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Barbara Myers on Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Dark Pines Under Water”

(How Poems Work, December 2004)
“Dark Pines Under Water” is a celebrated poem, one rich in symbolism and metaphor, often anthologized and justly so. What is this land that’s “like a mirror?” Is it Canada? It could be the earth itself–or a symbol for earthly life, the depths of human consciousness. A search on the Internet finds the poem claimed equally on a site about the boreal forest and one celebrating “Dreams, Wonders and Adventures Phantasmagorical.” …
MacEwen wrote these lines and published them in her award-winning collection, The Shadow-Maker in 1969, around the same time other Canadian writers (notably Margaret Atwood in Survival) were delving into Canadian consciousness and a national cultural identity. It’s possible that “this land” stands as much for Canada as for an individual persona….

“Dark Pines Under Water” is a celebrated poem, one rich in symbolism and metaphor, often anthologized and justly so. What is this land that’s “like a mirror?” Is it Canada? It could be the earth itself–or a symbol for earthly life, the depths of human consciousness. A search on the Internet finds the poem claimed equally on a site about the boreal forest and one celebrating “Dreams, Wonders and Adventures Phantasmagorical.”
MacEwen wrote these lines and published them in her award-winning collection, [_The Shadow-Maker_], in 1969, around the same time other Canadian writers (notably Margaret Atwood in Survival) were delving into Canadian consciousness and a national cultural identity. It’s possible that “this land” stands as much for Canada as for an individual persona…


“Dark Pines Under Water” is a celebrated poem, one rich in symbolism and metaphor, often anthologized and justly so. What is this land that’s “like a mirror?” Is it Canada? It could be the earth itself–or a symbol for earthly life, the depths of human consciousness. A search on the Internet finds the poem claimed equally on a site about the boreal forest and one celebrating “Dreams, Wonders and Adventures Phantasmagorical.”
MacEwen wrote these lines and published them in her award-winning collection, [_The Shadow-Maker_], in 1969, around the same time other Canadian writers (notably Margaret Atwood in Survival) were delving into Canadian consciousness and a national cultural identity. It’s possible that “this land” stands as much for Canada as for an individual persona.
“Dark pines” unfolds in a sequential way: beginning with surfaces and reflection, moving under water, then going deeper with each stanza, into the elemental depths. If we were to rely solely on the denotative value of syntax and to parse this poem at the level of dictionary definitions, we’d soon be frustrated. To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, a poem should resist meaning almost successfully.
Notice the slant rhymes, near rhymes, congenial assonances and consonants, the pairing of “inward” and “downward,” “time” and “pines,” how the pattern varies in each stanza. The slow liquidity of “You dream in the green of your time” moves in rhythmic anapests: [_in the green/ of your time_]. Note the long dreamy sounds of the drawn-out ee’s , but then how quickly the next words come, how sinking pines and memory rush together.
The second line in the poem identifies the you addressed as “a forest in a furtive lake”–at once Jungian symbolism (MacEwen was reading Jung at the time), and so very Canadian. The image of tall straight pine trees made tremulous and uncertain under water, suggests the branches of a body’s central nervous system; the lake “furtive,” clandestine, unknowable to the everyday mind.
In the second stanza, the you addressed in the poem is named: “Explorer.” Unlike the first stanza, dreamy and descriptive, almost passive, the second becomes active, more yang: _you_ came for something, _you_ have a goal. You bring “a largeness”, “heavy grace”, “anguished dream”–suggesting whatever you meant to find in the depths (of your mind), whatever plans you had for that elusive essence, you haven’t found it.
The last stanza goes even deeper, dark pines sinking into an elementary–i.e. elemental–world, beyond plans and imaginings. In the last line, the one who is sinking again emerges as an active player, not by leaving the depths behind but by becoming conscious of where she is, choosing to see what is there. As Jung said, one does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.
The last quiet line strikes a very deep chord–it’s not just that there is something down there, not just that “you” want it, but that “you want it told.” What “it” is, we don’t know, but we feel the passionate poet-explorer promises to tell us if she can.

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