New collections to make life more lyrical.
Grief will not loose its hold on me this month, the last dregs of the year culminating in a strange desert fog. Last December, I lost my grandmother, directly followed by another of the nine siblings in her line. And only last week, we learned the youngest of them had passed away from a heart attack at 93.
I grieve for the loss of our elders and their knowledge. I grieve for my mother’s grief. I collect fallen juniper branches with berries still attached to dry and give as gifts for protection to burn on the solstice. The scent of juniper brings comfort and light, especially during the darkest days of the season, a balm as the holidays march on.
When poets grieve, we often turn to the trees, for they hold a mystery and connection we seek. Last week, I held my husband’s palm, placed a crisp, still-green poplar leaf next to it, and said, “Look at your lifelines and the veins in the leaf — how can anyone believe we are separate?”
Each leaf is its own ecosystem attached to the limbs attached to the body attached to the mind of the root system. In spring, the leaves burst into being and provide food, shelter, and medicine for innumerable beings, including us. Then, in autumn, they dry up and drift to the ground, their decay continuing to provide life.
In the spirit of this notion of ecosystems within ecosystems, I am using Ada Limón’s beautiful personal essay told in vignettes, Shelter: A Love Letter to Trees (Scribd), in conversation with this month’s two poetry collections. Limón’s deep relationship to the trees, their beauty, wisdom, and fragile strength, is comforting in this time of seemingly endless loss — a time when we’re losing the trees themselves.
In the “The Coulter Pine,” she writes, “To talk about trees then is also to talk about each other, the ways we are attached to what is living and how much we want it to go on doing just that for as long as possible. It is never only trees, but what binds us together, the trees, the roots, the eternal part of us that is both the seed and the tree.”
“When you write about the same death over and over again, people will start to resent you. You must tell them you are writing about trees.” – Ada Limón, “The Tree Farm”
Victoria Chang has been creatively abundant in her grief, which is a sacred ceremony unto itself. Processing her mother’s death led her to three books in three consecutive years, beginning with Obit in 2020, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief in 2021, and now culminating with The Trees Witness Everything (Copper Canyon Press) last April. Chang is a master at experimenting with form, and The Trees Witness Everything is, per her author’s note, populated with variations on Japanese short poem forms, such as the katauta and choka, based on W.S. Merwin poem titles used as creative prompts.
Each page contains around five poems, which creates a waterfall-like, cascade effect filled with images both surreal and ordinary. It is a kaleidoscopic outpouring of grief. The recurring image of the owl is particularly profound as many cultures around the world view that bird as a harbinger or symbol of death. And always, trees are present here — if not specified, then as faceless ghosts in the dark. In “The Shortest Night,” Chang writes:
“And when I looked up,
the sky had also turned black
and I had aged a
hundred more feet down the road.
The owl was on the
next tree with mirrors as eyes,
in case I wanted
to see my future. When I
looked, I lost another year.”
When a tree is named, it makes it even more piercing. In “White Morning,” she writes, “An oak tree must ache,/each year of desire in rings/or maybe nothing/hurts. Maybe all pain is joy.” That image of desire in the tree rings is devastating on so many levels; there is much we cannot fathom of the tree’s life. We do not know trees’ griefs and joys and desires, even as we project our own onto them, as Chang does throughout this collection. As Limón writes in “Fear of Trees”:
“I love the clear fact of trees. The stories of trees are all our own, but the tree has one that we cannot know.”
“Dear trees of the world, let us be in pleasure together.” – Ada Limón, “Moon Trees”
Lisbeth White’s debut poetry collection, American Sycamore (Perugia Press), holds an enchanting power with its exploration of Black/multiracial culture, ancestors, and the mythic wild around and within us — its movement from California to the Southwestern desert to Europe. It is a journey toward and from, a letting loose of identity formed without consent, and the grief of lost family, of the past, of the self. Woven throughout are trees, holding stories both personal and collective, the brutal fist of a nation bent on white violence and avoiding its racial reckoning.
The books’ title poem, “American Sycamore,” evokes the place where Black people were lynched. White writes:
“did they not remember
of our necks?
Nor the vibration
of our throats
in the shade?”
In “Fear of Trees,” Limón also speaks to this violent history and the unknown grief of the unwilling accomplices to these murders: “There are hanging trees throughout this country, but it’s not the fault of the trees. Though I do wonder, and sometimes worry, what they may remember.”
White attaches a yearning to the trees in poems like “Swamp Cypress.” The speaker’s story of a father and son fishing turns into a yearning for this land to accept them regardless of how their ancestors arrived, to transform into the land itself, to transcend the grief of racial oppression:
“my bones set free might/be cypress trees/trunks folded & roots/kneeing up pillars/to make a sudden temple.”
In “Bay Laurel,” it is a different kind of longing addressed, that of nostalgia and home, of how the tree both haunts and comforts her through her travels and passing years:
“In this inhale of wet earth and bay tree singing
its scent onto the hill, you realize all this time
you thought it would be the redwoods you would miss
most, their bark against your cheek, stringy coarse fur,
and how they stand scared as monks, while the sun
pulls damp from their trunks in halos
of steam. But it is the smell of bay laurel after
the rain, opening on the air the way your own
body opens after a good long drink, wafting fresh
Nostalgia, of course, is a form of grief, though perhaps a gentle one. We all long to go back to our first tree, as does Limón, because it is pure in our memories, childhood a time of looking forward, never backward. As the trees sleep and are reborn each year, they provide us with a magical ability to be still. In “The Woods,” Limón writes of this hunger:
“I want only to wonder about the wonder of trees, to put down the technological device I am tied to and walk into the woods and be made small again, be in awe, like the pinecone at the base of the trunk, to stare up at the branches like a I did in the tire swing and let myself get dizzy on trees.”
Angela María Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore for and by people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and you can find her most recent poems in Muzzle Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Pilgrimage, PANK, Rust + Moth, Radar Poetry, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her essays and reviews are at Catapult, Lit Hub, and Tor.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua.