Marly Youmans

The Foliate Head

Peering from medieval churches,
Dressed in leaves of ash and birches,

Camperdown elm and English oak,
Doghobble, sassafras, and poke,

Here winks the sprite who can transcend
His yearly death, for whom no end

Can be unless by our misdeed.
His verdant woman bleeds to breed

A world of leaves, his phoenix-pet
Cries cockerel against regret,

Remorse, and all that's passed away
While crowing-in triumphant day.

The green man's lodge is budding wood,
His roofbeam's resurrection rood,

The axis mundi staking cloud
To earth and realms below the shroud.

The roulette balls fly round the sun,
The spiral years are never done . . .

Within my dreams, he's young and lithe,
Unheeding of the reaper's scythe,

But when I meet him in the park,
He's changed his guise from light to dark;

I go to grasp his creaking hands
And find him dressed in swaddling bands.


To me, the Magical Museum's prize
Looked made from barley-twists of glass, not horn,
Shadow-infiltrated and streaked with dyes.
A grimey card read "shard of unicorn."

When someone has no faith, who knows what pulls?
An impulse seized my hand; I stole the rod.
Could it be signpost to impossibles?
This way to fairies, demons, throne of God?

Once rinsed, its substance flared and seemed to bless
As words made promises within two minds:
When virgin flesh compels my love and binds,
We are the proof of this world's loveliness . . .

     O ravished dream, now grace has fled, what horn
     Can heal the ways the globe and we are torn?

The Throne of Psyche

A soul's mysterious as any tree--
It drives a root as deadly low as hell,
It stretches peaceful branches heaven-high,
It harvests light with leaves of memory.


You see the limestone wall that catches light--
Those olive trees inside the circuit of stone?
The gardeners said the eldest one had passed
Three thousand years. It looks as gnarled and scarred
As rind from dragons that survived a war,
And underneath's the spot where I was born,
The Queen my mother snatched by sudden pains
While walking in the garden. I looked up
And saw the sun like showered stars in leaves.
You think I can't remember? Yes, I can;
And I remember breeze and branches tossed,
The olive shifting, singing down at me,
Saying I was Psyche, blessed and blessing--
I made a cry and Mother laughed at me
And drew her knife across the bloody cord.
A Queen is busy like an ant whose nest
Is shattered open by a curious
Small child: the tree became a family,
A secret place to go and talk or hide.
I ate her fruit, I drank her bitter teas
When I was ill, and someone carved a doll
Fleshed in olive wood from wind-thrown branches.
The greenish face with streaks of yellow-brown
Made me daydream strangers from another
World where sky was rose and water purple.
In ours, my sisters married parched old kings
To give my father fine alliances;
I scaled the tree and heard an oracle
Foretell I would not bear a fate like theirs.
The courtiers made me abashed with praise
That I was fair, the people offered gifts
As though I were a goddess from the sky.
I grew afraid and gods grew angry, as
They will--yet why, since time is always on
Their side? I clambered up my olive tree
And harkened to the auguring of leaves:
I'd have a fate called strange and wonderful.

But messengers approached my father's throne
To tell how I must be a sacrifice
To temper Aphrodite's jealousy.
A monster tarried on the mountaintop,
My promised bridegroom--winged and scaled from sole
To crown, the color of a stormy cloud
But hard as armor from the gods' own forge.
I thought of sisters, queens in jeweled crowns,
Of truce between security and looks
And guessed perhaps there was more than one way
To be consumed. All gossiped I would be
A morsel for my bridegroom's evening feed;
My mother shrieked, my father slashed his hair,
Our people raised a mighty swell of grief.

I tipped the polished bronze from side to side
But could not find why such a fate was mine--
A face in metal or in water is
A dim and shining thing. I clambered up
And listened to more prophecy of leaves,
How I would shiver like an olive branch
Before I tasted fate, how I was meant
To be unlike all others of my world,
How I would grow as radiant as a tree
Below the burning chariot of sun.
So when the people's loud procession came,
I did not cry or flee. I bound my doll
Of greenish olive wood into my sash
And climbed past aloes to the mountaintop,
Walking as if between two founts of tears:
My mother and father, for whom I tried
To be a comforter despite my dread,
Though all the while I gripped the olive wood
That lived three thousand years, as if the luck
Of living long might sink into my palm
And shin a tree of blood up to my heart.
I was sixteen the night I watched the court
And people winding like a starry snake
Down the mountain's flank to town or palace,
And wept as one by one the torches died.
It seems a thousand years ago to me
And only instants: how my courage flared
Or failed at noises in the wilderness--
I could not speak for dread of the unknown.

