For a month at the end of the summer of 2021, I stayed in a house surrounded by trees, not far from the ocean. The eastern white pines swayed at the slightest breeze and showered the deck with their slender needles and bits of cone. Gauging from the tilt of the earth and the angle of the sun that fall was near, the white oaks let loose their acorns, drumming an irregular cadence on the tarp stretched over the shed. Next to the bonfire in the growing dark, my partner and I were held by the ring of trees casting their easy shadows. And when I bathed in the outdoor shower, the trees were comfortable companions witnessing me without armor, without pretense. Whether I was walking the dogs beneath their limbs or curled up in the window nook, I constantly felt their presence. I was accompanied, witnessed, received.
Returning to the city, I felt bereft, unwound, unmoored. Although I have always identified as a “city girl,” that month in the forest by the ocean loosened something inside me, opened me in a new way. I had been perceived by the pines, the oaks, the birches; I had let myself be known in an unexplainable way. I felt a strange sense of loss back in a landscape all asphalt and eyeless brick.
But there is a walking path nearby, one lined by similar trees that I spent time with by the sea. The pine, oak, birch, cherry, and catalpas call to me. When I go there, I breathe a little easier; I feel that loosened part of me respond to their branches etched against the sky; I feel mutual awareness and companionship as I walk. I see you. You see me. I hold you. I am held by you.
In Lisbeth White’s remarkable debut poetry collection, American Sycamore, the theme of recognition is central. Inside oppressive and violent societal structures that wield race and gender as weapons, White’s collection asks (among other things): what does it mean to see and be seen as a Black person, a multiracial person, as a woman, as a human? The poems enact a deep, elemental longing to be recognized both within and beyond these societal constructs. As the speaker seeks connection, she often finds it at the source: the body, the water, the earth, the trees that are also our bones.
The structure of American Sycamore feels both organic and complexly patterned like a tree trunk. Or, like the cover art: a textile landscape stitched from delicate and sturdy fabric and thick and thin threads, depicting a silver tree rising into the sky. Inside, the collection is composed of several interlocking sequences that weave in tactile sureness across three sections and a coda. The poems layer human speech and ocean waves, echoes of stones and seeds. They create an intricate tapestry of breath, sound, and sight woven from past and present, human and more-than-human, inner and outer visions.
“Let it be longing that carries us forward. Let it be a bridge we can speak across,” White writes in the sequence of poems all titled “Bridge.” The speaker travels to the land where the white side of her family came from: Belgium and the Netherlands, countries crisscrossed by bridges and canals. Often perched on literal bridges spanning bodies of water, the speaker examines from many angles what it means to be a bridge, to need a bridge, to cross ancestral lines and divides—and what is found on the other side.
Multiracial people are often asked to act as bridges between races. We are expected to—or we expect ourselves to—bridge the gaps, because our parents’ bodies have crossed the difference, and we are the result. Some of us embrace this role, some of us reject it, some of us do both during the course of our lives. White’s Bridge poems take the reader along on this journey:
I came here in this black body with white ancestors, this white body with black ancestors, this blackbrownwhite body, to find reparations within it. I am responsible for them, don’t you see? We belong to each other.
“We”—the colonizer and the colonized—“belong to each other,” not, perhaps, by choice. But in the speaker’s body they must find this belonging, otherwise the self will remain forever fractured in the mixed-race body.
And so, the journey toward belonging, toward finding a way home to the self. For me, under the gaze of the trees by the ocean, the markings of race and gender became irrelevant. As a resident of several global cities, I have sought to carve out an identity that could hold all the parts of me—queer, multiracial, organizer, poet. But away from the gaze of strangers and community, beside the rolling waves and under the dancing branches, I was simply a child of the earth, the continuation of all who had come before. And likewise, across the sequence, as in the rest of White’s collection, the elements—water, air, land—signal a place of respite, a way home.
“This continent finds me constantly seeing canals,” she writes. But she’s not really seeking the bridges or canals, those symbols of empire. She imagines how the structures will, in time, be corroded by the water, how the country of the colonizers will dissolve “within itself.” Instead, it’s the wild, wide water that courses beneath the bridges or through the canals that calls to her as it makes its way to the sea, taking the smallest bits of the city with it. So it is to ocean she goes to surrender her body and all the fracture it represents:
This sea, old as any other, rushing cold rejoice. I inch in, foot, to thigh, to waist. This sea, ready to lift me.
I have always known how to give my weight to water.
