Two poems from the Plant Kingdom
The Birthday Roses
from The Book of the Red King
Their fine green feet are pointed, hovering in the vase,
Close together as if in love but slanting outward,
Their petal perfection, their fine-grained velvet red
Is wonderfully marred as if by sgraffito—
Is there an inner layer of rot or ebony?
Dragon-toothed and tongued, the sepals of the calyx
Make up a star tightly cupping the corolla.
In time the sepals arch and thrust the widening
Whorls of petals upward: loosened wombs of fragrance.
Glasshouse dryads, the roses hold out helpless arms
That backroom florists filled with stems of babies’ breath:
The Fool drinks in the red that tends toward black, the sage
Of paddle leaves, and cranes his head to see the stars
Half-hidden underneath. I see that you are twelve,
He says aloud, as if they might be listening.
Perhaps you are the twelve months of the zodiac,
Virgins, water-bearers, archers with sheath of thorns.
Perhaps you are the twelve apostles of good news.
Perhaps you are a twelve-string lute of silences.
Or else you are the winter’s Twelve Days of Christmas
That in the cold and blackness rise to flowering.
No, I know what you are, the Fool tells the flowers,
For days or months are one, and so are blooming you…
The one who stumbled from his bed of rotten leaves.
You are my rose-red heart, my rose-red birthday hat,
The blossom in my mind: you are the Red King’s Fool.
Wielding the Tree Finder
Do you ramble the ground—are you a tree and yet a forest,
does your great bulk blossom in one night
like an elephant singing a love-song to the moon,
do you transform to a reservoir for water and stars,
do you grow hollow for whistling,
do you become an ossuary,
do you hold African mummies in your heart,
are you baobab?
Were you sacred to healers and priests who haunted oak groves,
golden shoulder pins on their woven garments,
your parasite branches in their hands
—the raspberry girl slaughtered, seeds between her teeth—
were you sharpened to a Norseman’s spearpoint,
did your mischief kill a god, fairest of the Aesir,
do you draw warmth of kisses to an orb of leaves,
are you mistletoe?
Are the rosy pastors and the bulbuls feasting on your seeds,
are you red and hairy like Esau,
are your flowers good in bowls of curried pottage,
are you a tree of red silk cotton,
Were you a thousand scented pillars
around the forecourt of an emperor,
are you malleable in the whittler’s palm,
are you swooning-pale and infant-smooth,
are you a parasite tethered to roots of others,
are you sandalwood?
Are you loose-tethered, a yielder of leaves to wind,
are you a sender-out of roots, are you clone,
is a forest of your kind one sentience,
and in fall are you quivering yellow,
boreal, afflicted with melancholy,
a breather of mists and cold,
are you quaking aspen?
Do your flowers steam with fragrance as the heat increases,
do the chrysomelids rut within your clutch of petals,
do your blossoms shatter as the beetles copulate,
are you Amazonian—are you annona sericea?
Are you a kingdom, are you castles in the air,
are you a garden of Babylon in mist,
are your branches colonies of dreaming epiphytes,
are the flicking tails of lizards lost inside your cities,
are you flying above the prayers of the Maori,
are you kauri, the tree that must forgive?
Were you as dense and black as mythic thrones of Hades,
were you strong, were you midnight ripped in lengths,
were you foretelling gleams—Victoria’s jet beads—
were you heavier than the fat man’s coffin,
were you Pharoah’s favorite chair,
are you ebony?
Are you dawn redwood or frangipani,
are you whistle thorn or cannonball,
are you linden, myrtle, jacaranda,
are you sourwood or silverbell,
are you a branch of good and evil,
are you the lemurs’ Ravenala,
are you Yggdrasil, axis of nine worlds,
are you a cross whose branches reach forever,
are you water-tapping, cloud-catching, sun-devouring,
are you leaf, are you branch, are you root, are you tree?
Marly Youmans (website, blog) is the author of six novels, including The Wolf Pit (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/The Michael Shaara Award) and Val/Orson, which was set among the tree sitters of California’s redwoods, as well as a collection of poetry. Currently forthcoming are three novels: Glimmerglass and Maze of Blood from P. S. Publishing (UK) and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (winner of the Ferrol Sams Award/Mercer University Press), and three books of poetry: The Throne of Psyche from Mercer University Press, The Foliate Head from Stanza Press (UK), and Thaliad from Phoenicia Publishing (Montreal).