On my last morning of familiar things,
I'd flung my arms around the rugged trunk,
And leaves had fluttered message in my ear:
Inside you is a beauty left untouched
By thrones or the admiring throngs of men,
And seeking at your girlhood's door is love,
A glistering monster and a child of light,
A mountain errand dark with mystery,
A loveliness that springs up from a seed--
Those leaves of fire, that bright enchanted tree.


A wind-horse or a man with wings of air,
A scent of resin and the greening earth. . .
Invisibly floating, sylph-sailing me
Above the crowns of trees, he set me down
In wonder: I became a child again,
Racing through palace halls that startled me
With glimmerings and saffron-blush and pearl.
At times the ceilings seemed a clouded sky
And golden leaves and flowers sprinkled down
To catch on hair or chiton, then dissolve
As if they were a magic springtime snow.
The walls leafed out and blossomed as I passed,
Bewildered by the myriad of cells
That sprang up, sill by sill, the furniture
As graceful as a sapling cast in gold.
And when I spoke, the rooms replied with words
That seemed to bear the accent-mark of joy.
Then servant hands appeared with olives, wine,
And plates of dusky fruit like none I'd seen.
I happened on a gemstone-pebbled pool
Where servant hands anointed me with oils,
And a rinse of icy water shocked my skin.
I felt reborn, an infant of this world.

In after-days I never failed to strike
New rooms that rose as naturally as seed
In meadows left untilled to bring on groves--
And when my sisters came to mourn my death,
The wind-man sought them on the upward path
And ferried each with gentleness to me.
They bathed, chose gifts, and followed as I led
Until they seemed to weary of the tour
And left to tell my parents that I lived.
I hardly know what time had passed me by
--that flying year, inebriate with love--
Till palace and new friends, the servant hands,
All fled as though I'd broken from a dream.
It was much later that I learned the guile
And jealousy disguised by smiling looks,
How my sisters madly leaped to Hades,
Calling Zephyr, Zephyr, come and catch me
And Zephyr, take me to the lord of love,
But Zephyr was not on the ridge that day.
Such envious and wild desire was wrong,
Yet seldom drifts to mind--I find myself
Imagining their children, motherless,
Or aged kings, their husbands, hearing news
And going to collect the mangled flesh,
Or how my parents must have grieved the loss,
Discovering no comfort in the grave.
In hell, how chilled I would have been to glimpse
Them clamoring by Charon's ferry boat!
What I remember most: two merry girls
Who romped and ran although they seemed too old
To like my childish games. They guided me
To play at kings and queens--the olive boughs
That quivered in a teasing wind were roofs
For palace chambers built of hope and air
As elder sisters dreamed their grooms-to-be:
Each king an Eros in his looks and brave,
No more than seventeen but capable
Of anything, undying in his love.


And if the palace seemed enchanted, how
Much more the bed, a marvel of the gods--
Like nothing for an earthly king and queen,
A lustrous treasure box packed up in silks,
Four-legged, each leg a tree of ebony.
As shadows slid across the windowsills,
Collecting in the corners of the room,
The trees began to send out wands and leaves,
Darkening the air with gleaming branches.
Whoever saw such freedom from the laws
Of earth? I stared, forgot to tremble in
My wonder as new tendrils wove a maze
Above a bed that glistened, beetle-black.
Unseen hand drew dusk across the portal
And windows, carried off the glowing lamp,
And strewed fresh petals on the inlaid floor.
If this was how my promised husband's house
Received his bride, perhaps the feathered snake
--for so Apollo's oracle foretold--
Could be more beautiful than I had dreamed,
If flying terror could be beautiful.
Shade took the room until I could not see.
A mimic springtime blossomed on each branch
As tiny stars shone out, began to crawl
And sometimes blink like phosphorescent bugs.

I fell asleep and shinned the olive tree
That waxed inside my mother's garden walls
And heard a crinkling of the leaves that spoke
Oracular to me of love and fate,
But where was dream and where the waking world
I hardly knew, and when the feathered snake
Came wooing with eternal promises,
I let him hold me in his arms that seemed
More like a man's than like a serpent's grasp.
Yet fear is strange: at times he seemed all scales
That snagged against the linen of my gown,
At times he seemed as yielding as a child.
I woke to find that what I dreamed was true--
The rustle of his wings was like the leaves,
The arms that pinned me close were like a man's,
Although no man could emanate such fire,
A darkness glowing in the chamber's pitch.
But what did I, long sheltered in my home,
Know of the ways of monsters or of men?
A tree of nerves sprang into trembling life
Inside this body that the world desired
But never knew--the starry insects swarmed
Among the maze of limbs and multiplied
Until the dark was flecked with bits of light
That gave no seeing to my open eyes.
The snake kept winding on the tree of me--
I flashed with nervous fire from root to leaf
And shivered as my gown was tugged aside.
A rush of wood: new saplings broke the floor
And forested the chamber, wild with growth.
The room dissolved as floor was changed to earth
And roof transformed to sky and swarming stars.
In midnight's wilderness my lover struck
Asunder all my childhood's innocence--
The little stars went shrieking through the wood
As jet-black trees contracted, splintered, fell.

