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,
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.