Sunday, April 23, 2017


Note on Local Flora

There is a tree native in Turkestan,
Or further east towards the Tree of Heaven,
Whose cold hard cones, not being wards to time,
Will leave their mother only for good cause;
Will ripen only in a forest fire;
Wait, to be fathered as was Bacchus once,
Through men's long lives, that image of time's end.
I knew the Phoenix was a vegetable.
So Semele desired her deity
As this in Kew thirsts for the Red Dawn.

This is from Wood's new book on Empson:

"There is a tree" has the sound of a fable, a sort of botanical "once upon a time," and the shift from Turkestan to Heaven—some distance "further east"—confirms this effect. The tree is "native" to those parts but there is one in Kew Gardens in London (introduced in line 10, as "thirst[ing] for the Red Dawn"). And wherever it grows, the tree has this curious characteristic: only fire will make it flourish. "Leave their mother" is a marvelous ambiguity. When the fire arrives the cones will drop to the ground, abandoning their parent, and their fall will allow their mother to cover herself with leaves."
The second half of the poem draws on Greek myth for its dense symbolic network. It all adds up, so Wood argues, to the poet's attraction to revolution: "The thirsting tree represents a widely held but equally widely repressed belief: that only violence will allow us truly to live, to do something with time other than mark it."

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