This act of surrender enables the speaker to make an ancestral connection a few poems later. She is visited in a fevered dream state by “the grandfather of [her] grandfather’s grandfather”—the immigrant who began a new branch on the family tree that resulted, generations later, in the speaker’s existence:
This ghostly man who may or may not have believed in the possible color of my descendancy. But who now in this dream is taking my hand, face creasing with kindness and a beatific smile. Whispering to me what an honor. What an honor to see you.
Like the cold waters of the ocean, like the trees, this ancestor can discern the whole of the speaker. He loves her and speaks their connection. In this way, the Bridge poems provide glimpses into the possibilities of recognition, into how the call and response between the self and what is beyond the self can open up the pathways toward a sort of wholeness.
Time and again, the speaker enters forests and swamps, slips the leaves of the trees against her skin as protection, and bends down to the roots of the trees, asking the water there “to recognize [her].”
And in return, the trees extend their limbs and leaves, their awareness as a form of love. This is powerfully depicted in the titular poem, “American Sycamore.” During the Jim Crow era, large, shade-giving trees like the sycamore were often the sites of lynching. White explores the deep intimacy between humans and trees in this devastating context.
Composed entirely of questions, the poem is spoken by a “we” who is sometimes the people, sometimes the sycamore, and sometimes both. The trees have some agency—they “delight / in my sister’s / climbing habits” and “stretch their limbs / to lift her” but are also unwilling accomplices in white supremist violence:
didn’t they want
to offer us
like the gifts
Where the bridges are symbols of empire, man-made creations constructed to allow humans to travel across the wilds of water, the trees are predecessors, protectors, and “multiple gods: coming as one, standing as ten thousand.” They demonstrate what it looks like to fully comprehend and hold the other; they show us what reciprocity looks like. Connected “across thousands of miles of mycelia” these trees open up the possibility of understanding the self, specifically the Black self, as deeply integrated into the natural world: “my bones set free might / be cypress trees.”
But what if this journey into wholeness was not necessary? White asks: what would it mean to be born into a world where Black people are not broken and fractured from their earliest days, but instead loved and honored exactly as they are? How would the embodiment of the whole self look and sound like in such a context?
These are the questions that drive “Awakening of Stones.” Structured in the form of an academic paper, with components like the literature review, hypothesis, etc., the poems in this sequence seek to develop a new mythic space. They imagine a world where Black bodies are not wounded and broken by violence of white supremacy, but instead:
In the new mythology, you are always whole.
If and when you fracture, it is not apart.
Apart does not exist here.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You are born knowing how to make the sounds of your heart.
You are born knowing how to make your hands into wings.
In these poems, the self is recognized and remembered by the stones, those “bones of ancestors-become-earth,” where “both ancestor and earth called you . . . beloved.” Across American Sycamore connection is not just cultivated by the act of seeing, it is also activated by speech, by utterance.
sometimes when i am planting
i hear myself love-murmuring
into stems roots leaves
i see you i see you
i know you
The poems are gorgeous in the mouth, almost chant-like, almost songs, a kind of spellcasting. And breath, signified by white space and slashes in these formally innovative poems, carry as much weight and meaning as the words written and spoken, as we see in lines like these:
i know i must become still
to pray i must
understand my own breath:
how it moves and how to move it.
Early in the “Bridge” sequence, the speaker longs to be “[r]ecognized / simply, by tree, by evening light, by direction of wind in grasses.” But, living in a mixed body on colonizers’ land, she is continually misidentified, forced to live wearing “their masks.” The way through is her breath and her name, utterance, and being: “Precious as it sounds when I cup my palm / before my mouth, when I speak my own name.”
Naming, out loud, is a sacred act of agency. The final poem in “Awakening of Stones” contains “a ceremony of names,” where the speaker moves her breath to utter names of her family, Indigenous peoples whose land she is on, the fauna and flora she encounters. Where so much of the collection is about the self longing for recognition from the world, here, the self expresses her recognition of the world through honoring the names of all the beings that hold her across the miles.
Which leads to the final poem where the speaker and her beloveds connect across a vastness of time:
an island of chambers
not violently erupted but held
by the offerings of the body
collection of cavernous
pockets in which we can slip
toward each other like tears
see each other coming
from a thousand years away
American Sycamore helped me recognize the sense of relief I felt to be among the trees. The poems invited me to speak their names when I visit. Hello kin, hello oak, hello pine, I say as their branches scrape against the sky. And they say back to me: Hello relative, hello human, holding me in mutual recognition. With these poems, Lisbeth White has created an offering for all of us, for our ancestors, for the trees, for the stones and the waters that hold our weight. They are pathways that can help us distinguish, name, and return to the wholeness of the self we were born to be.
American Sycamore. By Lisbeth White. Florence, MA: Perugia Press, 2022. 94 pp. $18.00.