We age in darkness like wood
and watch our phantoms change
of shingles and boards
for a purpose that can only be
described as wood.
What sort of purpose is wood, exactly? I can't pretend to know, but I find this short poem from Beat poet Richard Brautigan a fascinating sort of riddle to chew on. I've been thinking about it for a few days now, and I am happy to report that I am no closer to understanding it than I was when I first read it. More than any sort of understanding or hidden meaning, I think frustration wrapped in a fascinating image is sort of the point here. Let's unpack a little and see what we can find.
Being in the first person plural, Brautigan is including us in this poem. "We" is inclusive, and therefore we ought to think of ourselves as we read and try to make sense of this poem. The first line, "We age...like wood." What exactly does that mean? Well, as wood ages, it can harden, but it can also rot. It depends on how it's treated. Nice parallel with people, there, yes?
What then, are our phantoms? That's personal, isn't it? But what's more important is that the wood parallel continues. Our phantoms, facsimiles of ourselves, perhaps our fears, clothes themselves in shingles and boards, continuously renewing by changing their clothes. They are like us, but without the full body of substance. What purpose, then? Wood. That's just how we are. That's my take-away, at least. I think more than anything, this is just a reflection from Brautigan on our state of being, and how our phantoms take on a form like ours, continually renewing. There's tantalizingly little solid about this poem, but I hope my brief explication has helped, reader. If you read it differently, please leave a comment and let me know! I feel like this is so open a poem that most interpretations are completely valid.