The Man Who Lived in a Tree

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude


in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

Turn up the lights on the hominid pen.
It’s feeding time, though some
don’t even know they’re hungry.
You can give them each
a slice of manna if you like.

See the one who squats in the crotch
of that tree? Almost since birth
he’s exiled himself from the ground.
Unlike the others, he seems to realize
something here is missing—
a grotesque sensitivity that makes him
a wolf in this wood, this tree
he clings to like a mother.
When the wind agitates its leaves
he hugs himself & rocks
back & forth, moaning.

Unlike the others who gibber with awe,
he wants nothing to do with us,
& recoils from your face
as if from a stone that the river
never learned how to read.
But see how his tree glows
in this lurid light, like a harp
rearing above a dark-suited orchestra?
Someday soon we will reunite it
with its former companions,
that whole forest enjoying
eternal life: value-added products
of our loving care.

UPDATE: Marly Youmans‘ series of five poems in response to paintings by Clive Hicks-Jenkins (including “The Man who Lived in a Tree”) are now live on his website. Go look.

Series Navigation← The Comfort of Angels Attending the DyingThe Penitent Roasted by the Sun →

12 Replies to “The Man Who Lived in a Tree”

  1. Wonderful.

    Even if you deny it’s autobiographical.

    I especially like the image of the golden-prowed harp arising from the penguins…I’m thinking the slow movement of Mahler 5.

    1. Glad you liked.

      Funny you should mention Mahler. The image came to me at a performance of Mahler’s 1st by the Altoona Symphony on Saturday night. (Brooklynite conductor, by the way — the very personable and energetic Teresa Cheung. She commutes in by train.)

  2. Again, the metaphors here seem so organic, but fresh. The wolf in the wood. The stone that the river never learned how to read. The harp above the dark orchestra. There’s a deeply affecting sense of apart-ness in this poem that resonates very, very strongly for me. There’s more for me to say here but I haven’t clearly identified it yet. I love this poem.

    1. Really? Thanks! I spent more time with this one than I did with the first two in the series, and as a result wasn’t as able to tell whether or how well it succeeded, other than liking what it had to say. After Rilke and Rafael Albertí, it can be a bit of a challenge to say anything original about angels.

  3. Well Dave, you’ve done it again. I read the poem and think yes, I must go back and try again. And moreover try harder. There’s so much more here to examine. Lucas is right. Mahler, I can see that, though at the time I was listening to Cunning Little Vixen, swooning in the orchestral evocations of the forest. But when reading your poem in an instant I’m back in my old cellar-studio going head to head with the painting, trying to dredge it up from the muddy depths of imagination and into the light. It was the first and hardest of the series. The surface of the paint is like a scab, so many wrong turnings are beneath it. My friends who own The Man Who Lived in a Tree came to visit me while I was painting it. I was lagged like a sherpa against the cold, working at the easel in fingerless gloves and deaf to everything save what came through my headsets. Nicolas said he was so shocked to find me set up in such a bitter, windowless space, that he stood with Frances unwilling to disturb me until the tears stinging his eyes had been bitten down. But me, I was happy. In Paradise. I loved that cellar, crouched beneath a classical music shop in central Cardiff, love the friend who gave it to me for the duration, and the shop staff who ventured down with gifts of coffee and cake. Occasionally they stayed to model for me. Semra, a pianist with the group Piano Circus, can be found on my website in the guise of the Virgin in an Annunciation. Huw, a conductor, loaned his hands to another painting in the Temptations series. I had rich pickings in that cold cellar.

  4. The surface of the paint is like a scab,
    so many wrong turnings are beneath it.

    Clive, if I were the jealous/competitive sort of poet (yes, they exist, much to my continual amazement!) I’d be damned glad you went into painting, instead. But painter or poet, it sounds as if the joy of immersion in the work is pretty much the same. Your description of that cellar hole beneath a music store does sound like heaven to me (and I know all about working with fingerless gloves). I’ve always felt that novelists are the truly blessed ones, because they can burrow into a single work for so many months or years at a stretch, but a poet or a painter can find something similar with a prolonged series. That single-minded absorption in the subject, nervous system like a giant radio antenna picking up signals from beyond the galaxy: I don’t think we can make the point often enough to aspiring poets and artists that that’s where the real rewards are found. Though I must admit that this ongoing exchange with you, by comments and email, has added another very rewarding dimension to this particular endeavor. The temptation of solitude is kept at bay, as in that cellar, by the gift of conversation.

  5. Dave,

    Well, I don’t think you needed to worry about being influenced! Very interesting poem that I’ll come back and reread when I am allowed the temptations of solitude. (Alas, I am home with a small usually-charming person who is unfortunately quite sick and so cannot linger.)

    Clive is a modest person, but the truth is that he is a very good writer, and his nature observations are wonderful–I’m thinking particularly of a hedgehog burrowed in a nest of leaves and the separation of two fond horses… And his recollections of his life in the theatre ought to be a beautiful little illustrated book.

    1. Marly, it’s true — my poor memory served me pretty well here. It was impossible not to see that tree as a vulva, but it’s fortunate that I chose to focus on the angel and the hermit, because you totally aced the tree’s perspective in your poem.

      Clive is obviously a man of many talents, as I am just beginning to discover. But isn’t that true about many artists of his calibre? Reading about them, one often senses a certain arbitrariness in their choice of a field.

  6. Well dear friend Marly, YOU would have to write that book. To go back to that place in memory would, I fear, make me unedurably sad, though dance and movement will always be a part of me, bedded deep in my subconscious. I still dream that I’m standing in the dark and in the wings, counting bars and waiting for my cues. And bonded deeper still, in muscle memory and in the aches of old injuries in my bones. If cut up and examined under a microscope, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find something of it spliced into my DNA. Smoke and glitter in my lungs too, inhaled in great draughts whenever the weighty, ancient plush of nineteenth century house-tabs rose into the velvet darkness, pulling everything with them in the drag and suction of ascent. Oh drat! This just makes me well up. Love and loss in equal measure.

    On second thoughts don’t write about me. But if one day you conjure some magical novel set in the world I once inhabited, I will make you lovely dreamy images for it. I’ll give you spangled circus acrobats and prancing horses aplenty. Dancers and actors too, and transformation scrims and sleights-of-hand, powder flashes, demon kings and all the mad, painted panoply of theatrical fancies and deceits. (For make no mistake. The theatre blinds everyone with trickery!) I’ll be your man for that. But no autobiography. No thank you.

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