Home > Translation > Two poems from the Plant Kingdom

Two poems from the Plant Kingdom

January 24, 2011

by Marly Youmans


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,
bombax malabarica?

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?

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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).

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  1. seb doubinsky
    January 24, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    Absolutely stunning. Ronsard would have loved your roses, I am sure!

  2. January 24, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    Glad you liked them, Seb! I guess Ronsard and Yeats are the kings of roses…

  3. January 24, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Fabulous, Marly!

  4. Paul Digby
    January 24, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    Everything I have seen and heard from ‘The book of the Red King’ is extraordinary and good, Marly.
    ‘The Birthday Roses’ has a very magical quality.

    ‘Wielding the Tree Finder’ is a long enough poem that I wondered how it might be read.
    You carried it effortlessly and wonderfully!

    Bravo, indeed!

    • January 25, 2011 at 8:39 am

      Philip Lee Williams pointed out that he can hear “the South edging upward in you” in the pronunciation of “pharoah”!

      • Paul Digby
        January 25, 2011 at 10:08 am

        Precise Northern gains from a gentle Southern dip every now and then!

        • January 25, 2011 at 4:47 pm

          Three childhood years with cruel Yankee children drove the drawl right out of me! XD

  5. Julie Winters
    January 24, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Marly, your reading of these is lovely; I was taken by the imagery in the first and the sound appeal in the second.

  6. January 24, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    Thanks, Beth. Highly desirable to be fabulous!

    Paul, thank you so much! I am definitely mad for the Red King and his crew…

    Julie, thanksthanksthanks: glad you liked the reading as well.

  7. January 24, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    I love these, and learned so many names of trees that I hadn’t heard before in the second. It is so mysterious, how all of these poems emerge out of the air, and all wonderful, as if they had been worked on forever.

    • January 24, 2011 at 8:16 pm

      Robbi, thanks for listening and liking–you’ll have to go to “The Festival of the Trees.” (Or maybe you already have?)

      • January 30, 2011 at 10:16 am

        Already have; that’s why I say that about the names of trees.

        • January 30, 2011 at 8:12 pm

          Hurrah for the Festival of Trees! Good work.

  8. January 24, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    Wonderful! and a lovely reading.

    • January 24, 2011 at 9:22 pm

      Hannah, thanks for listening! I am very glad that you liked them.

  9. mike
    January 24, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    I’m glad you liked the roses.

  10. January 24, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    Michael, I am glad you gave me those roses. They were lovely, and afterward they fell apart with great style.

  11. vicki
    January 25, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Love these, Marly. And i am eager to hold “The Red King” in my own hands.
    i admit that i rarely enjoy listening to a poet read his or her own work, but i savored your reading of the second.

    • January 25, 2011 at 10:45 am

      Ah, thank you, Vicki. That one has a lot of swing to it–easy to read. Why don’t you usually like listening, I wonder? (Not that I haven’t heard bad readers… Too nasal, too rising, etc.) Yes, well, “The Book of the Red King” has a lot of books in front of her. Him. It. But will get there, I hope. Just posted the cover for “The Throne of Psyche” on my blog a couple of days ago. It is very, very lovely.

      • vicki
        January 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm

        Too often, when poets read their poems, it sounds to me as if they are stuck somewhere between singing and speaking, muddied into something near a drone. The most uncomfortable example (for me) is Stanley Kunitz. i love his work–and feel changed everytime i read my favorites of his–but as much as i loved listening to him in the interview Bill Moyers did with him–i cringed every time he read one of his poems. When i’ve searched out other poets to listen to, i’m surprised how many read in that deadening manner. That “drone” kills a poem for me (is that really how the those poets hear their own words in their minds??) and i must hurry back to the printed version so it can ascend again.

        • January 25, 2011 at 4:46 pm

          When I was in college, everybody read in a kind of nasal whine that lifted toward the end of each line, so that there was a droning but questioning affect. No doubt I sponged it up like everybody else, but if so I must have jettisoned it along the way. That may be the same thing you’re talking about here.

          • vicki
            January 25, 2011 at 9:38 pm

            Hm. Strange.
            It’s the main reason i do not seek out poetry readings. Don’t want the poet to ruin their poetry for me.

        • January 30, 2011 at 10:17 am

          How odd. I loved to hear Stanley Kunitz read his poems.

  12. Paul Digby
    January 25, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    It’s very odd the way some poets read their poetry. It’s odd how non poets sometimes read poetry too! This always reminds me of bad readings of Shakespeare. Both are best read ‘straight’. If the poetry is good, it will not only take that treatment, but shine as a consequence.
    Poetry can be killed by over dramatization.
    Is this all a result as the ‘artist as diva’? Thee-A-tor? Byron and all that?
    I am glad you abandoned that style of delivery, Marly – (if you ever did read in that way).

    • January 26, 2011 at 12:19 am

      Frankly, I don’t remember back that far! Because it was quite a few years ago now… But I am sure that I had a grand capacity for general idiocy. It came with the times, as I recall! At any rate, such affectation was fashionable (and I think still is in some quarters.) It is a twisted form of cool that evades meaning, I think.

