("I am a newcomer to this area and live near the campus. ... I occasionally take walks through the campus and appreciate the beautiful trees. The enclosed poem was the result of one of those walks. ...")

Copper Beeches at Bryn Mawr College

By Caryl Johnston

 

A muggy August afternoon—I walk

Beneath stone arches in this women’s college

Into a quadrangle of few people

And many trees … only a few youngsters

Attending a summer camp, the letters "SIG"

Emblazoned on their t-shirts. Today

Is hot and close, though I am pleased

In this setting for the training of the intellect

There are so many trees: especially

When I come to stand among

Three copper beeches, so tall and broad,

Their enormity makes all else seem young.

I duck beneath the tent-flap of some trailing branches

And stand inside the roomstead of a tree,

A swept space, a curvatured ark,

Where sunlight, starched by many leafy sashes,

Comes to earth a little pale.

I circle round the giant trunk, thinking

Tree of Life, Arthur Rackham,

All my childhood’s illustrations,

The Brothers Grimm, the magic forest,

All imaginations bodied out

From thickened gnarled and knobby bark.

I observe recorded growing points

Dotting the surface of smooth plain cladding—

Spirals, contours, wrinkled forms—

As if, in its uptwisted thrust, the trunk

Recollected itself and stillness too.

There are—to be expected—

The human-carved initials, TR, GA, IFAH,

And the legend AM 2000 XO NANA

Which has an odd significance:

My grandmother, whom I called Nana,

Hoped to attend the college here—

She’d be class of Nineteen-0-and-one,

Not so many years after the Civil War

Brought down her forebears in Virginia;

Her widowed mother could not afford to send her.

Young ladies in white dresses sit seeing

Planted saplings age, becoming older;

What is fuses memorably with what might have been,

Like this branch above me, the one limb

Abutting another and so surging the two of them

Into single growth again.

I recall my time

And times of childhood, of climbing trees,

And pause a moment, memory flickering, then

Go to sit upon a bench nearby. Now

Thoughts may take youth’s body, hands, and knees,

To toil up a trunk and spring into leaves:

But they do not, nor I—

Not even I, not even I, who sit beseeching

By copper beeches the life in meaning—

Seeing down this brow of hill a little marshy lake,

Its surface scummed past all reflections;

I’ve left behind outer-inner climbing actions.

It’s back and forth, upon a college campus,

Where notes pass between the leaves

And libraries, mutual as in tennis,

Where beeches serve and learning hits it back.



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