Poem of the Week | June 11, 2013

This week we’ve dug up a wonder by David St. John. We published “The Ash Tree” in our Winter 1983 “Crazy Mirror” issue, 6.2. St. John hit the scene in the mid-seventies and has been a major force in American poetry ever since. Along with many prestigious awards, his many books include Hush (1976), No Heaven (1985), Study for the World’s Body: New and Selected Poems (1994) and The Face: A Novella in Verse (2004). He directs the PhD in Creative Writing at University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

The Ash Tree

My grandmother led me out
Into her garden
Its two landscaped acres
Its layers of dark fronds rocking
Against streaks of waxy iridescence
Against the chromatic confusion of
Emeralds & jades
I was five
The frail white bells of the wisteria
Lit the length of the terrace eaves
& the mums nodded their lavender heads
Beside the cool slate patio
& the long trailers of the climbing rose
Arced through the limbs of the oak
Like a sequence of scarlet lips
Parting on air
at the end
Of one of the lawns—endless lawns
Sculpted to resemble huge
Hans Arp cut-outs floating horizontally
On the earth—stood the prize
Of my grandmother’s garden
Her golden ash tree
I knew the name of our city meant
In Spanish “ash tree”
I knew that every spring the parks
& avenues blew yellow
With leaves
& none
Was more brilliant nor more
Electric than this balloon of ash
Suspended in the summer light
As we walked back slowly towards
The house
I looked up
At the south face of the living room
Its entire wall simply four huge
Panes tinted to shield
The lazy reader from the afternoon
& from the lawn
One saw only the garden reflected
In the black glaze of smoked
so before me as behind me
The leaves of the ash tree shook
Like the gloved hands of puppets
Like Aztec stars of the thinnest
Beaten gold
it was
My grandmother would sometimes say
As if each March the dull bark
Broke quietly open to release
Numberless angels
each aflame
& struggling to reach heaven before
Night fell before
They cooled & blew like ash away
The last spring of her life
She lay in a hospital bed wheeled
Before those windows
Where she could watch the garden
In its familiar bloom
& the ash leaves
Which were at that very moment as
She wrote to me
Beating in a rising April wind
The day she died
I thought of my final visit
When tired & weak & exhausted by
My own nervousness
She asked to be left alone to sleep
& I went out into the garden
As I walked across the lawn towards
The ash tree
I thought I heard her
Calling & I turned to walk back
& saw only the black panes reflecting
As always
the garden surrounding me
Reflecting too my own dim shape
& suddenly I was sure I saw her
Chiseled face & silver hair flare
For an instant
as perhaps
She raised herself up in the bed
To look out at me or at the ash tree
Shaking behind me in the erratically
Gusting breeze
& as my eyes focused again
Upon the watery surface of the glass
I saw in that new angle
only those black
Windows filling with gold light
As if my grandmother’s face appearing
As it had was the white spark
That set each blazing
As if each slender wing of ash had blown
Very quietly very finally to flame