The Tally Stick
“The Tally Stick” ENLT 121-2 It is not always feasible to express ones love for another human being simply through words or ordinary actions. Jarold Ramsey wrote a poem that demonstrates how simple markings and items can have priceless meanings to them. “The Tally Stick” is a poem that explains the symbolic intricacies of a stick that he has created for his wife of many years and more to come.
The poem begins showing the analogy between their marriage and the general physiology of the stick itself.
Ramsey carved their “lives in secret” (2) to show that his work of art and their memories should remain mysterious. Both the stick and their marriage are beautiful to the public eye, but he only wants the two of them to know the details of why it is so precious. The stick is carved in “mountain mahogany” (3) which is both very durable and free of voids present in common woods. This quality of both wood and love is exemplified by “hard and rare” (3) to symbolize the strength and preciousness of both.
Line 5 makes the transition from Ramsey discussing the quality of their love to positively reminiscing their lives together by “touching and handling” (5) the stick as opposed to observing it. This is what makes the tally stick so meaningful; a couple would ordinarily revisit their marriage by opening a scrapbook, whereas Ramsey has created an artifact that can be felt in addition to observed to stir up more powerful emotions. The most beloved part of the marriage to Ramsey is the actual ceremony itself.
The “intricate notch” (6) at the beginning of the stick, which he explains is “our wedding” (7), demonstrates how much he values the matrimonial ceremony between them. This intricacy is created where grains “converge and join” (6) which can be personified to a man and woman becoming one—their convergence making them larger and more whole than they were as individuals. He values this moment so dearly that he can give specific details of the wedding such as “who danced” (9). Because he can recall so many details of this day, the details of the stick are readable even “with a thumb” (9).
This deep grain was chosen to represent this occasion to symbolize its significance, but more importantly because those grains are permanent in the wood just as their love is permanent. There are two specific symbols that Ramsey etched into the stick symbolizing two unavoidable events: life and death. The first symbols carved were “little arrowheads” (10), and Ramsey explicitly says they symbolize the “births of our children” (11). Arrowheads were essential for the sustainment of life in ancient times, therefore Ramsey chose them to represent his children that bring life to him and his wife.
Along with the arrowheads are “heavy crosses” (12) which also explicitly represents the loss of their parents and friends. In the bible, Jesus was forced to suffer by carrying his own heavy cross before crucifixion; the crosses on the stick symbolize both the suffering of Ramsey and his wife and the deaths of their loved ones. Not only does Ramsey include the influential moments of their lives through etchings, but uncontrollable events are also present on the stick. He included “Events, History” (15) because occurrences outside marriage do have a slight impact on how a couple lives together.
These events affected them much less than those such as the birth of their children, and he symbolizes this by marking them as “random hashmarks” (15). These small scratches were placed sporadically against the “swirling grain” (16); the swirling grain is more precious and has a direction and purpose on the stick, whereas the hashmarks were chiseled randomly simply to present a reminder to him and his wife. Ramsey goes into detail about two historical events represented by the hashmarks.
The “Year the World Went Wrong” (17) refers to around 1961 – the year the United States sent troops into Vietnam which eventually escaladed into the Vietnam War including China, Russia, and France. Other hashmarks on the stick are the “Great Men fell” (18). This is mentioned after the ‘Year the World Went Wrong’ which means that these days occurred after 1961, yet were relatively close to that time period. It is possible that men who ‘fell’ (died) included Kennedy in 1963, Malcom X in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
All four of those men profoundly impacted America and it is likely Ramsey and his wife grieved over their deaths together. In spite of these horrible events occurring, the love between Ramsey and his wife “run through it all” (19) both in reality and in the grains on the stick. We know that their marriage persevered because their “lengthening runes” (19) ran through the hash marks (19), meaning their growing characteristics and companionship as a couple were not affected by these tragedies but instead continued on their natural course.
The final stanza returns to the present time and describes the unfinished state of the tally stick. Ramsey believes that he and his wife are approaching death by indicating the stick is whittled “nearly end to end” (20). While the stick is almost completely whittled, there is in fact still space left, showing his desire to create more memories with his wife so they can be carved on. Although the stick was carved out of “hard” (4) mahogany, the current state is “delicate as scrimshaw” (21) because of the amount of wood carved away by memories.
It is so delicate that it would not “bear you up” (21), simply emphasizing the stick’s physical weakness—not even able to support the weight of his wife if she used it as a cane. The final stanza is the first time that Ramsey admits his marriage is realistic and not perfect. Outside of the beautiful carvings is wood that has been smoothened simply by handling it. The phrases “Regrets have polished it” (22) and “hand over hand” (22) are both used to symbolize times of dispute in the marriage.
The effort and friction required to hold the stick by hand while carving it has ‘polished’ it, which is analogous to the effort needed to work through hardships and ‘regrets’ of the marriage. In addition to the Tally Stick’s current state, the final stanza expresses Ramsey’s desires for the remainder of his marriage and life. Ramsey only wants to reminisce meaningful life events with his wife, which are represented by their “unforgotten wonders” (23). The fingers will feel “sign after sign” (25) on the stick, which have already been established as memorable events earlier in the poem.
Ramsey wants this remembrance to be innocent and enjoyable as “children on a trail” (24), like kids playing on a trail in the forest. He does not wish to talk about the hardships in his marriage, as seen through the phrase “talk softly” (26), clearly indicating a peaceful conversation that would not include any regrets. The final phrase of the poem is the “eyes go blind” (27). The most provoking thought of this last line does not refer to simply losing vision, but rather is an analogy to dying together so that neither of them has to experience life without the other.
Ramsey ends the poem with this desire to express how dearly he loves his wife. “The Tally Stick” demonstrates how Ramsey’s love for his wife can be objectified through an artwork that he has created. The medium for the masterpiece and the symbols on it are carefully selected so that every part of the stick is significant. The marriage, the milestones, and the hardships of their lives together are engraved on the stick, yet Ramsey makes it clear which parts are of most importance to him through detail and emphasizes that he truly believes in the phrase “until death do us part”.