It’s the same story you’ve heard a thousand times: A lumberjack severs his own hand with his axe, that hand turns into a dove and the axe boogies to her favorite folk songs.
All right, so maybe it’s not the same story, but while GennaRose Nethercott’s National Poetry Series-winning poem, “The Lumberjack’s Dove,” subverts a conventional narrative, there’s something innate and internal in what it brings to you, what story you bring to it.
Because as much as the poem is about loss, love, abandonment, pain, ownership, sacrifice and longing, it’s also about the act of storytelling, how stories are eternal and ethereal. It reminds you that a hand is a hand is a hand as much as a story is a story is a story. It’s what you bring to the story, what it wants of you, that turns it into a creature of flight.
At times the narrator speaks directly to us, pities us.
You remember your grandmother or your sister’s best friend or the bus driver quieting & turning away. Your grandmother gets a glass of water. Your sister’s best friend decides to put on a cooler dress, & you watch her change in the corner, peripherally. The bus driver unwraps a piece of Big Red chewing gum. Sun catches the paper, silver like a fish. Suspense. You are a mantis caught beneath a cup. You powerless thing.
The narrative structure is constantly shifting back and forth, between modern mysticism and ancient allegory. “The Lumberjack’s Dove” prompts re-visitation, and every time we go back there’s something new for us, hidden within rich language and profound meditations.
Four times, the narrator claims there are three rules of storytelling, and every time those rules are a little bit different. The only reoccurring rule: “The purest way to speak truth is by lying.” And what is a story but a lie to get to the truth?
So what’s the truth in “The Lumberjack’s Dove?” Depending on who’s telling the story and which version is your favorite (“When you first heard it, many years ago, you knew right away which of the two you believed”), the set and scene may change—a hand or a dove, an ER or witch doctor—but the truth never does. It’s not the reality of the story that matters. It’s the reality of your perceptions that does. In “The Lumberjack’s Dove,” Nethercott reminds us, ingenuously, it is your truth, your story which manifests and becomes real.
By giving life to the dove born of a severed hand and the axe that separated it from the body and making them characters in this mystical world, we’re offered a unique perspective on what it means to transform and what it means to take away. “I taught your fathers how to love,” Axe says. “I mean to be felled, sliced to lumber, & reassembled into a new body.”
The Lumberjack, Dove and Axe, the abandoned, the abandoner and the means of abandonment, three facets of the same forever fable on loss, love and longing. (“Stories are best in threes.” We learn this in journalism as well). You’ve heard the story a thousand times because it is the story of birth, it is the story of life and it is the story of death. (“No matter who you are, all you are ever doing is leaving or being left or acting as the impetus to leave.”)
At 79 pages, Nethercott’s poem is a nimble read, light like a feather but weighty in its insights into what it means to be human. It demands to be reread and then reread again. Part mythical folktale and part contemporary parable, “The Lumberjack’s Dove” delights and disturbs with its vivid imagery and poignant story.