Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lovely As A Tree

Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun
Vincent Van Gogh

Just about all you have to do is say the word "tree," and someone else will respond: "I think that I shall never see . . . ." In fact, this very morning when I mentioned to my friend Elizabeth that I was looking at some contemporary tree - themed poetry, she recalled the childhood music class in which she first learned the famous poem as a song. My siblings and I learned Kilmer's enduring and often parodied couplet -- part of a longer, serious poem, it turns out! -- early in life, from the Smothers Brothers.

Out of respect for Kilmer (1886 - 1918), who did not mean the poem to be a joke, here is his work, as written:


I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree. ~ 1913

Lately, it seems that every time I pick up a poetry book, I encounter a striking poem about a tree. It began a few months ago, when I came across Francine Tolf's poems, "Between You and Me" (see earlier Quotidian post) and then, a few pages later, "Kinship," which begins with a reference to the parable of the blind man and the saliva. I thought I remembered this passage fairly well from many gospel readings, but one detail suddenly came to my attention as never before: "people looking like trees and walking." Like trees! How could I have missed that incredible image all my life? Thank you Francine for applying poetry and making me see! Francine's poem concludes with the hope that we should feel "a quickening. / A kinship" with the trees; and I could not help but think of the quickening felt by William Wordsworth, the visionary gleam sparked by the the field, the pansy, and the tree:

But there's a tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have look'd upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

If you feel it's time for a new book of poetry to renew the visionary gleam, here are a few of my current favorites, along with a selection of tree poems for all seasons. Thanks again to Francine Tolf; and also Jim Barnes, Leonard Orr, Lee Perron and Donald Platt for sending your books into my life. And for writing poems that are every bit as lovely as a tree!


"He took the blind man by the hand . . . Putting spittle
on his eyes he laid his hands on him and asked, 'Do
you see anything?' Looking up, he replied, 'I see people
looking like trees and walking.'" ~ Mark 8:24

I, too have seen elms and poplars
against December,
have imagined their poses as wonder,
or longing, or joy.

Their roots suckled life,
their stems pushed sunward
ages before we discovered fire,
invented sin.

A healer through whose rib cage
ride and gale rippled
would have felt this,
might have wanted to give a blind man
vision before sight --

a world where trees walked like men,
so that after reality dimmed understanding
that man could not press his palm
against the trunk of a cypress
without a quickening.
A kinship.

found in the book Prodigal, p 37
by Francine Marie Tolf


I like the way that Tolf ascribes "wonder, or longing, or joy" to the wintry trees, suffused with innocence and free from sin. Likewise, in Perron's poem, winter is near and the trees are filled with yearning. Two in particular -- one yellow, one orange -- not only stand like people but lean like lovers. I anticipated that "the curving trunks and their reflection" were going to form perhaps a heart. But, even better, Perron says they "make an almost perfect circle":

Fall At Spring Lake
Over the trees near the water's edge
at the very end of an autumn afternoon
the dying light is general

on the opposite bank two huge liquid amber trees
one with yellow leaves, one with orange
lean toward one another as if in yearning--
the curving trunks and their reflection
in the opaque water make an almost perfect circle

these early sunsets
pure as the undisturbed imagination.

found in the book Celtic Light, p 35
by Lee Perron


So the trees prepare for autumn beside a lake in California and, in the next poem, in a garden in Paris. Neither striding strong nor leaning like lovers, even so these trees are like people too, standing weary, with arms folded across their chests, preparing for a long winter's nap. Barnes describes what we deeply admire about the trees: the way they take winter in stride, paying the price of the seasons. As Lee Perron has written elsewhere, in his famous "Nose Poem": "the deciduous idea! trees die for half the year & take all else in the universe." Similarly, Barnes observes that "The trees have gone / to sleep early this year. Not one limb stirs . . . the price is dear: / winter is a hard fact:

Fall in the Tuilieries
The carp in the pond
are Japanese: katakana fins declare
war on the tame ducks

paddling this round
and simple inland sea. Two lovers' chair
tilts dangerously back

over the drowned
pebbles but rights again to show the bare
reflection of breasts slack

after the done
embrace. Nobody lingers long to stare
into the shallow lake.

