“Tree Talk,” a Poem from John Reibetanz’s Earth Words

Book cover, Earth Words

For Sean Malone, poet and friend

By J.S. Porter

John Reibetanz makes the dead speak–specifically three deceased sages– and non-linguistic life speak.  He entwines plants and us, conjoins animals and us.  He celebrates the great diversity of Otherness that surrounds us, and underpins us.  Our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our co-inhabitants on earth entwines inseparably.

In Earth Words, Reibetanz enters into conversation with two wise men and one wise woman –   Wang An-Shih in eleventh-century China, Henry David Thoreau in nineteenth-century United States, and Emily Carr in twentieth-century Canada—and poetically extends the conversation to us in the twenty-first century.  The common focus is the struggle for the harmony and wellbeing of the planet across time periods and cultures.

Reibetanz frames his conversation in “glosas,” where he quotes lines from the work of each artist and incorporates each quoted line in subsequent stanzas of the poem.  So, for example, in “Tree Talk,” a poem belonging to the Emily Carr section of the book, he begins with lines from her journal entry of November 12, 1932.

Enter into the life of the trees.

Know your relationship and understand
their language, unspoken, unwritten talk.
Answer back to them . . . soul words, earth words.

Each quoted line from Carr’s journal completes in succession a stanza in the poem. You’ll note that the last two words – “earth words”—give the book its title.

Emily Carr was a twice-gifted artist: gifted with a talent for words and painting.  If you haven’t yet seen her paintings in the flesh, you’re missing out on spellbinding experiences of awe and wonder.  She paints life – its movement and ripples, its pulse and rhythms.  Her brush strokes in their swirls make visible what is usually invisible –the pulse of life beating, the wind blowing, the spark of life igniting.  And John Reibetanz, also twice-gifted, in his facility with language and his knowledge of nature,  echoes these sparks and pulses with his web of interconnected images and sounds. The painter has found her poet.

I was privileged to see a three-woman show (Emily Carr, Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collections in Vaughan, Ontario in the summer of 2001. One common subject for the art exhibit was the tree – how each artist treated one of nature’s greatest botanical expressions and how one life form (the tree) is co-dependent on and co-penetrated by another (us).

In John Reibetanz’s first stanza of “Tree Talk,” he astutely observes how the red-brown pigment of her self-portraits is similar to the colouring of her trees (often her redwoods and cedars).

… the same red-brown pigment
kindling your Forest trunks imbues
your Self-Portrait, a whispered hint
of kinship among the free and wild.

“Where can I find your living soul?,” the first line of Reibetanz’s poem asks Emily Carr.  And the answer seems to be: in trees. Carr entered into the life of trees, and in so doing enriched her own life as both person and artist.  She listened to their “language” and answered back in her paintings.

There were no words in the dialogue, only “a leaf-lisp of continued/lullaby…” but there was conversation nevertheless:

…conversations your art grew
to enter into, the mute, fluent
handle of your brush nodding back
their language: unspoken, unwritten talk.

Once in Mexico, I encountered a broad-rooted ceiba tree, the sacred tree of the Maya, outside our balcony. I felt that the tree and thousands like it were holding up the world, that it and its sisters were the Tree of Life.  For a moment, which I’ve never forgotten, my energy system felt itself to be in harmony with the tree’s energy.  Call it vibrations or sparks or intuitions, I felt that I knew the tree and the tree knew me, even though we didn’t share a common language.

Carr made her life in among “The oak and its companion trees” with her monkey and “a sisterhood of wild creatures.” The monkey in the cedar “inhaled its peace” as Carr “breathed in/…perfume” from the pines.  The winds “talked through leaves” and “the birds/answered back…”  Everything is in communication, in communion, one living being with another.

Everything lives in a John Reibetanz poem; everything speaks.  And when one life form speaks to another, it does so in “soul words, earth words,” not the plastic words, the clinical words, the self-aggrandizing words of boastful and detached human speech.  Reibetanz envisions a new speech based on the humble recognition of the human animal’s interdependence on, and interpenetration by, other forms of life.  He hears the song of nature and responds in carefully chosen words and immensely respectful language.

_______________

Now here is John Reibetanz’s poem in its entirety, uninterrupted by my interventions.

Tree Talk

Enter into the life of the trees.
Know your relationship and understand
their language, unspoken, unwritten talk.
Answer back to them . . . soul words, earth words.

Journal, November 12, 1932 – Emily Carr

 

Where can I find your living soul?
Not photographs, where clothes and pose
conceal.  Not canvases, their oil
darkened and cracked.  One late touch holds
a clue: the same red-brown pigment
kindling your Forest trunks imbues
your Self-Portrait, a whispered hint
of kinship among the free and wild.
To draw near me, the portrait says,
enter into the life of the trees.

As you did, half-orphan refuged under
the Garry oak whose lap of roots
held you in their quiet fastness,
and whose fingers – after winter
had thinned them down to whitened bone –
fluttered to life and overflowed
each spring with catkin rings: no words,
but a leaf-lisp of continued
lullaby, as if the woods
knew your relationship and understood

your longing for a foster home
as far beneath human language
as roots reach beneath the turmoil
of undergrowth and its tangled
syntax in search of sister-roots,
mainstays in a social network
whose conversations your art grew
to enter into, the mute, fluent
handle of your brush nodding back
their language: unspoken, unwritten talk.

The oak and its companion trees
furnished a home for you and for
a sisterhood of wild creatures:
the monkey curled up in her cedar –
cuddled into its very heart –
inhaled its peace, as you breathed in
from the pines’ honourable straightness
perfume in response to your caress,
and when winds talked through leaves, the birds
answered back to them soul words, earth words.

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