John Warner Smith

Letter to the Oaks

I. Charleston, 1863

Long before frost kissed
the shoal, before geese foretold
a miracle of raindrops congealing
on a mud pond,
you were the envy of maple.
In autumn you were ginkgo
beneath azure crisp and glazing.
Your fan petals fell
ripe in winter
with arms spread like sails
of the last slave ship
pushing off the coast of Gambia.
What bled and drowned
in the light of those
parched moons,
when they packed humans
in the bowel stench of a hold,
can never be redeemed,
never in your sweet shade
or under your crown of innocence,
when placenta dries
in a cotton field
and horse hoofs clop
on a hangman’s road.


II. Birmingham, 1963

You were just a seedling,
tall and slender in girth
when you gave sanctuary
to newborn sparrows
who flew the geese flight.
The breath wind of slaves
seared your mama’s boughs,
sent cries soaring moonward
over black waves
along the coast of Senegal.
And then the cataclysm.
Cannons ripped your green
swaying locks and rained
leaves, blood-soaked,
across two fields staking
their claim to your roots.
If there is time for truth
it is now, when you grow
old hearing beacon shrills
at dawn waking
birth of big dreams,
and you stand
the shifts of seas, mountains,
and human conscience.