Category Archives: Poetry

Glories Strung Like Beads

A nondescript work morning on a nondescript street in East Flatbush. 8:00 a.m. 39th Street off Snyder Avenue.


I haven’t seen one resident –are they all asleep?–but the backhoe is going gangbusters. The usual.

Except…Holy Cross Cemetery across Snyder is getting a haircut and I can smell the cut new grass as the mower motors toward me.


There are slightly soaked bears, signs of somebody’s Iove. You stumble across these pocket graveyards in New York sometimes.

I find velvet roses around the corner, climbing above the chain link.


Their perfume is as heady in gritty Brooklyn as it is anywhere else. I dip my nose in once. Twice.


Here there is the promise of the end of the world and the start of something new. Miracles await.

And I find Amur Maples, something I’d never come across, I’ve never seen.


Walt Whitman, writing about Brooklyn, extolled “the glories strung like beads on my smallest/sights and hearings, on the walk in the street. ”

I’ve never seen anything.

It’s all new.

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When Gertude Stein Came to Brooklyn

The barricades attach themselves to barricades on West Street on the Brooklyn waterfront. The flagwoman holds her sign she loves the barricades she hates the trucks and she blows on her whistle her whistle her whistle. The laborers work with one another they flirt with one another they work and they flirt. Inspectors inspect one another.

The sky shines white the buildings shine silver the new sliver building shines silver as a dime and pierces the sky beyond Brooklyn.

Trees behind barricades mean nothing to anyone they mean something to the arborist and nothing to the laborers the laborers want to knock down the barricades all the barricades all the time.

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The laborers flirt they hurt they have fights they fight and they flirt they don’t see the arborist the arborist is behind a barricade the barricade must be knocked down.

A pickaxe is a pickaxe a pickaxe is only a pickaxe    A shovel is useful for digging trenches a trench is useful for holding pipe. Water is useful for drinking. Water is turned off city water residents want water the laborers put in the water they shovel they pickaxe they lay pipe they offer water they don’t think of trees. Trees stand behind barricades they are visible they are visible to the arborist who stands without a pickaxe.

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The Pleasures of the Urban Arborist

I wish I could suck it all up, absorb it and remember every single thing. Driving in the black night over the highways of New York City to get to the site. The lichen on the burly oaks. Their majesty.

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The flashy red leaf plum.

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The smell of sesame oil wafting through the Chinese neighborhood at Francis Lewis Boulevard. The 7:30 am parade of children to school, holding their parents’ hands. The identical row houses of Queens. The crone who was surprised when I approached her: “She’s a lady!” which is true, though I like feeling a little bit like a man on this job. The persistent smell of exhaust from the landscaping truck. Prickly sweetgum balls, red maple twigs, the puffs that hang swaying from the london plane.

 

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The way the root of the l.p. emphatically bulges over and raises up the sidewalk.

 

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The resident who was aghast that her neighbors had had their mammoth tree butchered: “I came back from Vegas and it was done!”

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The haunted houses of Brooklyn.

 

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Learning to differentiate between a zelkova and a linden. Bad bodega coffee. The best lunch in the world.

 

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The soapy grace of laundromats that let you pee there. Proud pit bulls. The soft detritus of leaves pushed up against the gutters. Laying my palm on a fat cherry trunk, feeling its lenticels under the pads of my fingers.

Days that are poems.

 

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And always, the juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade.

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I’ve been doing this for just under a year now.

 

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I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

Yesterday, the first day of winter, I bought jonquils, the hoity toity term for daffodils. I had taken my fill of soup dumplings and braised seaweed in Flushing, NY’s Chinatown and was rolling out to the car. Could that really be daffodils they were advertising in the shop window — cut flowers, an unexpected bouquet?

daffodils window

Turns out they were not cut flowers but bulbs. I have another bulb working at home, an ethereal amaryllis, given to me by a botanically inclined friend, someone who knows how to grow everything. I had been lamenting the death of a fine cactus inadvertently left on a remote windowsill. Having something come to life in my house was very welcome.

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Daffodils in winter. The trees don’t show their green now, but the flowers will flaunt their yellow before long. In China they believe that forcing daffodils in the new year will bring good luck. I’ll put them in dishes on a nest of gravel from my driveway and hope they bloom, hope I have the luck to get good luck.

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These are some of the strangest looking bulbs I’ve ever seen. They will be mega-daffodils I’m sure. It’s hard not to think of Wordsworth writing in 1804 on the flower:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
   In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
   Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

A touch of the arbor in my living room as 2016 comes on.

