For years, I've nodded my head when Lorca’s name came up in poetry circles, but the truth is I am much more familiar with his plays, specifically Blood Wedding, and his essay on duende than his poems. But now I am venturing in. Here are some thoughts on his poem Song of the Barren Orange Tree.

Song of the Barren Orange Tree
(translated by W.S. Merwin)
Cut my shadow from me.
Free me from the torment
of seeing myself without fruit.
Why was I born among mirrors?
The day walks in circles around me,
and the night copies me
in all its stars.
I want to live without seeing myself,
and I will dream that ants
and thistleburrs are my
leaves and my birds.
Cut my shadow from me.
Free me from the torment
of seeing myself without fruit.
The poem is in the voice of a barren orange tree. In the first stanza, the human-sounding orange tree addresses a woodcutter. The tree isn’t begging to be cut down though, which is what a woodcutter could realistically do. The tree isn’t suicidal. The tree is begging the woodcutter to amputate its shadow, which constantly makes the tree see its reality in stark terms: it’s a mess of useless scrawny branches without leaves and fruit. The tree’s biggest problem isn’t its predicament, but rather its awareness of the predicament. The tree is lusting for self-ignorance.
The notion that a shadow could be cut off like an appendage is enchanting. One definition of a shadow is a region where light is blocked. Ironically the barren tree sees itself most clearly in shadow. Often a shadow is a symbol for the unconscious, but here the shadow illuminates reality, it is like an alarm clock that keeps waking the tree out of its dream-like slumber.
In the second stanza, we see the tree’s oppressive self-consciousness. The tree sees itself everywhere, and not in a good way. “The day walks in circles around me”. We see the sun arcing through the sky, making the tree’s shadow move across the ground. We also get the sense that the day is hunting the tree, stalking it, making it claustrophobically dizzy.
In the third stanza, we see that the tree, via its imagination, could possibly bear the weight of its predicament; without a shadow, the tree could pretend that the bugs scavenging along its meager limbs were pulsating signs of life and not evidence of its uselessness.
The fourth stanza is a repetition of the first. Even though only eight lines separate the two stanzas, it doesn’t feel the same. The second time around the lines resonate more. We inflect them differently; they come out slower, even as we read it to ourselves.
One of the joys the poem delivers is the way it works on multiple levels. We can read it as a poem in the voice of a melancholy tree, or we can read the tree’s voice as a metaphor for a childless woman in 1920’s rural Spain, perhaps addressing god. This gives the poem emotional depth. But the poem resonates beyond the limits of the unable-to-bear-children metaphor. The poem makes an argument for the necessity of self-delusion. Don’t we all need certain psychic blind spots to survive?
Should there be a day, a national holiday perhaps, National Blind-spot Day, where you go around telling people things that they don’t know about themselves?

Originally Published: March 15th, 2007

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...

  1. June 28, 2008
     Tree Planter

    This is a great blog! and yes planting trees is very important for the future of the planet. Keep up the good work!

  2. July 18, 2009

    I interpreted this as a gay man coming to terms with his sexuality and being seen as wrong and unnatural, which I think is fitting considering we now know Lorca was homosexual and in love with Salvadaor Dali - he wants the shadow he is casting to the world to be cut off, so he cannot see what society is reflecting back to him, and also, if the shadow isn't there, he perhaps doesn't have to come to terms with the reality of his situation. He knows what is deep inside of him - his innate orientation is there, in his blindspot, but the shadow makes it real and opens him up to judgement. I think it's quite possibly one of Lorca's best.