Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Olduvai Gorge Thorn Tree by Sarah Lindsay

He kept dreaming of a tree, dreaming
of a tree, dreaming of a tree
and its sound like a hush,
and it seemed he could open
his mouth when he woke and make the others
know something they didn’t already know,

his tree. But he woke and he couldn’t.
He kept thinking of a tree. He made a tree
of his arms and called to the others,
but all he could say, all they could say,
was tree, not that one, no, not here,
tree. They were hungry, shrugged and went on.

Later a leopard dragged him some distance
and left him on the remains of his back,
his plucked face tilted up, and a seed
fell on the stub of his tongue
in his open mouth. Took root,
sent a finger between his teeth

that parted his jaws with its gradual thickness
and lifted its arms full of leaves that fed
on what was in his braincase
and mixed with the sky, and made
a sound in the wind that was
almost what he wanted.

The limitations of language in communication is a theme that occurs in poetry not infrequently. Perhaps this is a little ironic given that poetry relies on language. But poets demand a lot from words, and it is no surprise that they get frustrated from time to time. To me, there is no poem that explores this theme more memorably than Sarah Lindsay’s Olduvai Gorge Thorn Tree.

Mount Clutter (Grove Press Poetry) (Paperback) ~ Sarah Lindsay ( ... Cover Art
Mount Clutter 
I came across this poem on the website Poetry Daily. (No longer available there - this excellent website archives for one year only.) I had not known of Sarah before, but the poem left me stunned. I sought out more of her work, first Mount Clutter (2002), her second collection in which this poem appears, and then her 2008 collection Twigs and Knucklebones.

There are many, many poems in both books that I love. Even the titles are wondrous – Slow Butterflies in the Luminous Field, Elegy for the Quagga, Valhalla Burn Unit on the Moon Callisto are just a few. In these poems, the overriding sense that I receive is the sense of wonder, as expressed in Cheese Penguin (a poem about a penguin hatched from a cheese tin) : 'the world is large/ and without a fuss has absorbed stranger things than this.'

But in the end, when Sarah gave me permission to use one of her poems here, I couldn’t go past Olduvai Gorge Thorn Tree. Not necessarily because I thought it the best of her poems, but because it was the first I encountered, and therefore had the most impact on me.

Olduvai Gorge is in Tanzania and is famous for the discovery there of early hominids and their tools.

Sarah Lindsay is an American poet from Greensboro, North Carolina. Of her collections of poetry, Primate Behavior (Grove Press 1997) was a National Book Award finalist, and Twigs and Knucklebones (Copper Canyon Press 2008) was named a "Favorite Book of 2008" by the editors of Poetry magazine.  Lindsay has also been awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize. More of her poetry can be read here.  

This week's Tuesday Poem editor is Catherine Fitchett who lives in Christchurch NZ. She wrote poems in high school but studied chemistry at university which led to several careers as a forensic scientist/toxicologist, and work in accounting. She returned to writing in 1999 and is the member of a poetry group, The Poetry Chooks, which has published The Chook Book, and Flap, The Chook Book 2. Vist her blog Still Standing on her Head, and for more Tuesday Poems enter the world of the sidebar where 30 poets from the UK, the US, Australia and NZ post poems. 

CURATOR NOTE: Catherine's city of Christchurch was devastated by a force 6.3 earthquake nearly 13 hours after this poem was posted. We send our prayers and wishes for their safety to Catherine and her family, and to the other Tuesday Poets who live there or who have family there: Helen Lowe, Andrew Bell, Joanna Preston, Kathleen Jones, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, Tim Jones - there will be others; and to the whole of that shaken suffering city. Kia kaha: strength. 

PS. We've heard Helen, Joanna, Jeffrey and families are well, Kathleen's daughter and family are ok but living in a tent, Tim Jones' father and step-mother are also safe, but nothing yet on Catherine F or Andrew Bell. Any news please post a comment here. 

ALL TUESDAY POETS AND FAMILIES IN CHRISTCHURCH ARE SAFE AND WELL. Our hearts go out to those who have suffered loss or injury in the earthquake. 


susan t. landry said...

oh my, this is so powerful. i can feel the seed exerting the force to become a tree. and that it's tied to tanzania and olduvai gorge, a magic place...add to its primal imagery. --thank you for posting the work of this (new to me) poet!

Helen Lowe said...

A wonderful, wonderful poem---thank you for sharing it with us on the Tuesday Poem Hub, Catherine. I am now going to look for more Sarah Lindsay to read.

Unknown said...

Blissful poem, Catherine. How brilliant of you to write that fan letter to Sarah and get her permission to use this.

To make language so PHYSICAL ... the sheer wrenching of language from a body... the poem's language and repetition wrenches. I can't help but remember the original Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston finally speaks in front of the apes. I remember it as a bellow, a cutting loose of language from the mouth that fills the air and shocks in the filling.

Anonymous said...

What a powerful, haunting poem. That tongue. That tree. I read it in shock today, just having heard of the earthquake.

Nancy Mattson

Cattyrox said...

Beautiful beautiful poem - what a treat to find it this morning, after so much devastation in the world that I feel words have been wrenched from me and all that is left is a thin whimper. Thank you Catherine. And my thoughts with all our New Zealand friends and colleagues in these hard days.

Catherine said...

We are OK but have no power, water or sewerage. We have emergency water supplies and gas cooking facilities. We have a landline phone that is working. More on my blog. I won't be updating regularly until our power is back on. Currently making a quick visit to a friend who has power on.

Tim Jones said...

It's great to hear that you're OK, Catherine.

Mary McCallum said...

Yes, great news Catherine. Kia kaha.

Mary McCallum said...

We've heard Andrew Bell and family are ok, too.