I lay within a nest of shattered twigs.
A shape with wings was sobbing on my breast,
Some wall between us battered down to dust.
I touched the face invisible to me.
His serpent pinions beat convulsively.


My sisters armed me with a blade and fright
And oil-fire in an alabaster lamp
That made the shadows quake along the wall--
To think I might have killed the feathered snake,
If that was what my lover proved to be!
The lamp flame, thrust above his sleeping form
Shone through the flesh and lit his silver veins,
As if he were a flawless marble boy
Suffused by starlight till he changed to moon,
Enchanting darkness with his radiance.
Never had I seen a face so mobile--
A smile was flickering as if he dreamed,
The eyes were moving underneath his lids,
And opal shimmerings crisscrossed his face
With hints of feeling I could almost read.
Nor had I seen such startling nakedness
As in the shining, muscled god of love
Whose sleeping power swept from crown to root
In beauty, whose life force was like the fire
Illuminating alabaster stone--
That is, the fatal lamp within my hand.
Three drops of oil to sear the god of love,
Three blood-red petals on his fleckless skin,
And three reproaches arrowing to me.
The light flew through his wings as if through glass.
His eyes amazed, his opal face alarmed
Me with a brightening God-loveliness.
I cried aloud and, stepping backward, pricked
My finger on some sharpness in his sheaf.

Another time I peeped inside the box
Of beauty Aphrodite begged from hell.
I should have known that nothing good can spring
From Hades' realm except Persephone.
A cloud of sleep dismantled what I knew
Until I owned no thing, no name, no word.
I'd longed for Eros, feared he might be sad
To find me dwindled from the girl I'd been
And meant to steal a pinch of loveliness.
I'd never seen my face except in bronze
Or water-waverings; how could I trust,
Who must depend on others' flattery?
What mortal could have seen that evil lay
Coffined inside the little box of grains?
But if I had not slept that sleep of death
Perhaps my love would not have asked if I
Could swig the nectar from the gods' own cup--
So you might fancy all was well at last,
And that my curiosity was good,
Ending in endless length of years and love,
Except for one small thing: in sleep I walk
The roads of time and mourn the ones who've died
And places changed or lost. My days give birth
To pleasure, but my dreams at night are grief.


A dazzle like a star that hid in stars,
Love flew away from me--he let me drop
With only gown and silken sheet for wings
To slow a fall to the bludgeoning ground.
Remorse told me that I had been a fool.
Despair then whispered that a knife mends all.
But dawn's explosions on the forge of night
Brought fire to cast my resolution's edge:
I set out walking barefoot through the weeds
And must have been inside a dream of him
Or else some zone of calm eternity,
For when I wandered in a vale of trees,
I found no cutter of the olive wood
Or priest attending to a sacred grove
But strayed within a realm of golden light.
A stream of music ribboned through the boughs
And made the wilderness a pleasure-ground.
The colors of the place intensified;
A summer scent of roses steeped the air,
So strong I tasted flowers as I breathed.
The little understory plants consoled,
Their leaves medicinal to my bare feet.

On curling paths I lost my sense of North
And South, and in the heart of the forest
I found the beggar king who rules the trees,
His fingers playing on a fluted girl.
That Syrinx was a nymph who fled from Pan
And suddenly transformed to reeds, I knew--
The voice within the pipes was still a girl's
And sang to warn me how the maze would be,
How I would strive to please the fickle gods,
Scaling to heaven, diving Hades-deep,
Passing through portals of the dark and light.
But if I would endure these sufferings,
She promised I would play Love like a flute.
Infusing air with gold and fragrant rose,
She made the grove undying, richly green,
This sleight-of-air magician in a stem.
Her voice unhinged the world and rocked the sun:
Theatrical enchantment of a song
That thrust me forward on the peril-quest,
Hurling me like an arrow fletched with stars.


My former life was but a shade that drank
The blood of memory to speak the past;
I'd suffered change to something radiant
And strange even to me. Likewise the world
Came streaming with a light I never knew
And bent its brute affections to my call--
When Aphrodite tortured me with trials,
The glinting ants divided grain by kind,
The Syrinx-reeds confessed a secret way
To pluck the golden fleece from animals
That boiling sun transforms to demonkind,
And birds scooped droplets from the mouth of Styx.
But I despaired when Aphrodite sent
Me to fetch a store of hellish beauty--
I might have ended as my sisters did,
Plunging quick from mountain-crest to Hades,
But stones cried out to save me from that fate,
And gravelled voices told the mystery
Of how to forge through death, return to sun.
I packed the coins for Charon, honey cakes,
The box that Aphrodite tossed; I braved
The sulphur vents, the noise, volcanic sprouts
Of flame that shot from earth like molten trees,
And then I slipped inside the throat of Hell.

