Carving Fresh Initials on the World Tree
by David Wojahn
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011
In Paleolithic cave art, alongside the bison, aurochs, deer, and horses, a recurring motif is the outline of a human hand. It’s easy to imagine the shamanic significance of animal shapes to a society of hunters, and how animal paintings might have figured in religious rituals, eerily spanning the dimly lit chamber in a flicker of torchlight. But then imagine the ancient artist, before the tribe has gathered, putting aside his charcoal crayon or horsehair brush, chewing lumps of an ochre-rich clay, and spitting it in bursts through a narrow reed, to create a fine mist of color capturing the silhouette of his hand against the wall. Was it a kind of signature? Among the figurative art, these ghostly handprints endure, anonymous yet unmistakably personal traces left behind in a cave that might have been used by generation after generation, for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years.
In his richly textured new collection, World Tree, the poet David Wojahn fuses the imagery of the cave paintings, and of those elusive handprints, with scenes drawn from his own biographical past and pains, contemporary politics and news, daily domestic life, and a torrent of literary and pop culture references. He weaves it all together into a kaleidoscopic meditation on life, death, and the human instinct to leave some mark, to make some artistic statement, as well as the corresponding effort (however vexed) to preserve some trace of those who are gone.
Wojahn writes from the perspective of a middle-class man, cresting middle age, alive in early twenty-first-century America. He writes as a husband, a father of two young children, a homeowner, a citizen, a teacher, an air traveler, a web surfer, a consumer of news and music and pictures. He observes the busy world with a knowing, slightly mocking, slightly pained and disillusioned sensibility, whether he’s cataloging his day’s errands:
Danoff, David. 2011. Carving Fresh Initials on the World Tree. Tikkun 26(3).