Naming the Trees
We are naming the trees as we walk, or trying to
name them—it is early spring,
no help from leaves,
though their shapes are etched on our minds,
their branching veins, the space between,
like my hand against your chest.
Only the texture of bark: smooth or rough, riveted, peeling,
or drawn with arching brows
(skepticism, perhaps, at our naming),
and their crowns: spreading or drooping, branches growing in whorls or
alternately, needles in groups of three
or five, or soft fronds of hemlock.
Oak (white), maple (red), birch (silvery yellow) and the smell
of wintergreen scratched open,
thumbnail to damp wood. We name them
because they tower over us, wave their myriad arms,
largest living things we see and don’t
see, here on the hills where they were logged, burned,
where, we remember, they marched back anyway, across the ashen slopes, saplings
cracking the rain-pocked earth, they split
themselves in all directions, stretched against sky, breathing
our breath. We are naming the trees
that have grown the perimeters of the burnt-out factory where sky
shouts through the windows
on the wall left standing,
the rest all ghosted and black, letters rubbed out from caving sides—
a wood treatment plant, hidden behind the barbed wire’s
curtain of climbing vines,
its bittersweet, honeysuckle, nostalgic and invasive: what strangles
the forest undoes this too, us, fenced in
and overcome with sweet blossoms and berries
and doomed as the gasping tree in bittersweet’s coil.
We are naming,
we are naming the trees before they walk away
because we are unlearning our forgetfulness,
because this time we are trying the opposite and taking our time,
and right now time loves us
because we just made love, late
this morning, slowly
waking each other up, without speaking,
yellow ribbons of light streaming in on our bodies, through branches
through slats of the shades, and then
we got up and went outside to name the trees: horse chestnuts
in front lawns, magnolia, crab apple still budless,
On the back of your hand, blue veins branch
like trees, like roots seeking water,
like the river that roils under the bridge
we are walking over, somewhere farther along,
where we could fish it, eat, not think
toxic silt, PCBs carried downstream.
Think: tree swallows in silver maples,
water-loving. We press
our hands against bark to print its pattern on our palms,
across our lifelines, grooved
skin and finger pads whorled to the center. I say
your name, and you turn
like a stalk toward the light. I love you.
There is no good reason
why any of this should be, which is why
we hold it in our mouths, turning it over. Today
we are naming the trees, calling them back to us.
Shagbark hickory, tamarack,
weeping willow and white pine.
Sugar maple, we say, and it is on our tongues:
Tap it now, in March,
the ground a mash of snow and mud, sap rising
from the roots, clear drop on the finger:
small sweetness we taste because we know it’s there.
Hannah Fries is associate editor and poetry editor of Orion and a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Calyx, terrain.org, and other journals. She recently took part in an interdisciplinary artists’ residency focused on mine reclamation with the Colorado Art Ranch.