Christopher Merrill discusses his new memoir, Self-Portrait with Dogwood.
Praise for Self-Portrait with Dogwood
“An arboreal memoir, an autobiographical dendrology: Merrill, like the dogwood seeds and seedlings, roams the planet, appearing or pausing at unexpected moments in history. The migrant trees sink their roots in various foreign soils; the man, though wandering?even in zones of war?remains rooted in the humus of poetry.” ? Eliot Weinberger, author of Elemental Thing
“Christopher Merrill is a national treasure, both as a writer and a global warrior for literature and witness. In a fine career of making exquisite books, Self-Portrait with Dogwood might be his most moving. Beauty rises from every page. Going on my short list of favorite books?I will refer to it and teach it for the rest of my life, like I do with Bash? and Hanshan. A quiet classic.” ? Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Hummingbird's Daughter
“How wise of the U.S. State Department to send Christopher Merrill around the globe as a poet-ambassador. I can’t imagine anyone better equipped to represent us to a suffering and turbulent world. His attentive ear and eye, his keen mind, his compassionate heart, his courage and eloquence are all richly displayed in this engrossing book. The stories he tells here?about woods and waters, poetry and soccer, about literary heroes, an ailing daughter, and a dying friend?are suffused by Merrill’s devotion to mercy and beauty, and by his fascination with the ineffable power we call nature.” ? Scott Russell Sanders, author of Divine Animal
About Self-Portrait with Dogwood
In the course of researching dogwood trees, beloved poet and essayist Christopher Merrill realized that a number of formative moments in his life had some connection to the tree named—according to one writer—because its fruit was not fit for a dog. As he approached his sixtieth birthday, Merrill began to compose a self-portrait alongside this tree whose lifespan is comparable to a human’s and that, from an early age, he’s regarded as a talisman.
Dogwoods have never been far from Merrill’s view at significant moments throughout his life, helping to shape his understanding of place in the great chain of being; entwined in his experience is the conviction that our relationship to the natural world is central to our walk in the sun. The feeling of a connection to nature has become more acute as his life has taken him to distant corners of the earth, often to war zones where he has witnessed not only humankind’s propensity for violence and evil but also the enduring power of connections that can be forged across languages, borders, and politics. Dogwoods teach us persistence humility and wonder.
Self-Portrait with Dogwood is no ordinary memoir, but rather the work of a traveler who has crisscrossed the country and the globe in search of ways to make sense of his time here. Merrill provides new ways of thinking about personal history, the environment, politics, faith, and the power of the written word. In his descriptions of places far and near, many outside of the average American’s purview—a besieged city in Bosnia, a hidden path in a Taiwanese park, Tolstoy’s country house in Russia, a castle in Slovakia, a blossoming dogwood at daybreak in Seattle—the reader’s understanding of the world will flourish as well.