      My recollection says that tediousness of all kinds was in vogue (and also still is in some quarters!)

      But you are right. Clarity is best! Then it can, as you say, “shine”–if there is something present in the writing that can shine.

      • January 30, 2011 at 10:19 am

        My memory is that you always read poetry quite conversationally, back in the early times, when we were both undergraduates.

        • January 30, 2011 at 8:11 pm

          Ah, that is good! Glad to have somebody who knew me when to put in a voice! I am glad to be affirmed as not a complete twit in youth…

  13. January 25, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    All of you with an interest in the art of reading poetry aloud should be visiting the blog devoted to that very topic, Voice Alpha, where we are trying our best to advance the naturalistic approach. Your comments (and guest posts) would be very welcome there.

    Here at qarrtsiluni, I feel that the technological and logistical hurdles of getting poets to record readings are such that I don’t want to start trying to tell them how to read yet. I think there’s value in hearing how an author interprets her own work, even sometimes when it isn’t such a great reading. But it’s always a pleasure when someone like Marly reads it right!

    • January 26, 2011 at 12:25 am

      A Bontasaurian compliment! Thank you, Dave! Highly memorable.

      Voice Alpha. Another project for you. I am amazed, as always, by how you can be the King of Fingers-in-the-Pies. Or threads in the web. I shall take a look.

      Yes, getting us to learn another little piece of technology can be daunting. I remember my first qarrtsiluni recording, made with a child’s Pokemon mike!

  14. vicki
    January 26, 2011 at 10:18 am

    i have no idea what poets will think of this, but i confess i find Garrison Keillor’s reading on “The Writer’s Almanac” to be very satisfactory. And by that, i mean nothing more than his delivery does not get in the way of the poem.

    i took a quick visit to Voice Alpha, and will read more, but my first reaction is Yes! Many poets should seek out a reading coach.

    i must add that as i’ve thought more about this, i do remember hearing poets at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival who do a fine job–who have not adopted any affectations and do not drone.

    • January 26, 2011 at 2:41 pm

      He does read them in what we can call a straightforward manner (western-style), and the idea of the little program for poetry is a great one.

      Sometimes I have a hard time telling that he is reading something that can be described as a poem; that has to do with the poem as written. I am the sort of person who thought “The Castle of Indolence” had some good points! (By the late Tom Disch) I probably would not love anybody’s choices all the time, and I am pleased with some of them–in fact, I’ve had friends with poems on, and I’m always glad because it helps get the word out about their work.

      I am simply not fond of poetry that doesn’t make use of enough of the resources of poetry, whether it is so-called free or formal.

  15. Paul Digby
    January 26, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Poetry read well aloud does not sound like anything is being ‘read’ at all! Alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, pace and all those other goodies are parts of natural speech, after all!

    • January 26, 2011 at 2:49 pm

      Well, now you are leaping into the land of flying weasels and snake baskets because the question of what exactly makes poetry different from natural speech is a contested subject.

      You are right–all the elements we can find in poetry exist as part of natural speech. And yet there is a divide between natural speech and poetry.

      • Paul Digby
        January 26, 2011 at 3:22 pm

        If the written word (in poetry) speaks for itself, one does not need to utilize stylized speech presentations for it though. Well.. this is what I believe. Mind you – some poetry is specifically written for that sort of treatment and that’s another thing entirely!
        It is, indeed, a contested subject!

        On the other hand, I have never heard poetry ruined by having been read aloud using natural speech style but I have heard many a poem destroyed from being read aloud in a stylized way!

        • January 26, 2011 at 6:49 pm


          And it is very interesting to listen to the way people once read–Yeats, for example. The era has its own expectations.

        • January 30, 2011 at 10:22 am

          Yet I would not say that Marly’s current way of reading is absolutely conversational. There is a sense of space and elevation about the words, but never pretentiousness. God forbid.

          • Paul Digby
            January 30, 2011 at 11:02 am

            I agree. Marly’s readings reflect the way the poems are written out visually on paper (as it were) without ever losing the conceptual thread to the aural interpretation of that.

          • January 30, 2011 at 8:14 pm

            What a fine bunch of flatterers these commenters be! Thank you, Robbi and Paul.

