O For A Thousand Tongues

Having climbed to the thinnest branch that will
hold, I must be more ponderous to the tree,
and less musical than the birds I've scared off,
less supple than the paper lantern I've come
to hang, to elaborate on a midsummer night.

I can hear my ancestors, not the leaves,
hissing, "frivolous"—my people of the book,
of trees cut, shaved, pressed into pages of rules
warning against the mind branching out too far—
frivolous, that word easy to stammer,

so if I were on solid ground I'd stomp,
push it out with fricative force, though up here
I'll just hum to myself, looping a string around
the branch so this paper moon will cast its soft
unreal light, which, yes, the first drops of rain

could easily snuff. Oh my flaw, my friend,
my stammering tongue, how I stumble over
your fff's and vvvv's like a drunk, your liquid llll's
that won't pour from my lips, as if words were rust,
woodblocks, wet wool, scotch tape, chipped marbles,

and why not? Why should it be easy to speak?
A flaw looked at another way is—I meant to think
"a source," but it came out "scorch." So be it,
as my ancestors would say, those for whom
the body always betrays the spirit's goal,

for whom the soul was a canary sent
into the world's mine, all mission, no pleasure.
They disdained ornament, as if to decorate
were to insult God. I don't know what they saw
when they gazed into wind-blown bristling trees.

It's a miracle that my ancestors actually
conceived, that all those overdressed mothers
gave birth. They wrote our names, weight and length
on one page of the book, our first words, steps,
baptisms on the next. But they were silent

on the matter of delight, so we had to find
our own way through spindrift, dog romp,
dancing in the streets, through one kind of flaw
or another, as branch by thin branch, we teetered,
and swayed, strayed, yes, found ourselves blown away—

frail lanterns hanging on a twig's tip end
where wood blends with air. But singing there,
adding a little back beat, a little howl
to flesh out the tune, until as the song says,
our stammering tongues fall away.

by Betsy Sholl

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