The slender strength of John Terpstra’s reissued chapbook This Orchard Sound somehow carries, with as much grace as grief, the weight of more than one Cross. In 2011, in his capacity as woodworker, Terpstra fulfilled a commission from a Hamilton church for a new Cross: a single, twisted branch, Cross as Christ, retrieved from a ruined urban orchard, its untended sounds (“as birds talk up / this stillness”) periodically drowned by Burlington traffic.
Terpstra recounts the odyssey in a sequence of 14 reflections based subtly on the Stations of the Cross. A new poem, “This Friday Good,” follows as ‘addendum,’ beginning, “Look. I still recall the plan. / It seemed easy, straightforward.” That is, until he realized no natural “tree / grows branches shaped” for a Saviour, and he found himself, shocked as Dante in his ‘dark wood,’ “in an orchard / long abandoned, and while others / waited behind desks for land prices to rise / I walked, searching among the untended / and wild, the rejects.”
This rejection of the ‘old world’ is the work’s second Cross, the effort of listening to the “testimony of apples,” the “body memory of the apple tree,” rooted speech meeting “the glazed eyes of office buildings” and silenced by “inhuman sound,” a “six-lane highway bass, breathing out / its monotone continuo.” In the 14th ‘station’ (“Jesus is Laid in the Tomb”), Terpstra wanders, uncrucified and unresurrected, in a Time with no time for either: “I come to the garden alone. Traffic / is murder.”
In The Unity of Nature (1980), physicist-turned-philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weiszäcker conceded that the strength of modern science depends not least on its refusal to consider the nature of reality (or vice versa) outside the lab. Precisely because it “leaves the fundamental questions aside” – what is matter? what is life? what is soul? – reductionism “has progressed incredibly fast” in comparison with the “very slow process of philosophical reflection.” But, von Weiszäcker cautions, “we must not deceive ourselves”: science “has something murderous in it if it no longer knows how questionable it is.” Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.
There are, mercifully, exceptions to this clinical rule. In ‘station’ 11 (“Jesus is Nailed to the Cross”) an experimental physicist is quoted insisting that “trees know / within a few seconds what is happening,” not just to but around them: “Note blip on strip-chart: / this tree put out a tremendous cry / of alarm…” For von Weiszäcker, philosophy is the necessary counterpoint, and counterweight, to the ever-accelerating, scream-drowning ‘music’ of math and measurement. “It is the theory which decides what we can observe,” Albert Einstein once admonished von Weiszäcker’s friend Werner Heisenberg. In This Orchard Sound, Terpstra takes a step further (back), not merely suggesting but showing that the poetics of inquiry, whether scientific or philosophical, decisively in-forms the shape thinking can take.
Sean Howard is the author of Local Calls (Cape Breton University Press, 2009) and Incitements (Gaspereau Press, 2011). His poetry has been published in numerous Canadian and international magazines, and anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English (Tightrope Books, 2011 & 2014).
THE STRENGTH OF ARC IS IN THE POETRY