The lovers' sun
shines upon their backs, and the sky is clear
enough at noon to make

the schoolboys run
down the graveled way. Now last flowers rear
their heads for beauty's sake

before the turn
of season, before the long garden blurs
under November's wake.

The trees have gone
to sleep early this year. Not one limb stirs,
bark and last leaves as black

as coats at pawn.
For the Tuileries in fall, the price is dear:
winter is a hard fact.

found in the book Paris
by Jim Barnes


I picked the next poem, also by Jim Barnes, and the following two by Leonard Orr for their shared imagery of the olive tree: "grotesque" yet strangely elegant; ancient, commanding of attention, worthy of gods, and symbolic of peace. What a perfect world exists under those time - honored branches: "so happy to be sanctuaried there," writes Orr, in the cool, shadowy, aromatic olive grove! They may be "unlikely trees" but not unlovely:

Olive Grove ~ Vincent Van Gogh

On the Black Hill of La Ciotat
Poppies begin to bloom among
the wild rosemary and lavender
the red swath starts meandering
toward the sea. Olive trees belong

here where the wind twists the fruit firm
and trunks into such grotesque form
no normal axe will ever fell them.
We take the drive up slowly, turn

with caution on the narrow roads
whose walls are mostly fallen down
and even more down than we can
say since the hill is steep and broad.

Far down we see a house someone
called a home, or rather we see
more fallen stone the sea will claim.
Once a home but now a ruin upon

the hill few seldom climb. Poppies
lean against its remaining walls
as if to stall the last stones'
completely falling down. I will

remember to count my last days
by rock and flower: to end as smooth
as loose stone in a flow of poppies,
ah, what brilliance and what praise!

found in the book Visiting Picasso, p 68
by Jim Barnes


Sun and Wheat Fields
Two Van Goghs I had never seen
made me overjoyed and then strangulated,
heated, excited, but cloistered and caged.
He committed himself to the asylum
and painted the asylum garden, gaudily green,
shiny surfaces, cool shadows, so you want
to feel those thick fronds between thumb
and index finger, thrusting, soothing,
palpable and overwhelmingly healthy, so
happy to be sanctuaried there, so peaceful,
and I thought of you with me in our groves,
our dells and glades, and those painted trees
made me feel cool and happy, smell our Russian olives
as the branches twisted above and around us;
I could hear again the sighing mourning doves.

The second picture was a large drawing,
Sun and Wheat Fields from his asylum window,
just that perspective, all brown toned, pencil,
sepia ink, thousands of wavy lines as the wind
blew through the dry field, the undulations
of the crop bending their tops, the brown sun
all crazed rays of nervous cross-hatchings,
all somehow hot and dusty, unable to escape
the sharp edges and corners of the field, the window,
the paper, the asylum window, the people
just beyond the edge watching Van Gogh,
watching us, keeping all those boundaries
straight, angular, tight, and sharp.

Constrained and edgy, I wanted to find you,
escape with you, you with your curves, with
your lush colors, exotic and earthy, and we¹ll take
your words, your happy dreams, we¹ll hide
under those beautiful wavy leaves in the first painting,
leaves thick as elephant ears, thrusting, soothing,
palpable, we'll find asylum just beyond the edges.

found in the book Why We Have Evening, pp 30 - 31
by Leonard Orr

also found in poemeleon 1.2 (Winter, 2006)
click for links to paintings


Russian Olives
I love the shadows under the trees, all the trees,
the groves of Russian olive trees that form our bowers,
the sweet aroma filling the hazy refuge for us,
for the strange green spiders, for the magpies
whose great flapping entering our silences make us alert for spies,
the hanging twigs and brush poking our heads, leaves
later caught in our disreputable hair in the restaurant.
I love the way the shadows break and reform the sunlight,
taming it, blocking it, making artful chiaroscuro patterns
traveling across your smooth skin as we roll and turn,
as we position and reposition, the way it looks in
hot white spots silhouetting you, glowing in your hair,
now placing your in mysterious dark, now making your eyes
glow green gray green again, gaps in the foliage.
I love the shadows under the trees now because there are
shadows everywhere, it is a portable aid to memory.
There are shadows even at night by moonlight, by streetlights,
and the mottled, dappled shadows, the mixture of bright and dark,
now bring back those days we spent lolling together beneath
the low branches of the Russian olives, unseen, unlikely trees,
where we breathed heatedly together in the shadows,
and together throbbed, sweated, exclaimed, and pulsed.

