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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