In “Dark Pines under Water,” Gwendolyn MacEwen describes the internal journey of the reader as triggered by the reflected landscape. This internality is deliberately shrouded: the trigger, the journey and the destination is never defined. Indeed, naming the internality would rob it of its potency. Instead, MacEwen only approaches through indirect means. By using the strong imagery and connotations inherent in the landscape, MacEwen is able to subvert these associations when describing introspection to create an alien, yet familiar internality. MacEwen’s talent lies in her ability to lead the reader to a subjective conclusion without objectively overstating it. The result is an actual journey that compels the reader to engage with the text.
The poem is written in the second person, with the absence of a persona. MacEwen constantly refers back to “you,” forcing the readers to actively insert themselves into the poem. There is also a sense of manipulation here. By describing the actions and intentions of the “you,” MacEwen is able to guide the reader along the path she desires.
From the first, the reader is defined. “This land like a mirror turns you inward” (MacEwen 1). Through a simile, the external land is used to reflect the internality of the reader, which takes the form of a metaphoric forest, “And you become a forest in a furtive lake” (MacEwen 2). This forest is submersed “in a furtive lake,” making the image suddenly unfamiliar. Indeed, the pre-modifier “furtive” has connotations of a clandestine secrecy. Crucially, this unfamiliarity is explicitly and implicitly focused inwardly—suddenly, the reader is alienated from himself. MacEwen continues to subvert expectations to create internal unease through the extended metaphor of a forest. “The dark pines of your mind reach downward” (3). Physical pine trees are associated with upwards growth, but the mental pines here are personified and given a consciousness, probing downwards. Of course, the cacophonic “dark” further gives the scene a sinister energy. The stanza closes with a rhyming couplet emphasizing the strange nature of this internal world. “You dream in the green of your time, / Your memory is a row of sinking pines.” (MacEwen 4-5). The emphasis here is on the mental state: the mind, the dream, the memory. Through the elongated “e” sound in “dream in the green,” MacEwen slows the tempo of the line, emphasizing the abnormal temporality of this green space. The purpose here is to make the reader estranged from himself and his mental environment.
In the second stanza, MacEwen delicately begins to manipulate the reader, “Explorer, you tell yourself this is not what you came for” (6). By using self-reflexivity, “you tell yourself,” MacEwen is able to create the illusion of the reader’s autonomy, rather than simply imposing her own view: “this is not what you came for.” Through anaphora, MacEwen emphasizes the intentions of the reader: “You had meant to move with a kind of largeness, / You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream” (8-9). Absence is used as description here, by placing intention in juxtaposition against reality. This reality is not defined, but the audience can infer what it is not. It is not a kind of largeness or a heavy grace—it is something more subtle, more innate.
All this culminates in the final two rhyming couplets. “But” is used as a conjunction to show the continued descent of the pines from the first stanza despite the resistance in the second stanza. “But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper / And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper” (MacEwen 10-11). The first line focuses on the sentience of the dark pines descending; the second focuses on the unconscious reader descending. For the first time, “you” is descending too—not just the pines. There is a return to some primordial truth here, “In an elementary world” (MacEwen 12).
For the first time, MacEwen explicitly tells the reader what to feel: “There is something down there and you want it told” (14). At this point, it is true. The poem has powerfully created an alternate space within the reader “down there,” that is incredibly mysterious and appealing. The reader desires this unknown thing to be told, to better understand oneself and one’s reality—but MacEwen ends the poem here.
What is this something? This something can be whatever the reader sees as the core of his being: nature, identity, art. If MacEwen were to define it, it would lose its subjectivity, and hence its value to the reader. The only objectivity is the descent itself. Indeed, the lines in the final stanza all end on a masculine rhyme, mimicking the un-ending descent of the dark pines. The potential multiplicity of the “something down there” is precisely its allure. MacEwen has led the reader through a journey into internality, where they must then confront themselves.