Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review of The Tree That Time Built by Mary Ann Hoberman

Hoberman, Mary Ann and Linda Winston, compilers. The Tree That Time Built: a celebration of nature, science, and imagination. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2009.

Mary Ann Hoberman is one of those writers who, in my opinion, can do no wrong. From her own collections of poetry (such as A Fine Fat Pig and Other Animal Poems and her series of two-person poetry books that began with You Read to Me, I'll Read to You) to her jaunty rhyming picture books (my younger daughter and I spent hours and hours reading and re-reading The Seven Silly Eaters) to her recent middle-grade novel (the excellent Strawberry Hill), our U.S. Children's Poet Laureate is always at the top of her game. Linda Winston, with whom I wasn't familiar before reading this anthology, is an experienced teacher, writer, and cultural anthropologist.

Together, they have compiled an anthology of poems, old and new, that explore the natural world. Beginning with a section called "Oh, Fields of Wonder," readers experience the curiosity, delight, and awe that both poets and scientists feel when contemplating life on earth - not only such classic writers as William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson but also Langston Hughes, Lilian Moore, Eve Merriam, and more. From there, we are led on a poetical tour of the sea and seaside, trees and plants, reptiles and amphibians, bugs and insects, flying creatures, other animals, and finally a section called "Hurt No Living Thing" that deals with humankind's often problematic relationship with animals and the natural world.

The list of poets is a roll call of luminaries - T.S. Eliot, May Swenson, X.J. Kennedy, Christina Rossetti, Dylan Thomas, Jelaluddin Rumi, Rainer Maria Rilke, Valerie Worth, Douglas Florian, and on and on. Not only does each section have an introduction that gives the reader some background, some context, or even just a telling anecdote, but many poems also include a small note about the poem, poet, or topic that enhance both a reader's knowledge and enjoyment. Tiny drawings decorate some of the poems, like the realistic bugs that crawl around Every Insect by Dorothy Aldis.

Most of the poems are rather short - only a very few are longer than a page, and many are no more than a few stanzas long. They lend themselves to being enjoyed at random (just open up the book and dip in), but they are even stronger when read as part of their sections - somehow, putting them within a larger context makes each poem resonate all the more. And read from cover to cover, ending with Mary Ann Hoberman's The Tree That Time Built, this anthology as a whole is something of a powerful call to arms - because we are an integral part of the world, we have a responsibility toward it that we cannot shirk:

Do not fret
And do not doubt.
You are in time.
You can't fall out.

No matter what
You say or do,
You are in time.
Time is in you.

And everything
That is to be
Will be in time
Upon this tree.

The book includes a CD with 55 tracks, mostly readings of the poems by the poets themselves, other artists, or one of the compilers. As Hoberman and Winston note in the introduction, poems are meant to be read aloud. The sound varies from track to track, with some sounding very soft, but it is a treat to hear Hoberman and others reading their own poems. I can see this as a lovely CD to listen to in the car, but I imagine its best application will be in classrooms, where teachers can play them to students. Not every poem in the book is on the CD - but the book clearly notes the track on which selected poems can be heard, as well as who reads them.

Adding to the general usefulness and classiness of this anthology are a glossary of both scientific ("adaptation") and poetic ("assonance") terms, suggestions for further reading and research, short biographies of all the poets and compilers, and permissions.

This is a scrumptious offering that makes a feast for teachers, scientists, poetry lovers, and kids of all ages. Highly recommended.

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