The BEST: Birches

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The BEST: “Birches” by Robert Frost
Reviewed by Abe Mezrich

First read Robert Frost, “Birches” (1915) here.

Summary: This is a poem about a man who sees birch trees and is reminded of all that can happen. In one scenario, the trees are weighted down by ice storms—glass from the sky that clings to the trees too heavily. For the trees buckled below the ice, the storm is a kind of life sentence: once they are bowed / So low for long, they never right themselves. In a second scenario, the trees are softly brought to the ground by a young boy – a boy like the poem’s narrator used to be – who rides the trees gently and lets them sway back up. 

The poem continues to think through the extremities of trees and life: when the world brings you down; when we are snatch[ed] away / Not to return; and the careful, hard work of holding that midpoint of possibility—what comes when you take the same pains you use to fill a cup / Up to the brim, and even above the brim. 

Why this is The BEST: When I studied “Birches” in college, we were told the poem was a metaphor for Frost’s agnosticism. That could be correct, although Frost’s own religious convictions were famously hard to pin down. But for our Jewish community, I think that celebration of that middle point, the going to the brim and just beyond but never further— is a place where we can feel fully at home. It is Moses running up and down Sinai as Hashem gives the Torah; it is us in the kedusha mimicking angels as hovering between rising and falling. It’s also the constant play—like a child’s game—of Talmud, the millennia-long cacophony of Rabbis shouting across ages and continents, tugging this way and that. 

Towards the end of the poem, the narrator tells us he hopes not to die early because earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better. There are no mitzvot after death, the Talmud says (Berakhot 18a). And of course Moses’ great punishment in the end is that he is left stuck on a mountaintop with God, when everyone he loves and wants to be with is down below. Life offers the constant threats of being pulled to the ground and up to the sky—places of terror and bliss in equal measure, precisely because they represent the extremities, the finality, of all that is. But the extremities aren’t where we hope to be. We, the Children of Israel—an old nation that are children too—are perhaps better suited to the worldview of this poem, which is a worldview of play. Or in the poem’s own words: That would be good both going and coming back.

And why wouldn’t that be better? As the narrator tells us at the poem’s close: One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Abe Mezrich is a poet and essayist. His second collection, Between the Mountain and the Land is the Lesson, is a series of poems on Bamidbar and Devarim.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series. Click here for an earlier examination of Robert Frost’s poetry in “The BEST.”

[Published on September 3, 2020]

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