present isn’t. She also personifies the wind as another representative of broken genealogies. It is “shy” and moving through leaves “after a massacre”. Harjo is interested in the silence that’s left behind.
In the fifth line, she makes another statement, this time addressing the fact that,
Some humans say trees are not sentient beings,
This is certainly a true statement and Harjo’s own position on it is made clear in the next line. She says that those who disregard the sentience of trees, “do not understand poetry”. These two things go hand in hand, not just that the trees and poetry are connected, but that trees are poetry.
She adds these some people are unable to “hear the singing of trees”. They sing out loud when they “are fed by / Wind, or water music—“ these elements of the natural world are also connected to the poetic life force that flows through trees. The trees are stimulated and made even more vibrant by their interaction with other elements.
Nor can they hear the singing of trees when they are fed by
I cannot walk through all realms —
In the next lines of ‘Speaking Tree’ Harjo goes on to list off something else that “Some people” are incapable of understanding, from singing to crying in anguish. These same people are can’t see the beauty and value in trees, nor intuit their “broken and bereft” moments.
It is quite easy to relate these lines to our contemporary world and way in which the majority of the human race has, and does, treat the planet. Considerations of non-human life and the worth it has, separate from what it can do for humanity, are at the root of the issue.
Harjo goes on to speak about herself. She says that she is very different from these other people. She is,
a woman longing to be a tree, planted in a moist, dark earth
Between sunrise and sunset—
Harjo sees, hears, and feels their value and has even contemplated what it would be like to give up her human life for one more physically connected to the earth. She would reside in the same spot, from “sunrise” to “sunset”. This cannot happen, and to that end, she admits that she can’t move through all the “realms”. There’s no way to completely understand or experience the lives of other beings on the planet. She has a “yearning” she says is impossible to handle alone in the dark.
From these lines, it is clear she feels alone in her emotional, physical, and spiritual experience. She asks the reader a rhetorical question about where all her heartache is supposed to go or what action she could take to relieve the pain she carries for the world.
I carry a yearning I cannot bear alone in the dark —
Imagine what would it be like to dance close together
In this land of water and knowledge. . .
To drink deep what is undrinkable.
In the next section of ‘Speaking Tree’ Harjo takes on a tree’s perspective. While she wants to stay rooted in the same place, she thinks that the trees carry dreams of being able to,
Even just a little ways, from the place next to the doorway—
They would like to travel to the “edge of the river of life, and drink”. While this is meant to be a statement about the trees, it is applicable to the speaker herself and her desire to draw closer and come to a better understanding of the other “realms”.
Utilizing personification again, Harjo adds that she has “heard trees talking, long after the sun has gone down”. Through close looking, care, and understanding she has learned to speak tree, as the title suggests. The next lines convey their words to the reader.
The trees discuss among themselves, as they are rooted to the same spot, what it would be “like to dance close together / In this land of water and knowledge”. They seek that which humans have, the ability to move and physically interact with one another. The trees are stymied in their quest to enter into realms separate from their own. They can’t reach the “undrinkable” drink of a different kind of life.