  16. Alex Cigale
    January 27, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Wonderful to have you with us for the translation issue, Marly, as this heartwarming response will attest. I look forward to more from you (hint, hint). Trees particularly (of all plants,) have been held sacred in many cultures, so that you wield them as a wiccan might “her materials.” Quite Druidic; as you know the various runic alphabets were derived from the names of trees (just as our own middle eastern one is domestic and agricultural: ALEPH (OX) BETH (HOUSE) GIMEL (CAMEL) DALED (DOOR) and so on.) Strikes me as an apt metaphor for the artist wielding her materials; this is close to my own heart as in the 90s I published a magazine dedicated specifically to work with intertextual and found forms and materials. Re: affective (and affected) reading, being from a particular tradition, I will go way out on a limb and make a psychological prediction; the lilting style contains an element of overcompensation subconsciously intended to prove that free verse is poetic. Even within a vatic tradition (you can hear Akhmatova and Mandelstam at http://www.bestpoets.narod.ru/ahmatova.htm, http://www.bestpoets.narod.ru/mandelshtam.html, http://imwerden.de/cat/modules.php?name=books&pa=showbook&pid=369, http://imwerden.de/cat/modules.php?name=books&pa=last_update&cid=203 (Читает автор,) there was no greater ham actor than the free verse Mayakovsky: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Mayakovsky.php. Of course, this is a very narrow sample, but more generally, it is an issue of culture, tradition, and psychological makeup and character.

  17. January 27, 2011 at 9:20 pm


    So glad to get a little interruption in the middle of helping with 8th-grade homework! And yes, it is heartwarming and surprises me. I tend to think of myself as writing away in an obscure corner of the world.

    Curious to think about that reading style as intended to help demonstrate a free verse poem as “poetic.” Certainly it does distinguish the line as a separate entity as well as inventing a mode of speech that is set apart. The Mayakovsky link is interesting in that light! I shall take a listen after the homework is done…

    Yes, I confess to being mad about trees (my book-after-next is “The Foliate Head,” but the next book, “The Throne of Psyche,” is also sprinkled with trees) and their mythogies—transformations, Tree of Life, etc. I have been writing “Self-portrait as Dryad” poems for some years.

  18. Nic Sebastian
    January 29, 2011 at 8:25 am

    “I will go way out on a limb and make a psychological prediction; the lilting style contains an element of overcompensation subconsciously intended to prove that free verse is poetic.”

    Interesting! I think there may be something to this, and that free vs form does play into the dynamic somehow. But, separately, do I understand your statement to be inferring that in fact free verse is *not* poetic??

    Best to all, Nic

    Marly – very much enjoyed the poems and your readings – thanks so much for sharing. Fans of trees unite!!

    • January 29, 2011 at 11:43 am

      (That is why I founded the Festival of the Trees blog carnival, you know. Submissions welcome!)

      • January 29, 2011 at 12:35 pm

        I love Festival of the Trees! Everybody should visit…

    • January 29, 2011 at 12:47 pm

      I’m glad Alex made that remark, not me! I write both–rarely free, though. For me, I think freedom can only be felt as Whitman felt it after wearing chains. Then comes the truest frisking!

      But I am with the late Tom Disch in “The Castle of Indolence”: there are plenty of poems out there that are just prose passages run through a lawnmower. Arbitrary breaks, tedious matter. If you look at the early modernists and their free verse, you hear and see that they knew and grew through ideas about metrics and form and sound that are often lost these days. Some writers appear to be limited in their reading, a thing that tends to show over time.

      Nic, thank you so much! I am pleased that you liked them.

  19. January 30, 2011 at 10:25 am

    RE: the Russian style of reading, it is not quite fair I think to compare any poet in English to a Russian one because of those easy-to-rhyme case endings. Russian lends itself so much more to form and rhyme than English does. It is probably much more difficult to attempt free verse in that language. Still, sometimes for an English speaking listener, it could easily tip over into parody.

  20. January 30, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    I must say that it is something I like about English, the relative difficulty of rhyming. Rhyming case endings and suffixes may be beloved by writers in other languages, but I love the sometimes-intractable English. No doubt every writer loves the special beauties and difficulties of her or his own language.

    • January 30, 2011 at 8:23 pm

      I am in love with the word-music of English, even though I don’t like writing in forms or using end-rhymes. I feel really lucky to have been born to such a mongrel mother-tongue with so many different kinds of sounds.

      • January 30, 2011 at 8:53 pm

        Though I have come to love tangling with form, I agree with you wholly about the delicousness of a mongrel language.

        • Paul Digby
          January 30, 2011 at 9:06 pm

          The English vocabulary is vast. This allows for greater conceptual subtleties and a higher rate of rhyming words.
          So why are so many of mine absurd?


          • January 30, 2011 at 9:50 pm

            Paul, if your choice of words appears to be absurd, it is in a most pleasant fashion! XD

  21. Alex Cigale
    February 2, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Re: Russian “free verse,” specifically listening to Mayakovsky read gives one a better sense of the sonic complexities of the originals, particularly his heavy reliance on internal rhyme and other alliterative effects. So by all means no, Nic. There is no such thing as free verse, only a more or less regulated and hence musical line (in Zukofsky’s formulation, “lower limit speech, upper limit music”). And yes, Marly, it is wonderful to be able to work within the sense of community the umbrella of this journal provides.

    • February 3, 2011 at 9:36 am

      Alex, like that Zukofsky phrase. Definitely an aspirant to music here!

      This country (also the world!) is very big. It is pleasant to come together in these little e-aethereal web-worlds…

      I need to come back and read more of this issue as soon as I reduce my current mountain of deadlines to something a bit more plain-like. Shall do!

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