Requiem for the Orchard by Oliver de la Paz | The University of Akron Press 2010 | $14.95
Oliver de la Paz’s third collection, Requiem for the Orchard, is a poignant reminder of both our inability to escape our pasts and our ability to re-write our histories through what we choose to remember. The pieces in this collection are interconnected by the speaker, a young man reflecting on his disenchanted youth. Part meditation on the ways our experiences inform who we are today, part meditation on the ways we cannot shed those experiences despite our efforts, the collection centers around the speaker’s youth spent in a small Oregonian town where he worked a summer job in the orchards.
De la Paz’s tone is often deceptively simple and conversational, as he considers the complex love-hate relationship of the speaker with his hometown as well as the realization that the hate of his youth has dissipated into fond memories. The first poem, “In Defense of Small Towns”, opens with, “When I look at it, it’s simple, really. I hated life there.” Later in the same poem he writes, “But I loved the place once.” As the collection progresses, the reader begins to get deeper glimpses into the process of self-discovery that accompanies the process of reminiscing. In “Self-Portrait as the Burning Plains of Eastern Oregon” he writes: “A blacked-out soda can. Maybe a plastic lid fused to stone. A refusal / to forget childhood’s scald. But also a kind of forgiveness.” As the speaker remembers his childhood, even as he previously resented or denied it, he finds some forgiveness for himself. By the last poem, “Self-Portrait with What Remains”, the speaker reflects on what has stayed with him:
And this? This is what’s left—my night coughs. Slips of news
clippings from the old town sent in the mail. The know-how
of tractor management. Now, where once resided
acrimony for youth’s black seed—nothing except a single wing
opening and closing and opening again to catch the wind.
De la Paz shows that what lasts through time may not be what we expect, but may instead be the mundane or everyday, and that the speaker’s bitterness has disappeared as he reaches peace with his past. His descriptions of his youth are factual and concrete; the absence that now replaces his anger is beautifully captured in the image of the flapping wing. But to reach this acceptance the speaker must also mourn what is gone. Throughout the collection are a number of poems entitled “Requiem” that truly sing of loss. Although they are ostensibly about the loss of the orchards, they powerfully capture the loss of youth itself. One of these opens with a series of questions that succinctly show the way the loss of the orchards is intertwined with the loss of youth, how the memories for one are tied with memories of the other: “Where lie the open acre and all limns? Where the shade / and what edges? What serrated blades and what cuts? / Where are we, leather-skinned, a spindle of nerves / and frayed edges? What spare parts are we now / who have gone to the orchard and outlasted / the sun and the good boots?” (page 71).
De la Paz’s speaker looks to the future toward the end of the collection, inspired in part from the birth of his son — he wants to preserve his son’s youth as much as he wanted to escape his own. While the poems of his own youth show an irreverence and contempt for childhood and hunger to grow into a man, those that include his son’s youth celebrate childhood’s carefree wonder and and lament the irrevocable loss of innocence that accompanies growing up. Ultimately, as he so lyrically describes in the last section of “Autumn Songs in Four Variations”, the promises we make to ourselves when we are young are heightened in the imagining of what promises will be made, kept, and broken for our children:
There are things that you do not yet understand:
how Stellar Jay’s look after each other—
which is a kind of love—that there can be song
in a city eating itself from the inside, that memory
is what reminds to be said but it cannot be set
to the strings of an orchestra or passed
from one mouth to the next like a breath.
There is no space wider than that of grief,
there is no universe like that which bleeds.
May you never inhabit that universe. May you have
the world of toys. Any may you hear, in these letters
I sing to you, the rustle of leaves and the possibility of opera,
softly over the tumult of everything.
One of de la Paz’s most striking abilities is his skill for observing absence: the absence of the orchards from his youth, but also his own absence from his past. But absence also surfaces much more subtly through his work. In “Meditation with Smoke and Flowers” he describes the wild tiger lilies: “how they clump together, their stems bent down from the weight / of their flowers. How mouth-like they are, and how / their speechlessness makes the road quieter. Each flower is a surprise,”. This observation heightens the absence of sound, the emptiness of the flowers’ “mouths” echoing the same longing for the now-emptied orchards. He also observes the nonexistent or the unknown, what is missed because it no longer exists or never existed anywhere except in our imaginations. In “No One Sleeps Through the Night” he writes, “And no one sings. Nobody is opening the gate / or driving the car”. Part of mourning is accepting something has been lost, that there is an absence that cannot be replaced. The absence remind us that what exists in our memories may not exist anywhere else.
Looking back, the speaker suggests history is something that cannot be regained but which also cannot be forgotten. The poems are tinged with longing even as they acknowledge a lack of appreciation for the events as they were actually occurring in the past. This collection explores the space of imagined reality and beautifully reminds us that in the end our pasts are what we choose to remember, record, and share.