JESSICA HORNIK's poems have been published in Poetry, The Yale Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, Verse, The Southern Review, and many other journals. She appeared in Slope #2.
THE LYING TREE
In a forest where the under branches of evergreens
send funereal limbs into the sunless lower air,
there is a tree whose smooth trunk rises
to about the height of two women, then
diverges-one cannot say branches,
for there are no branches-into two still rising,
symmetrical curves. Anyone passing by on the trail
would see the resemblance to a lyre.
By the time the tree had stood lifeless
for longer than it had been alive,
it had become a meeting place for lovers
who required the privacy of the tented grove.
In spring they were lured by the scented blossoms
of blackhaw and the drooping delicacy
of the yellow adderstongues, which grew
closer to the kill, away from the sun-refusing pines.
A boy could upturn the flower's center to his eyes,
then lift, in turn, his eyes to the girl's . . .
And the lyre, because stringless and not given
to music, seemed instead to listen, an instrument
inverted to become an ear.
A dead tree among live ones is as a lyre
to the instruments of an ongoing civilization.
One summer evening, a girl
rushed through the jewelweed tilting along the kill
to meet a boy at the usual place. Through its bowed arms
the lyre had heard the promise the boy had recited
on an earlier evening, a promise
that resonated for the girl as vow.
It was never learned what exactly
he said that night, but everyone soon knew
the girl had been taken in by a liar.
The boy came to be regarded as a scoundrel.
Other girls, shaken now by their suspicions,
preferred to be walked around the town green
rather than held in the arms of boys
by the arms of a silent, but, for all they knew,
malevolent phenomenon of nature.
Compare, for instance, the legend of the prince
who, to prove his devotion to his love, reached
for a handful of cliff-side yellow-eyed blue beauties
and, toppling to his death, called to her
forget me not. Girls grow up knowing
never to meet their boys at the lying tree.
But they do not know, nor can their parents tell them,
exactly why the tree is said to be a liar, and to turn
good boys into liars too. It no longer matters
that, eventually, the bowed arms
will break and fall, killing all resemblance
to anything living or dead.
HE CAME ONCE A YEAR TO SEE THE LEAVES
He came once a year to see the leaves
and mourn the loss of a love.
He was never sure if the purple weeds
lining the roadside were heather.
The lakes he saw lying back
like a woman's shoulders in the dusk
inspired him to a grief only the leaves
could mimic. Why they left him,
always, at the end of summer,
he couldn't fathom. The new moon
abstained. In rented cars he rescued
the desert islands of cheap motels
from the risk of random cheer.
That April morning the sun fit a halo
to the sink's orphan white, a brightness
that seemed a transmitter of future light.
And here you still stand, a hinge
between two versions of a chronology:
The years that might have happened
sail permanently back
to the place where the river acquires a name.
And the years that have-
like a woman stepping out of the bath-
she grabs hold of the sink,
reassembles her nerve, looks
at the spot on the floor
that will take her next step.