The Death of a Tree [winner]

                                      for Diana

 

The Lost Tree of Ténéré

was the last of a dwindling grove

of acacias that could not adapt

 

to the changing climate

or to the hungry animals

that traveled upwind

 

            & yet despite or because

of its ensuing isolation

this tree dug deeper

 

into the earth

& grew windswept

with desert brush

 

 

            The night of your death

            I was reminded of this story

                        For hundreds of years & hundreds of miles

                        of Sahara          there was no interruption

                        in the landscape apart from this tree

                                                making the loneliest circles inside itself

 

            & while salt caravans refused to break

                        a single bough for fire or tea

                        & stray camels resisted the lure of its flowers

                                    & though the expanse was made

                                    vaster by this tree’s misplacement

                                    centuries later a scud of desert birds

                                    erupted from its branches in the headlights of a truck

 

 

What kind of ancient memory

turns a driver into a ruined moth

                        or into Odysseus unbound from the mast

& taking helm toward the siren-song of leaves

 

 

 

The night of your death

everything was routine as blossom

            A woman held a pocket mirror

& tugged on her eyelid at the bar

 

                        The door to the walk-in was left open all morning

                                    & the coils froze

                                                & for hours I chipped ice from the condenser

                                                with a mallet & flathead

 

                                                            The toilet clogged

                                                                        & no one said anything

 

What kind of tragedy isn’t marked

by the banal

 

 

 

I have heard that trees speak

to each other through scent

That when a giraffe chews

 

an umbrella thorn acacia

the tree fills its leaves with toxins

& releases ethylene

 

            which travels on winds

to warn its neighbors

to do the same

 

            & I have read that sycamores

lining a city street

cling to the world

 

in a similar fashion

their roots pushing impossibly

through compact soil

 

to suck the sweat

from waterlines & search

for flaws in the pipes

 

 

The night of your death

I dreamt I was with you

                        driving through the desert toward a burning house

 

& the dream                  which had seized upon the lack of detail

concerning the circumstances of your death

            insisted that the sun become a headlight on a drunken truck

 

                                                            What kind of sun moves closer as it sets

                                                                                    I asked you

 

                                                            The horizon as you understand it

                                                you answered

                                                                        a separation of earth & sky

                                                            is like a poet’s description of the soul:

                                                “an impossibility that has its uses”       

 

                                                & then              as the light hit you

                                    a confusion of sparrows rushed from your mouth

 

 

I have heard that trees speak

to each other through threads

of fungus beneath the forest floor

 

that when a sapling

cannot find sunlight

beneath the overstory

 

larger trees pump sugars

through these networks

            from root to root

 

that a whole forest

is a nursing mother

 

 

                        & yet how often I think of trees

                        as shipwrecked

                                    as heads above water

                        their roots pedaling

                        to keep them afloat

 

 

 

The night of your death

I thought of the ravines we slept in

 

            How twelve thousand years before we woke

            to the childlike wailing of cottontail fawns         

                        the Laurentide Ice Sheet melted

            to build the lake            carving the land

            along the way        So we’re napping in glacier

            tracks       you whispered on a bed

            of mayapple      trillium      & oak-shadow

 

            For three nights that summer

            we lay beside an ephemeral stream

            watching tadpoles twitch like sentences

                        chewing sumac & writing bad verses

            What kind of poem you asked me

                        says “a tree is not a standing wave”

 

 

 

 

I have this sense that each thing moves

to become memory                    or that memory

            is what moves to become each thing

 

                                    & I have this sense that language erodes

                                    memory                        or that it is memory

                                                that erodes language

 

            & so despite or because of this

                        I have avoided speaking about you

 

Mathew Weitman, a Brooklyn-based poet and writer, has work published or forthcoming in The Missouri Review, Bennington Review, The Southwest Review, The Evergreen Review, and elsewhere. He received his MFA from the New School, where he was a student poetry editor for LIT, and will begin an artist residency at Bloedel Reserve in 2022.