Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The First Poem of the Winning Set for the 2018 Songs of Eretz Poetry Award

Coupling Under the Bodhi Tree
Doris Ferleger

1. 
Graceful black walnut tree still towers 
over the garden—garden you left me 
to tend, manicure. I roundly shear

what you let grow wild, add purple 
flowering plants, not knowing 
they spread like ground fire,

and a sapling crepe myrtle has found 
its way beside the weeping 
atlas cedar.
"Walnut Tree" Watercolor on Paper
by J.Artemus Gordon

A man who came and went from my life—
the intuitive said he was heaven
sent by you to bestow some earthly pleasures—

warned me the walnut should be whacked down
because (didn’t I know) it’s called “the killer tree.”
I have since read up on the aromatic compound

called juglone, its juices inside walnut leaves, 
fruits, roots, known to inhibit growth 
of vital vegetation it touches. 

The man who came and went would 
know about such things. 
Drone that sucks the sweet—also stings.

2. 
And the man who came and went, who warned 
against the walnut, savored the sweet,
swam at winning speeds, butterfly

his stroke—said he’d die if he had to 
swim as slow as I do, then blocked my freestyle 
with the side of his hand coming down 

like a cleaver so I’d learn fast when to start 
my pull back. It hurt. 
I didn’t learn fast. 

3.
After he left, I learned bits 
of walnut bark infused into a brew, kill 
parasites and purify the blood.

And tea made from walnut leaves 
calms every part of the body 
inflamed. 

And a teaspoon of walnut crystals, 
made from husk cradling nut, makes ink 
the color of willow branches.

And it is said: In the golden age 
when men lived on acorns,
the gods lived on walnuts.

4. 
Floating on my back in the light
blue pool, I watch leaves twirl down, 
languorous or rushing, speed depending 

on mood of the wind. Today I feel myself 
neither hurled nor forsaken, 
but rather buoyed by the practice 

of watching things die.
Each cloud wisp and vortex,
vanishing, each breath

a blessing 
beating down
my door.

5.
Who are we to each other?
A new love asks.
Two separate trees, 

not sharing the same roots
but nourished by the same soil, 
same sunlight, same shade, 

same night sky and stars. 
Count them. There are enough 
to count on.

6. 
See the double-trunked walnut you planted—
two separate trees is how it seems, 
sharing the same roots.

7.
It is said Buddha reached enlightenment 
as he sat alone beneath the Bodhi tree. 
Pilgrims seek wisdom beneath its heart- 

shaped leaves and sweet figs. 
I say we are each Buddha 
sitting beside each other

under any tree, under every tree,
I counsel myself—to be happy—
say yes to happiness, yes to all fear 

of happiness. Yes to peacefulness,
yes to the lack of ease that arises
in peacefulness.

Poet’s Notes:  Just after he was diagnosed with a stage 4 glioblastoma (brain tumor), my beloved husband of thirty-five years created a new garden as a sanctuary for healing--the garden he would, a year later, leave for me to tend and study: purple tufted smoke bushes now twenty feet high, white crepe myrtle, its mottled bark so pleasing to his eye, Virginia sweet spires, delicate blue caryopteris, shaggy and swirling grasses. He loved the garden’s asymmetry, crowdedness, diversity, wildness, varying times of growth and decay. He was a spiritual man who embraced quietness and spaciousness.

When we first moved into the house thirty years before his diagnosis, he planted cypresses and blue spruces to create a refuge, blocking the view of other houses. The walnut tree was already there, dropping its giant hard fruit, but the poem required this tree to be planted by him also, to be rooted in our love.

He died one year after the diagnosis, and I urgently began to control what I could control, namely the garden, trying hard to tame my grief. I trimmed and sheared feverishly, evenly. Eventually, in the garden and in the pool he built for me, I started to understand what he left me--a temple of enduring love, healing, and reminder of life’s preciousness and impermanence, the blooming and dying of morning glories in a single day, the closing of daylilies at nightfall, the triumphant return of the healing walnut leaves each year (my husband was an internist who practiced as a naturopathic physician).

In the garden I also contemplate passion, compassion, love, loss, the butterfly stroke, the meaning of forever when a new love says, I’ll love you forever and leaves after a year or some years, the walnut tree still gracing the garden, its split trunk, its rootedness in our thirty-five years of marriage as a spiritual adventure, a photo of my dead beloved still on the bookcase, the leavings. So again I sit, feel into the ephemeral and the eternal, alone yet not alone, the heart filled, yet broken. I seek heart/wisdom under every tree in the wildly imperfect garden.

Editor’s Note:  This one has a nice, flowing, short Japanese form poem feel about it.  There are also elements of Ovid here as well as the obvious nod to Buddhism.  The facts about walnut trees are interesting and presented in a thoughtful, poetic manner.  And throughout, there is the sad undertone of living with the loss of one’s soulmate.  A bio of the poet and comments by Guest Contest Judge Former Kansas Poet Laureate Eric McHenry may be found here http://www.songsoferetz.com/2018/02/announcing-winner-of-2018-songs-of.html.


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