Sunday, July 12, 2009


In 1969 I bought a paperback titled The Poem in Its Skin, edited by Paul Carroll. I found it in a department store, when such places still had book departments. It collected the work of American poets then entering middle age -- Ashbery, Merwin, Ginsberg, James Wright, John Logan, among others. I was not yet 17, my tastes were fluid, and I couldn’t distinguish gold from pyrite but I knew what I liked, even if only a single stanza:

“The green catalpa tree has turned
All white; the cherry blooms once more.
In one whole year I haven't learned
A blessed thing they pay you for.
The blossoms snow down in my hair;
The trees and I will soon be bare.”

This is the opening of “April Inventory,” from Heart’s Desire, the first poem by W.D. Snodgrass I read. The reason it thrilled me was botanical, not poetic (I’m certain I had no idea what the poem was about). As a kid I already loved the northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) for its gaudy white flowers in spring and long, bean-like seed pods in summer. We knew catalpas as “cigar trees,” and kids enjoy masquerading as adults. I was pleased on Saturday by Nige’s celebration of this elegantly gaudy tree:

“The catalpas are in full bloom in London now. In the right setting this is a fine tree, in a slightly showy and exotic way, with its huge leaves and great trusses of white blossom, followed by long hanging pods (hence its other name, the Indian bean tree).”

Nige also notes “catalpa” is a “fine musical word,” and Plants and Their Names: A Concise Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1995) reports the name is from catawba, “the North American Indian word for this plant.” I knew that word from Catawba Island, on the Lake Erie shore west of Cleveland. It’s part of the main land, not an island, but nearby is Kelleys Island, where I spent summers with my grandparents. I accept the etymology but catalpa to my ears has a Mediterranean sound – Latin or Italian – and I like the stress on the second syllable, lending the word a pleasing, symmetrical bell-like ring: ca-TAL-pa. It’s a rare word/thing that gives pleasure on multiple levels, even the olfactory, and even in memory:

Fifteen years ago I worked briefly as a copy editor on the graveyard shift for a newspaper in upstate New York. I would leave the office between midnight and 1 a.m. and follow the Mohawk River back to my apartment, often spying the furtive blur of a coyote along the road. I had to stop at a dogleg intersection where my headlights, in May, illuminated a house-sized catalpa in glorious bloom. I looked forward every morning to seeing that glowing revelation, which always reminded me of the story Guy Davenport tells at the conclusion of his essay about Eudora Welty, “The Fair Field of Enna”:

“An anecdote about Faulkner relates that once on a spring evening he invited a woman to come with him in his automobile, to see a bride in her wedding dress. He drove her over certain Mississippi back roads and eventually across a meadow, turning off his headlights and proceeding in darkness. At last he eased the car to a halt and said that the bride was before them. He switched on the lights, whose brilliance fell full upon an apple tree in blossom.

“The sensibility that shapes that moment is of an age, at least, with civilization itself.”


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your kind words about my late husband's poem, "April Inventory." You'll be amused to learn that my husband wasn't exactly up on things botanical and didn't find out until about 10 years ago, several decades after he wrote the poem, that the catalpa trees would not have been blooming in Iowa in April. Poetic license at work!
Kathy Snodgrass

Chrees said...

I grew up loving the giant southern catalpas...not surprising when you grow up close to Catalpa, Alabama.

Leslie said...

You mentioned Kelleys Island in your blog about catalpas, particularly regarding the word catawba. But did you know that there are several catalpa trees on Kelleys? Big leaves that almost glow in the sunlight. Also, catawba was the name of the most popular commercial grapes grown on Kelleys Island. Don't youwish you could come back for another visit?
Leslie (