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Vol. 26, No. 2: Art & Vision

I Wanted to Ask the Trees

by Jaki Shelton Green

I wanted to ask the trees. do you remember. were you there. did you shudder. did your skin cry out against the skin of my great uncle’s skin. was the smell of bark a different smell from the smell of meat flesh. human meat flesh. beloved father husband lover friend man flesh. could the air discern burning tongue from burning arm. does the neck bone stay intact or grizzle like the shaft of toes fingers ears.

I wanted to ask the trees. were you there. did you shudder. are you an elder that wailed out loud when they strung him up on your youngest branch. no mercy even for the lynching of new sprawling birch limbs just learning themselves how to crawl towards an un-emancipated sky. are you a grandchild or great grandchild of the tree that drank his blood. the tree that cried tears into the rope around his neck. his arms. his legs.

I wanted to ask the trees. but the ground spoke first. annoying perfectly manicured azaleas. annoying perfect graves of perfect skeletons. whose blood-stained hands are forever etched on the hearts of my ancestors who cry out to me. plantation ground scratches the soles of my feet. ancestors beg me to lie down. be still. they waited so long for this day. when someone would come and dance with their spirits. they are everywhere whispering. holding up this house that dares to ignore them. holding up a sanitized history and herstory. one for the trees. one for us.

I wanted to ask the trees. do you remember. did you refuse to hold his weight. did your branches crackle. did you refuse to hold him. did you feed his blood to your roots. who are these new trees. look how they glisten against an unshackled firmament. did you tell them that his blood was the only nourishment you could provide that entire season. did you tell them it was a winter of blood. no rain. no snow. blood storms. lightning and thunder lifting other names onto the wind’s tongue. so many names for the wind to carry. so much hair teeth bones for the ground to gather.

I wanted to ask the trees. who will carry your stories. who are your historians. who will measure the rings of ropes that wrapped around your waists. your shoulders. under your arms. beneath your head. I wanted to ask the trees. did you forget to breathe when the red thunder inside you painted everything the color of love.

I want to ask the trees. do you remember. do your branches still crackle with his weight. do you shudder. do you know mercy.

Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina Poet Laureate, teaches documentary poetry at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. Publications include Dead on Arrival, Masks, Dead on Arrival and New Poems, Conjure Blues, singing a tree into dance, breath of the song, Feeding the Light, and i want to undie you. She has been named a 2019 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow.

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