Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"At the roots of an arcade of tulip trees"

One of the houses we lived in when I was small had a giant tulip poplar in the back yard. It shaded a large wooden sandbox that I claimed as my own, since my brothers were too old for sandboxes. I’d haul my dolls out there and play for hours, protected by the tree. I loved the fleshy flowers that dropped down from it in the spring. They’d litter the ground, and I was fascinated by the way the petals turned leathery and brown as they decayed. My attachment to that tree has stayed with me all my life. If I have a totem tree, it must be the tulip poplar

Tulip poplars get very tall and their roots are rather fragile, so they are prone to coming down in storms, especially when there’s a lot of rain. There are quite a few of them on the ground in the park right now, thanks to the flood, and the flowers are scattered everywhere. The blooms themselves have no scent, but if you tear open the center pod (the “ovary”), there’s a wonderful green fragrance inside—a mix of pine, cucumber and cut leaf. I’ve been stopping at least once every morning this week to pick up a flower and take a hit of that smell. It’s on my short list of dream perfumes. I’d love for some brilliant nose to re-create it.

I went looking for a poetic reference to the tulip tree and found something wonderful by Csezlaw Milosz. Here’s the relevant snippet:

America for me has the pelt of a raccoon,
Its eyes are a raccoon’s black binoculars.
A chipmunk flickers in a litter of dry bark
Where ivy and vines tangle in the red soil
At the roots of an arcade of tulip trees.
America’s wings are the color of a cardinal,
Its beak is half-open and a mockingbird trills
From a leafy bush in the sweat-bath of the air.
Its line is the wavy body of a water moccasin
Crossing a river with a grass-like motion,
A rattlesnake, a rubble of dots and speckles,
Coiling under the bloom of a yucca plant.

From "A Treatise on Poetry: IV Natura" by Csezlaw Milosz, translated by Robert Hass. Read more here.

Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT from Wikimedia Commons


ScentScelf said...

That's two gifts today: the liriodendron, and the Milosz.

I've been fascinated by tulip trees since I got into gardening, but we are *just* north of their happy place, so to me they have been this odd hybrid of "overlooked common beauty" and "exotic." I've come quite close to ordering and planting one a number of times. I love being able to experience having one through your writing.

As for Czeslaw, I know too little of his poetry, but almost always enjoy what I come across. I miss hearing his commentaries...for some reason, they define a certain short period of my life. I must have had some sort of regular but limited commute or something, and his voice was the journey there.

dissed said...

I miss tulip poplars. So tall and straight . . . there are none in this part of NW Georgia.

Alyssa said...

I love tulip trees...

And I love these post-flood posts--so full of grace, and astoundingly free of bitterness. I don't know what you're feeling like in the rest of your life, but on the blog you are all tender strength, M.

I am full of admiration.

And also: I'm going to be doing a LOT of procrastinating ID'ing all the birdsong in my back yard on that bird watching site!

BitterGrace said...

Glad y'all liked this one. There is something about tulip poplars--everyone loves them.

Alyssa, the flood has been awful for so many, but I've been incredibly lucky, with just a trivial amount of damage, and kind friends to help me repair it. An event like this makes you very aware of the vagaries of fate...

BitterGrace said...

Oh, SS--I only know Milosz's poetry. I keep meaning to read The Issa Valley... *making mental note to get a copy*