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IthacaLit   Literary Magazine: Lit with Art © 2011

All individual works copyrighted by their authors. All rights reserved.

First Credit IthacaLit. ISSN: 2372-4404

Jennifer BROWN, Spring 2019

Looking for Chinaberry, Also Known as Texas Umbrella



Once you see one, you’ll see them everywhere,

the brilliant red of the leaves turning,

& against them, the bone-yellow-white of berries

offered in the few minutes of Gulf Coast fall,

the don’t-oversleep-or-you’ll-miss-it chill & brief drama

of leaf-drop. So I’m told by someone who seems

to know, eyes filled with having seen. Last night,

freezing, & the night before, & before, palms

browned & bowing loosened crowns over straight trunks

beaded with strands of white lights. Met with this

unwelcoming chill, they loosen their imported roots,

though their sun-belt promises are wished for more

fervently than ever. A little bit Hollywood, a little bit

Florida, a little bit the tossing heads on an island shore,

so far from here. Chinaberry, too, a visitor, an immigrant—

ornament, pest, & poison. Umbrella tree, someone

brought you here for beauty’s sake. You are shelter:

the hollows under limb & leaf, ribs that arch up away

from us & back down—this the shape that contained us

once, standing but hidden, before we knew what exposure was,

this the shape of rain running off to collect in gutters

of its own making. Overhead, the rib-rack, ourselves

the swell & fall inside—a confluence of arches:

vault, abstract of sky scaled to fit the eye’s field,

or, stone trunks, branches, autumnal gold leaf,

the mosaic heaven of St. Peter’s, St. Mark’s: transcendence.

By what will I know you? Foul-smelling lilac flowers,

pinnate leaves, the six pale fruits that will poison a baby

to death. I find you—diagrams, photographs, habitat,

origins—in field guides, still can’t see you anywhere.

You must be all around, holding out berries at the ends

of bare limbs like the burned-down stubs of votives.

Interstate off-ramp, bridge over bayou & ballfield, & one

treetop fanned in the plane of vision, white-fruited, touched

red, gold, gone. Barely a glance, like a kiss leaned into the air

someone’s face met before he turned away. Maybe it was you.

When she woke up near him, when

she was leaving and he rested his forehead on hers

and stayed that way for a moment,

she believed.

Later, when he turned his face to her

and said some words, it felt

as if a boy had suddenly laughed

and dashed a handful of sand in her face,

although it looked as though he simply shut a door,

on which appeared a new face, identical

to the first, but with a closed door behind it.


Jennifer Brown is a native of Greensboro, NC, and has lived in Chattanooga, TN, Baltimore, MD, Houston, TX, and Raleigh, NC. She taught English literature and writing in various colleges and universities and was a dorm-parent at a college-preparatory boarding school. Her writing has appeared in Southern Poetry Review, Ellipsis, Colorado Review, and American Literary Review; an essay that won the NC Humanities Council’s Linda Flowers prize is forthcoming in North Carolina Literary Review. Along with writing, she dabbles in painting, drawing, and baking with wild sourdough. At least once a year, she completes a half-marathon. Whenever she can, she travels—near or far, to cities or deserts, with or even, if necessary, without her best accomplices, one human and one canine companion.