(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.
TWO TREES 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.
Variations: THE INNOCENTS ______ 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, 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 LETTERS 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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