From Two Trees

(New York: W.W. Norton, 1992).

All poems copyright Ellen Bryant Voigt. All rights reserved.

All volumes of Ellen Bryant Voigt's poetry are available at the Tulane University Bookstore in the University Center.

Note: Text enclosed in %% should be read as italic.


At first, for the man and woman,
everything was beautiful.
Which is to say there was no beauty,
since there was not its opposite, its absence.
Every tree was "pleasant to the sight,"
the cattle also, and every creeping thing.

But at the center, foreground of the painting,
God put two trees, different from the others.
One was shrubby, spreading near the ground
lithe branches, like a fountain,
studded with fruit and thorns.
When the woman saw
this tree was good for food
and a tree to be desired to make one wise,
she ate,
          and also saw
the other, even more to be desired,
tallest in the garden, its leaves
a deeper green than all the others',
its boughs, shapely and proportionate,
hung with sweet fruit that never fell,
fruit that made the birds nesting there
graceful, brightly plumed and musical,
yet when they pecked it showed no scar.

To eat from these trees was to be a god.
So God kept them from the second fruit,
and sent them into thistles and violent weather,
wearing the skins of lesser beasts --
let them garden dust and stony ground, 
let them bear a child who was beautiful,
as they had been, and also bear a child
marked and hateful as they would become,
and bring these forth from the body's 
stink and sorrow while the mind cried out
for that addictive tree it had tasted,
and for that other, crown still visible
over the wall.



How far must the fruit fall from the tree?
When the youngest turned to his new wife,
I saw my mother stiffen into grief.
Although she'd always held herself aloof
from open weeping -- it was her best gift --
nothing had more branches than her grief.
We wanted the stars, the sun through an open roof,
room away from the deep tap root -- the self
stirs, wakes from the safe shadow, as if 
childhood had been a fever!  That one brief
season, we were the fruit and not the tree.


He wants the world to see him as a horse, charging;
we see him as a horse cut in stone,
knee-deep in water.

So he withdraws. On his knees
he ferries the children, pleased to be this frightened,
across the dangerous shallows of the rug.

just as, when they were smaller,
he carried them in a pouch about his belly,
like the sea horse with its jeweled eye:

just as, long before they could be born, 
he carried them in the small, thin sac.


Every seditious thought I ever thought
is in her head; and in her mouth
its best expression --
murderous thoughts of those we love:
what other hell is this seductive, the self
self-justified, stopping its ears:

And where in nature is the paradigm,
except that first division of the cell?

In such a crucible,
compassion fails, but one of us
must wrap herself in its transparent robe

and speak in a low voice,
as if the other were the animal
gnawing the caught paw free.


What can help my friend in his despair?
It is his great intelligence that appalls him.  That,
and the broken trellis of his choices,
if the shaped vine
can be said to choose.  And now the vine
is laid along the ground, how his life, planted
in the yard, has been flung forward,
no longer held to the side of the house
but only stitched here and there to the earth
by its own frail roothairs
as it disappears among the dense grasses, his mind
not merely a blossom on it but a melon:
hes, a melon ripening, and no one
to bring the knife, the clean white plate.


On the studio door, the tacked-up typed-up mottoes:
%To see clearly is to understand%; and,
%Art cannot redeem what it does not love%.
Inside, many large unfinished paintings;
at the center, "Parents, Drifting out to Sea,"
the small boat, the foolish rations, how gulls
dove and squabbled in their wake.
Of course she knew where all such journeys end.
And yet, there came the moment --
as if she looked away,
but she didn't look away -- suddenly,
each had fallen over the bent horizon,
first one speck and then the other:
the one at the helm; the one
waving from the stern her soft scarf.


The cast bread stalls, drifts in a slow circle
like a boat whose one oar has been thrust down
to the sandy bottom.  The surface stills.
The little boat bobs once; bobs again;
then a long shape takes it, slams it
into the granite bulkhead of the bridge
and there are fifty fish, a hundred fish
darkening the pond -- carp come out of the silt,
a cubic yard of fish crowding the slick sides
of other fish, every size of gray torpedo
trying to sing the soggy loaf that is,
by now, in ruins, defeated by 
the healthy fish that climb entirely
out of the water on the others' backs,
a loose pyramid of fish, white
bellies slung at the wall, three more
minutes of this until the bread is gone.
The mass of fish likewise breaks apart.
Each drifts away, except for one large carp --
shrewd, or stubborn, or perhaps only
hungrier than the others --
cruising the spot for wreckage --


When the deaf child came to school they tied his hands.
They meant to teach him speech, the common language.
They meant to cast him down into silence
only a little while.
They showed him their teeth, their pink gymnastic tongues.
And raised him up with exaggerated praise
if his face made the shapes their faces made,
if he made his mouth a funnel for the sound
and opened his throat to the the angel out.

His hands lay on his desk as though they were sick.
Like the two sick chimps he saw at the zoo.
One ran to the wire -- knuckles swept the ground --
rolling her lips under, exposing the gums.
The other was turned away from his audience,
fingers and opposable thumbs
stripping the leaves from a wand of the tree.
Perhaps it would be a tool; perhaps, a weapon.


	 -- Have you always told the truth?

I have always loved the truth.


			%for Stephen Dobyns%

On the coast of Chile, summer to our winter,
each day in any weather the people come
with notes, petitions, mantras, lines of the verse
to scrawl on the barricade around the house
Neruda lived and died in, where his ghost
came back as an eagle, as he said he would,
crashed through the picture window with its high
spectacular view of the sea and the cliffs, thrashed
the books and papers to the floor (some say
shat on them), and sat, wings closed, like the bronze
eidolon on a Roman consul's staff,
or like the consul, with his cloak and sword.


The drawer is full of letters.  They rustle and sigh.
Sometimes, when he leaves the door ajar
their muffled conversation
leaks out like spices from a lifted lid.
At night he opens the drawer, stuffs in a letter --
they are not arranged
but flop and tumble like unmarried socks,
like the underwear he keeps in a neighboring drawer.
Blue ink: lined white paper: the writing on the paper
perpendicular to the lines but also prissy,
lacy as a young girl's underwear.
And some of the pages are themselves ajar, loosened, languid,
like odalisques, like figures in Matisse,
some lie on their sides with upturned signatures,
some are pleated like an unused fan.
Beside the bed, close enough to reach them in his sleep,
six months of letters squirreled home from school,
then plucked from the bag of unsatisfactory lunch,
or from the the pocket of the laundered jeans, 
or from the kitchen table where they'd dropped,
blossoms past ripening, from the stem.
Blue ink, lined white paper: familiar
as the letter waving in my mother's hand.

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