Arts + Scene » Poetry

Elegy for Jolie



For twenty foolish years I walked right past them,
on my way through the woods to the river, assuming
I was seeing all there was to be seen. Then one early spring,
in the cool, deep wet of the redwood forest, Jolie came to visit.
She opened my eyes to hidden wonder along the trail:
Tiny lilies, no bigger than my thumbnail! Dozens of them!
Three yellow-green pointed petals striped with purple-brown,
each one a masterpiece of flowering camouflage painted
by an artist devoted to detail! They had been there all along,
as I walked by unaware, a visitor in this place I call home,
a transplant from another woods a continent away.

Another dozen years I searched for green shoots coming up
through red duff of the forest floor, as freshling ferns
unfurled their softness and trillium trembled underground,
awakening from a seven-year slumber to the quiet life
of blooming among huckleberries. And there they were,
in the gently growing light: Little gems! Miniature marvels!
I crouched down to delight in their delicate presence,
giving thanks for seeing what I hadn't seen before.

Jolie told us their distasteful name: fetid adder's tongue,
as if to say they had nothing good to say, a slander
of their spicy, unripe smell, not a fragrance, no nose-pleaser.
But this isn't a tended garden, rather a resilient patch
of third-growth trees remembering ancient ancestors,
the wise old towering ones. The young now stand watch
between the house I built on the bluff and the wild
free-flowing river below, the sound of water churning
through my winter meditations and springtime dreams.

Back before annihilation, people called Nongatl walked
these woods from village to village. What did they call
the clever flower that would hide from white people's eyes,
blending into the February forest? But it wasn't February
for them, and their ancient word for early-spring-moon-time
is likely lost, never again to roll off a human tongue,
but be whispered by spirits that don't forget names.

Growing old and wise, I take my glasses to see fine features
on each flowering face, elegant lines invisible to aging eyes,
like gossamer strands of my small granddaughter's hair,
and baby-down on her unfurrowed brow. She hasn't heard
the words cancer or tragedy. Her tender eyes take in the wonder
of the walk as I point out big things: tall trees, hills, clouds,
and small things: soft moss, dew drops on new leaves,
spiders in their sticky webs spun hopefully across the trail.

I didn't cry when I heard Jolie fell ill and swiftly died.
She hadn't visited in years, and I'd wept over many graves,
but it was sad, and I was sad. Though she was younger
than me, the photos showed her long hair gone silver,
while mine's still forest brown with streaks of grey,
so I blend into the landscape, after thirty-two circles
round the sun, walking this trail, finding hidden things.

On a February visit, I'll take my granddaughter there,
bend over her and whisper Rivka, look! What do you see?
She'll peer into the dark puzzle of mossy branches,
and when she sees them, go down into an agile squat,
and with her two-year-old tongue softly say flowers,
and her grandma will answer fetid adder's tongue.
(It makes no sense to me and won't make sense to her.)
Then, since they are so many, and come back after they die,
I'll tell her we can pick them, and when her small fingers
reach out, I'll turn aside to hide my stream of tears.

Rabbi Naomi Steinberg

Add a comment