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Feed the Tree

If you believe in the power of coincidence it won’t surprise you that the song I heard in my car on my way back from apple picking today, by Belly, the ’90s rock band, was Feed the Tree:

So take your hat off

When you’re talking to me

And be there when I feed the tree

I went apple picking in the most incongruous orchard I have ever seen — and I have seen orchards in my time. We lived for a while in a farmhouse in the middle of an old orchard upstate, where we were intoxicated every spring by the ineffable honey of apple blossoms (and the taste of blueberry dacquiries).

“You’ll like it – it’s a little different!” my brother Peter told me when we talked about going picking there. That was an understatement. Edward Gorey might have created Mr. Apples, which is run by a man named Philip Apple in High Falls, at the edge of the Catskills. There were ghost barns.

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Mr. Apples had just two things available for purchase: pick your own apples and cider vinegar. His signage covered the place.

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The trees themselves were overgrown, twisted and blackened, their leaves gone, and their apples had fallen to the ground in drifts of blemished fruit.

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I loved this place, if only because it was so different from the corn maze-smiling scarecrow-fake pumpkin patch orchards you usually find in the Hudson Valley. It was a little hard to get past the produce, though. “There are some black spots,” said Mr. Apples. “When you get home, brush them with a cloth and the spots will come off.”

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I can tell you that no amount of rubbing would take the spots off. “Organic style apple” was how he billed his product, and he said the spots were caused by humidity. They looked like they came out of Snow White. I bought half a bushel and will find some use for the poor things, maybe apple sauce.

After Apple Picking is Robert Frost’s fabulous poem about, yes, harvesting apples, but also about human frailty, a woodchuck and death, among other things.

But I am done with apple-picking now.

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

 It is so complex and wonderful that you must take yourself to the Poetry Foundation and read it.

Since I began working as an arborist, the image comes into my head quite often: the tantrumming trees in The Wizard of Oz hurling apples.

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The fruit I saw today would be suitable for throwing. And that’s a good thing. Joni Mitchell: Hey farmer, farmer, put away your DDT. Give me spots on my apples but leave me with the birds and bees.

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The Sidewalks of New York

What lies under the city sidewalk? Dirt. Sand. Rocks, bricks, miscellaneous debris. Skeletal remains of vermin. And thousands of miles of pipes.

And roots.

I found one today on the job, a gnarled and grizzled specimen, a time capsule from before the jungle of New York was so concrete. This London Plane root, a yard long and six inches at its fattest, had been severed by the backhoe as it excavated the old concrete sidewalk. It was still wet with life.

London Plane root

It made me think of those anguished lines by Neruda, in Walking Around:

I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,

insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,

going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,

taking in and thinking, eating every day.

In a way, the metaphor is truer than the reality. We’re a lot more insecure than that root I found today, chopped through though it was by the backhoe.

I don’t know how they poured concrete a hundred years back, in the 1890’s, when the pop song “The Sidewalks of New York” was Taylor-Swift hot. Then the streets were mainly cobbles, Belgian paving blocks. Asphalt was relatively new. Some streets were still dirt, more country lane than city slicker. It must have been fantastic for a woman to sweep down a (relatively) clean sidewalk without befouling the hem of her skirts. Especially if she was responsible for cleaning those skirts.

Now a root in the city seems fantastic. On my first job going among the trees, in June, there was a foreman with a sticker on his hard hat that read Irish. His name was Sean, and he had a salt-and-pepper mustache and a twinkle in his eye. I had been tracing the progress of an excavation to install a new gas line, watching the roots as they materialized in the “moist guts of the earth.” Making sure they weren’t broken by the backhoe. I had to leave, and I asked Sean to keep an eye on a certain root I was concerned about. He smiled, with only a hint of irony.

“Ah,” said Sean, “the lovely root.”

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April Daffs

Is April really the cruellest month? Just because T.S. Eliot phrased it so beautifully in The Wasteland doesn’t necessarily make it so.

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

I saw my first daffodils of the season today.

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I’m in a mood. I can’t quite put my finger on why April is hateful, yet I know it to be true.

The birdsong I usually love strikes me as obnoxious.

The bright spring sun, scalding to the eyes. The alternative, sunglasses, too dark.

At the coffee place, I watch the barrista draw a cute foam face on the latte of the guy in front of me. Do you make funny faces for all the lattes? I ask. Just the special ones, he says.

I wait for my latte. Plain old plain old.

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It’s that kind of day.

Alice James, that overlooked yet so wise diarist of the nineteenth century, said: “The ancient superstition as to spring and youth being the most joyous periods is pretty well exploded, don’t you think? The one is the most depressing moment of the year, so is the other the most difficult of life.”

Even the luscious yellow of the daffodils. Save it for later, will you? Tomorrow, April might be a peach of a month.

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