Poem, “The Sensitive Knife” by Gerald Stern
Every day the dark blue sky of brother Van Gogh
gets closer and closer,
and every day the blue gentians of brother Lawrence
darken my eyes.
it is blue wherever I go,
walking the towpath,
climbing the stone island,
swimming the river,
and everywhere I sit or kneel
the blue goes through me like a sensitive knife.
I am following my own conception now
and during the night I flap my two-foot wings
in the black locusts.
I move thoughtfully from branch to branch,
always loving the stiffness and shyness
of the old giants.
I think of my own legs as breaking off
or my wings coming loose in the wind
or my blossoms dropping onto the ground.
Across the river the sticks are coming to life
and Mithras and Moses and Jesus are swaying and bowing
in all directions.
I swim carefully through the blood
and land on my feet on the side of Carpenter’s Hill.
There on a flat rock
my father is placing the shank bone
and the roasted egg on a white napkin.
I climb over the rhododendrons and the dead trees to meet him.
Spoken word poem, “It Never Lies” by Hung Pham
Imagine that all the oxygen I breathe, from the moment I begin to cry upon thundering into what is called life, the branches of one enormous tree exhaling with welcome. Breaths produced faster than mine, without expectation of compensation, breaths that give and keep giving as manifested memories of sunlight absorbed mornings ago—these breaths sit in between where the Black Locust and I trust each other.
It never lies to me. It never lies because it doesn’t know how like we know how to lie to each other. In this place, humming with an electricity that fosters a culture of hiding vulnerability as it pressures its worker bees to produce, to generate results, to forget how to breathe, I forget how to breathe.
It never lies to me. It never lies to me because when I found out mom got put into the hospital last week and the doctors didn’t know if she would make it, when I found out that dad who works as a day laborer couldn’t find work because of the California drought, when I found out that I had already been working 19 hours a week for all four years to send my paycheck home every week to my poor family but that they needed more to buy groceries now, I cried and forgot how to breathe. But what I could remember is that a sore heart and tired feet could be cured with short trips to see the Black Locust, with its naked sprawling branches from winter soon to blossom into the white flowers of spring, its petals chasing the light.
It never lies to me. The lampposts on Prospect illuminated the path to the Black Locust still tall, still strong, still with its brown, ridged bark in the 2:00 A.M. New Haven darkness. No matter how good the news or how sad the tragedies, the Black Locust remains the Black Locust remains tree #44 on the Yale Nature Walk remains what it promised to grow up to be. Unsure how to not be strong, my shaking arms wrapped around the furrowed, imperfect bark, learning themselves how to be imperfect. The Black Locust breathes faster than I do and with a larger, more altruistic purpose, without complexities, without pride, and with truth. As it sighs what I need to live, I exhale for it. This is how we talk.
It never lies to me. But I know, I know if I stand here for the rest of this lifetime, and the next, that I can’t lie to it either. Truth is inscribed within the breath, which it has reminded me how to make more of.
To the Black Locust, a resilient teacher that survives drought and harsh winters, and creates more of itself using itself to send up new sprouts: when I perish from the earth and return to it underneath the dirt upon which you triumph, I can only hope to make more of you as you have made more of me.