Of course it started small.
Fell or was blown into a fissure,
or perhaps was left by a jungle bird
in a bit of dung. Rain fell, the sun
shone, and delicate roots gripped tight,
stretched down, grew long and thick as
they found soil. The trunk rose, twisted
and stretched high in a dancer’s pose
above these terraced stones of Angkor Wat.
Tetremeles nudiflora, a designation for all
such trees with shared general traits. But this
is a photograph, a portrait of one tree
that holds its limbs high against
a roiling sky as it perches on the ruins of
the largest religious monument in the world.
Beth Moon calls her captured moment--
and I think she is naming much more than
the tree—“Rilke’s Bayon,” after a poem
about the transience of walls
and cities, about the fact that a dark forest
one day removes all names.
We know this, but here is a little more
reason for humility. A tree weathered centuries
of shifting climate, grew slowly and quietly over stones
placed by human hands to form a temple. And yet, if
we could acknowledge it, neither was ever separate
from its surroundings, ever apart from the dark forest
(if you would call it that, ignoring light through the canopy),
from which all living things arise
and into which they are absorbed.
When your roots, thick as the legs of a Dong Tao chicken
reached down into the earth. When your body
twisted up and took over the stones of a crumbling temple
in an attempt to survive. When the world wanted
to displace you. When the water made its journey
and did not return. When you knew your prayers
would only fall without ripening. Only then,
when the wind slashed your waist and you called out
to the stars. An answer. In you, who were a child once— in you.
When hands are withdrawn and dust survives,
the soft light creeps in with the rains. Paradise turns
to mud, but that is no concern to the green eye
framing the rich narrative of the strangler fig.
It wriggles its way into the heart of the temple.
Its grip alarms the escapist’s gaze as it squeezes
the doors. The roof is returned to the ground.
Then the souls of the high priests are gone.
When hands are withdrawn and dirt resides inside
The Hall of Dancers, the earth will take up its claim.
The temple can’t wear down the jungle’s nerves.
The rains come, but they can’t rinse away the green eye’s
frame. The strangler fig is careful without a care,
rising up into the registers of strangeness. It is
an antenna calling for awe to humble its viewers.
No human can be its muse, just its lonely examiner.
Each sandstone block, transported, carved by hand,
fits carefully against the next, recalls
the mason’s skill through centuries of loss,
but through cleft crevices, the coiling root,
now serpentine, seeks water, sprawls across
the careful ashlar of these mitered walls,
running along the overhanging tiers,
until it finds a seam, and disappears
somewhere within. In unison, they hold
the swelling trunk against the monsoon storm,
against the cloudburst lightning bolts that shoot
their branched patterns a moment and reform
themselves within the images foretold,
within the carvings of these stone reliefs,
as if the earth mirrored itself, motifs
echoed in sky and stone, in wood and bark,
structures remade across the centuries,
and every emulated attribute,
each mimicked parallel and each reprise,
balanced, seems time’s relentless countermark,
one we can quickly read and understand.
Who is to say
when a thing is done,
a life, a path, a portrait?
Each has a journey
that ends somewhere,
even though like love
each may begin again,
We are each like trees.
We carry our living core
inside as we grow outward
and upward into branches
of being. No matter
how we move in the wind
or how full of fruit we become,
our essence remains the same.
Rilke, you are tree and maker
of trees. You are spirit and you are form.
And even now that you are growing
on some unseen path, painting word portraits
I cannot know, I do know that you have signed
this tree, this journey, this life and you
are beginning again, somewhere else.
“Rilke's Bayon”: Everywhere
Our roots seek everywhere as well
circling a city, a place of birth, a world
of ancestors, the brown lands of childhood parks
the el train station where the grandfather I never knew opened
his "tea room"
before fate emerged from behind the blameless trees
Is that my Bayon temple, crumbling among those history-hiding trees?
Flushing, Queens County, the still-striving city
the looming towers with their roots
in Manhattan schist
our temple complex, both climbing and crumbling
in the postwar bloom of the one essential empire?
What may be said of us
after we have seen the stony monuments of Angkor?
Sky-topping New York? Paris with its horizontal temples
stretching down the regal avenues?
Yet everywhere the trees find their place
Leaves live on air
Roots grow rivers between knees of piled stones
making places where there are no places
moving like the many-legged monsters of cinema dreams
slow mo-ed to ravishing millimeters,
They embrace us, trees of our millennia, with their tangled love
Grow upon the tablets of arching history
carry our roots to the ongoing sky
crumble our cities to a smear on
an archeologist's hungry screen
walk upon the earth like stationary Sauria from another
eon in the wrinkled earth
stepping from glacial outwash
to the greenhouse glare of day
At the bottom of things as they appear to be
lies a dream of tiny mouths crumbling biota
with cellular teeth,
in the rain forest of the hidden self
The seer embraces them, timeless trees, root and twig
lays his face against their pitted skin
crawls out upon limbs
plumbs their roots
reading there, as the tree reads us,
the thousand blessings of Bayon
its ranked bulbs and demon faces
its prayer wheels turned to stone
Distilling men and their passing marvels,
the ficus performs its age-old alchemy,
waving the earth to gladden sky