Elegy: To the Tree on Dickinson Hill

The following piece was presented at Jersey City Writers’ genre event – Jersey Plums Poetry Reading. Please enjoy.

 

I saw that the tree got wacked.
A column of stump as high as a man
and chunks of trunk like extruded boulders, strewn around the lawn.
But it was mostly gone.
Was I sleepwalking not to notice?
I walk past the tree on the way to work,
and yet I didn’t note the missing basket of branches.

As befits a girl from Jersey, my first instinct was to curse.
And then the surprise well of tears. Crying over a tree?

But this tree was a tree cliché
A Tree Grows in Jersey City,
planted next to an almost-highway curving down Dickinson Hill,
framed by the dark horizon of Turnpike overpasses.
Where industrial rust clings like ivy to chain link,
train track, paint-scabbed wrought-iron fence.   
White Castle cartons smashed flat,
and the ecdysial trash of dead leaves clog the curb.

Neighbor to the felled tree, there is a small white roadside shrine
for the 80-something woman killed by a car on that spot
crossing on her daily trip to church.
Its candles are lit in kind, every day, many years on,
and the flowers change by season, making her a woman of two graves.

The tree was proud and glorious with its branches spread and rounded,                            
like tight and natural curls set free, this tree was serious              
about its foliage– dense enough to dodge an arc of pale concrete underneath—
even in the fiercest of downpours.
I ran under its skirts and waited out sudden showers,
marveling at the jaundiced stormy sky and thrilling winds.
And in fine weather, I stared up and tree bathed
in its green and waving pool of leaves. Shhh, the rustle.

It framed the foreground of a skyline picture from its midpoint on the hill,
juxtaposing its natural height against a sky pierced
and cluttered by high rise developments.
Standing silent as the living history of decades.

I could tell you about the skunks and woodchucks and wild turkeys
that unbelievably commuted between the lawn of the school
and the Colonial-era graveyard across the street.
A colleague told me once a fairy story about a buck that
crossed Newark Avenue and startled cars waiting at the red light,
then cut left. It bounded quick and skittish into a thatch of
JROTC cadets doing drills behind the school.

This tree was the elder statesman of the swampy, woody, wild past of the city.
As emblematic as the Albert J. Quinn statue silhouetted stark on the hill,
or Peg-leg Pete Stuyvesant, the hulking bronze of that poor un-pc relic.
He was also cut down from his stand and dumped ingloriously in a vacant lot.
That past still roots inside of me, as I look for its traces
on painted ghost signs fading (there is still one for Green Stamps)
or Victorian gables mummified under aluminum siding.

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