found in the book Timing is Everything, p 46
by Leonard Orr


And in closing, a poem of healing, in which the trees spring to life at the touch of two poets, the venerable Whitman and our own contemporary and neighbor, Donald Platt:

Walt Whitman Wrestling Naked With the Young Trees
Every time I pass
the old sycamore on our corner, I touch its muscled
dappled torso
where the smooth flesh emerges from the bark’s
rough scales.
Its branches drop on the ground their curled sheets

of old skin,
crumbled parchment or torn fine-grit sandpaper,
and where they were

the secret greeny-white flesh shines. Today I saw
how one of its highest
boughs had been blown down across the sidewalk

by last night’s
storm whose winds gusted over eighty miles per hour.
I stopped

and reached down to break off two of the twigs
with their three-pointed
maple-like leaves and examined the gash

where the limb
had been wrenched from its socket. Touching the ragged

of live wood wet with sap, I thought of
Walt Whitman
in 1877, after the two strokes that paralyzed

first the left,
then the right side of his body, and between them
the death of Louisa,

his mother. To heal his mind and fumbling
body, Whitman
at fifty-eight hobbled out to Timber

Creek, where he stripped
naked except for his boots and broad-brimmed
straw hat.

There he sunbathed and walked through “the stiff-
elastic bristles”
of chest-high weeds and bushes that “rasped arms, breast, sides

till they turn’d
scarlet.” He then would wade into the creek and sink his feet
into the mud’s

cool luxurious black ooze. Thus cleansed, every day
for two summers,
he wrestled hickory saplings naked, pulling down

the young trunks,
bending them into the shape of bows—his “natural gymnasia.” He swayed
and yielded

to the “tough-limber upright stems,” just as he wrestled
fully clothed
with Harry Stafford, the eighteen-year-old who helped to set

his book Two Rivulets
in type and who accepted his ring, then gave it back, then accepted
it again before

finally saying goodbye that summer. Those hickory saplings
and later beech
and holly boughs he bent until each muscle quivered

made him “feel
the sap and sinew rising through me, like mercury
to heat.”

Spanish moss-bearded father, you wrestled Harry and all those young trees
like Jacob
with his angel. Though you once pinned Harry

to the floor,
you couldn’t pin the trees. They sprang back up
almost as straight

as they had been before they met you. They left you
old and broken.
Old man, it’s you and my own life I touch

when I touch
the sycamore. Be whole again. Let your sap run through
the torn branch and into me.

found in My Father Says Grace: Poems, pp 55 - 57
by Donald Platt

also found on VQR: A National Journal of Litertaure & Discussion 79.1 (Winter 2003)



  1. Here is a very rough thought I started and forgot about until reading your blog.

    You could build your thoughts up like a tree, branching into limbs, twigs and leaves. Or you can start them at the ground and send down roots seeking nourishment, anchoring the structure above. The first seeks light, the second explores the darkness. The first is poetry, the second is science. Either way you can arrive at truth and beauty. And either way, eventually the branches meet the roots because art is science and science is art. The ground, where we stand, is nothing but the starting line.

  2. Replies from the poets:

    Jim Barnes: Always a pleasure to see your work with the blog. Thanks for including my work with that of those fine writers. You connect us with your inspiration and love of poetry. I am fortunate to know you, Kitti.

    Leonard Orr: Thank you for this presentation, Kitti! What an honor it is to have my poems in such fine company and with such images! I am just sending out new poems to journals and contests; your posting is most encouraging.

    Lee Perron: Thanks for the great blog, and for printing my tree poem, and also for pairing me with Jim Barnes. So many wonderful poems in one release -- including both poems by Jim, and the two by Orr, and the very inspiring incident from Whitman's life by Donald Platt. You are very good at what you do and it's a terrific service to a poetry-starved world. Thanks for bringing those poems into my life. Very best, Lee

  3. Anthony West writes: "Jim Barnes' poem about the Tuilleries really rang my bell. But all the other selections were fine. Leonard Orr can do no wrong on the page."

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