The Arbor Vitae 2013

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WHEN THE WORLD TILTS

February 4, 2014

Tags: NILE, snow, poem, February, future

I have always disliked February. There is something about the way the name looks, the way the letters are arranged on the page that inspires negative vibes in me. Of course, the predictably miserable February weather may have something to do with it. Perched uneasily somewhere between glamorous December and the promise of spring in April, February drags its dreary way from day to day, its only cheer carried in the fact that it is fractionally shorter than its neighbors. It hardly begins before I long for it to end.
I write this as I try to adjust the tilt of my world. It has left me sadly off balance, but with every day that passes I feel an adjustment taking place. It will never go back to what it was before, but once February and this year's relentless snows leave us in peace, I think I will see a wider horizon. So while I wait for that, here is a poem I wrote in 1957, when the world I knew tilted for the first time, and I tried to capture it with words as it cast me into my future:

THE NILE RIVER

Somewhere a dog flings his shaggy voice at the moon
And stars fight to prick his eyes with light.
Full-bodied, the river writhes past banks
Thick with memories of famine and quenching flood.
Neon lights switch off...on...off...on... in neat sterility,
And light falls, scattering confusion
Into the dark grumbling of the waters.
Mosques wave graceful fingers at the air
Side by side with the blunt bull-necks
Of the chimneys of factories.
Mud villages crouch in the mother-mud of the river
Greedily sucking of its vitality,
For beyond it heaves the cold breathing of the dead dust.

Dawn rapidly laps night from the saucer of the sky
While the river surges on, roiling and grey.
Towns sprawl beside it in ungainly puddles,
Parasites clinging to its generous limbs.
Strips of sudden green straggle between
The tumbled humps of native villages.
Sun glares over the desert as morning comes
And men gush out of the river banks from a million sprawling wounds
And in the fat importance of the day
Spit in the river,
Crawling about their lives, each his own small world,
While the river, drugged with fertility
Forgives them all.




THE CLINGING VINE

August 3, 2013

Tags: terrace, apartment, mandevilla, vine, ficus, poem

Mandevilla flowers in the ficus tree
      We have a small terrace attached to our apartment. Our view to the right used to stretch unimpeded to the East River, but 47 years in this apartment have taken their toll. Tall apartment buildings have sprung into being over the years, eating more and more sky, obstructing more and more of the open spaces we loved. Immediately across from our terrace is a jumbled skyscape of smaller buildings; on a good day their shapes crisp against a clear blue sky.
      Last year our building underwent a massive renovation. Railings and metal netting were replaced by shiny new railings and large glass panels. That is all that separates us from the street far below, a thought that makes me slightly queasy. I miss the metal netting. It somehow seemed more substantial.
      I used to plant morning glory seeds and weave them in and out so that their purple blossoms surprised us at our morning coffee on those rare days when breezes blew softly and our terrace seemed like a magical harbor far above the teeming city, offering a soothing entry into the day.
      Today, bright blooms flourish on the outside sill of our bedroom window, and geranium plants, cut back before we brought them indoors last fall, have pushed up against the glass panels, sometimes stretching through the spaces between to lift their flowers closer to the sun.
      In the far left corner of the terrace we placed our old ficus tree, which we nurtured from a thin twig to its present expansive canopy of branches and leaves. Lightly grazing the ceiling, it, too, winters in the apartment, and every spring, I enjoy seeing the dulled winter leaves reach for the sunlight and dance in the breeze on the terrace, acquiring a rich sheen as summer progresses. This year, I placed a small mandevilla plant beside the ficus against the grey partition that separates our terrace from that of our neighbors. An abundance of conical buds and some luminous pink blooms promised a beautiful summer.
      I was not prepared for the aggressive survival tactics of the mandevilla. It released graceful tendrils into the air, swaying, seeming almost to bring a consciousness to the act, braiding its tendrils together into thicker ropes, reaching out to find the branches of the ficus and twisting itself tightly, spiraling along the branches of the ficus toward the light, its large flat leaves intermingling with the delicate leaves of the ficus.
      At first, almost amused at its antics, we took pleasure in the fact that the ficus had begun to showcase some blooms not of its own creation. But every morning we observe the vine integrating more and more with its host. The ficus looks happy, nonetheless. Is it eager for this companionship that could bring about its demise? At the first sign of distress we plan to intervene.
     Meanwhile, we watch, and wait, and I am reminded of a poem I loved, Beleaguered Cities, by F.L. Lucas, which ends with the lines:

Build, build the ramparts of your giant town;
Yet they shall crumble to the dust before
The battering thistledown.

     I tremble before the power of the weak.

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