Forever (Ode to a Fig Tree)

By KARAH STOKES

POETRY FINALIST

“It ain’t braggin if you can do it.” —Dizzy Dean

Stick thick as an index finger and a foot long,
last summer your tridents waved in the breeze,
hydraulic marvels, spectacular as biplanes, as origami storks,
as an African elephant’s ears.
Burrowing into the flagstones of the old patio
lifting up to the blue air with the elegance of a ballerina en pointe.
Stick that has the power to become a tree,
giver of fruit, escape chute
from my best friend’s second-floor bedroom
in the 1970’s suburbs,

When I touch you, I touch Sicily,
the place I’m from,
a place I’ve never been.

When I taste your fruit, I’m tasting memory:
aloft next to Sylvia’s bedroom window, eating figs, skipping school.
When I taste you, I expiate my childhood sin against my Granny,
who had a fig tree I never appreciated—
figs were too mushy,
too sweet for me then.
When I see your leaves, I see Matisse’s collages,
old Hollywood sets of jungle movies,
an episode of Johnny Quest.

You who started with three sticks the size of number two pencils
and grew to shade my kitchen window,
You of whose three sticks one leafed out immediately
and immediately died, one dried up without trying,
and the third waited patient in a clay pot
in the only sunny window in that house, neither leafing nor dying.

When I took you outside, your roots circumnavigated the pot.

Stick cut from tree, grown from stick cut from tree,
planted by being stuck into the ground like a child’s simple wish,
you were planted and transplanted
and spread across the warm green world:

Two of your fruits, placed stem to stem,
are the sign for infinity.
How did you alone decide to grow in exile?
How did you choose your time?
Did you miss the southern exposure of the garden you came from?

Were you there when the woman and her incurious husband
fled the angel with the flaming sword?
Did Cleopatra feed Mark Antony from your boughs?
Do you remember Keats, who never made it off the quarantine ship?
Did Severn purchase some of your fruit at great cost,
so his friend could at least taste
the sunshine of Italy
before he died?

Where did you learn to convert what you had
into what you needed?

How do you make a fruit that is also a flower?

How do you turn each vessel you produce
to the same lovely proportion?

How do you combine
chartreuse, rose, amethyst, and dusty umber
into perfect harmony?

How do you make sweetness
not cloying, but refreshing?

Remind my roots to reach downward with greedy zest.

Remind me that summer in Sicily
and summer in Mississippi
are the same hot, dusty place.

Reassure me that my Granny still loved me:
later I did please her by loving her fig preserves,
and admiring her sister’s even more.

Teach me that the shape of each vessel I produce
echoes the same lovely curve I see in my dreams.

Teach me to enjoy sweetness
without worrying whether I deserve it.

Remind me there is life after this quarantine ship.

Forever I will spin my inelegant vessels
for friends who understand beauty
better than I do.

Forever you will be tree, then stick,
then tree grown from stick,
into infinity.

Every summer forever
I will consume your chartreuse-and-violet fruit.

Forever their flesh will absolve me
of stealing them as soon as they ripen,
rich with sweetness beyond imagining
before the birds discover and plunder their new world
before my husband comes home from work.

 

Karah Stokes lives in Frankfort in an old house festooned with cats. She has published poems in Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel, Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Culture and Literature, Journal of Kentucky Studies, and other magazines. A bluegrass song she wrote, “The Mourning Cloak,” was recorded by Laurie Lewis and The Right Hands on their 2006 CD The Golden West, and saw airplay on XM Radio.


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