|Cover art by Shida Cao|
One of the ways experts employ to determine the precise age of a panel painting is to examine the wood used. The technique is called ‘dendrochronology’, which is commonly known as ‘tree-ring dating’. This is how the method works:
By measuring the widths of individual growth rings in a sequence visible in the end grain of a wood panel it is possible to match the ring pattern against a master chronology and give a date for the last ring measured.
I was struck by the idea that one cannot fool nature. You cannot claim a painting to be older or younger than it actually is; the wood is a silent witness to time. I was also intrigued by the thought that while some paintings can have a visible history (for example, if they use wood panels), human relationships do not have physical identifiers to correspond with the time the people concerned have spent together. By the sheer look of two lovers, one cannot immediately tell their history. Of course, their facial expressions and gestures and the way they interact might reveal their level of intimacy. But these might be disingenuous; in other words, these can be ‘faked’.
In my poem, I ponder on the possibility of ‘measuring’ love objectively, like tree-ring dating. I also add a turn to it, inspired by the following description of the technique:
Dendrochronology can be used to date panels made from oak but cannot be used for poplar (most common in Italian painting) because their growth is too erratic. (via.)
Of course, poplar is also widely used for paper-making. That might change your understanding of the poem?