They are not wrong who talk of grotesque imps
And beasts that howl and bristle on the path.
I reached the jet-black artery of flood
And shuddered as old Charon pocketed
The passage-coin: my death seemed near to me,
And so I craved the world of light and trees,
Shrinking from the dead who moan and flutter
In search of something, something they have lost.
I pitched the dog a sop of honey cake
To keep his three heads locked in quarreling
And passed inside the black-thorned palace gates.

As in a bitter glass, Persephone
Seemed me--imagine if my love was lord
Of night and fire, volcanic in his moods
And half in love with deep oblivion,
Instead of being bright and frolicsome.
She wanted me to stay; she begged me eat
And offered jewels of pomegranate seeds
That I refused. A darkness clung to me
On my return, and whisperings of love
Disturbed my thought. I clutched the beauty box
That now was laden, though it had been light,
Endured the weight of hell like wings of lead
Dragging at my back--stumbled on till sun
Danced incandescent on my face and skin,
And settled like new wings on shoulder blades.


Beside my throne there stands a changing tree
Cleverly branched with winter icicles
That clench a few red leaves and drip with tears--
The sun and moon transform the bark to light.
In spring the tree goes silver, and the leaves
Unfurl with shimmerings like beaten gold
Before the opal buds relax and bloom.
In summer I am earth enough to joy
In fantasies of green leaves starred with sun,
And in the fall, the tree's a rainbow tower
With tiers of orange, ruby, yellow, green.

Though such a marvel is a precious thing,
The magic gift of Eros, whom I love,
I often find myself by other boles,
Less trim and faultless--like this edifice
Of trunk, decrepit by the heaps of stone
And broken sills that once were palace rooms.
The tree looks like an elephant, collapsed
Onto the earth but holding up a sprig
Of peaceful leaves. I mount the ruinous
Trunk and listen to the wayward murmurs

That final leaves are making to the air--
At times they seem to prophesy the gods
Will fade into the West when starlight streams
Like arrows toward a greater love than mine;
At times the fortune-teller speaks of home,
Confusing me with what I used to be--
I know her intonation and her pitch
And how she often wavers into drowse,
Muttering of her metamorphosis,
Seed-girl to dryad to oblivion.
I hug the wood as though I could embrace
The waning oracle who stirs inside.
Occasionally I discern her face
Or hand in swirls of bark, but never more.

I always mean to linger in the sphere
Of love and pleasure Eros makes for me,
But something earthly draws me back to mourn
Outliving all the people of this place
Until the spot is barren of a sign
That I was born beneath this very tree
And flourished as an ordinary girl.
Today I shoved my doll of olive wood
Inside a fissure of the bark--I'd kept
Her long enough. My impulse hoped the doll
Could be a baby of the tree, or else
The dryad might survive the olive's death
Within the cloister of its much-loved shape.

My fate has altered me until at once
A part of me is seated on a throne
Beneath the tree of gold or icicles,
And part is playing in the arms of Love
As starlight steadies in his perfect flesh,
While elsewhere I am meditating leaves
Beside the toppled palace walls of home.
And even though I was so careful not
To taste or drink or speak to strangers there,
A part of me is plummeting to hell
Where all I loved before I met my love
Is shadow passed beyond the Cocytus.

One afternoon of blessed ignorance,
My sisters smiled at tales of love and plucked
The leaves from Mother's waterfalls of hair.
I whirled about and caught one spinning leaf--
Then I was leaf and silver-green of shade,
And shade withstood my joyous flare of sun,
And sun tossed fiery spangles on the sea,
And sea ran laughing round the throne of earth,
And spangled sun and sea-laved earth were mine,
And I, so spellbound, did not understand
My ears were echoing with fate foretold
When the dryad cast her rustling riddle:
Mortality and immortality
Are wed in you, a perishable grit
Lapped round in seas of pearl--you are the light
That sits enthroned wherever love is born.

The Good-Bye

Good-bye, my borrowed bits of loveliness,
You necklaces of pomegranate seeds,
You leaf-green shadows clustered in a gem,
You priceless pearl, redeemer of the dust.
Good-bye to my dear husband, children, friends,
For something wilding calls my secret name,
And light and forest overshadow me.
Already beams that slant between the boles
Go sliding through my skin until I shine,
And white-eyed vireos have plucked at leaves
To build my nest among the sycamores.
I wander emerald woods until I tire--
Pursuing still some moving goal in dreams,
I sleep in leaves beside a nacred sea.
The greeny shadows in this land of peace
Are pattering with rain that brings a scent
Of earth--the droplets rise again as cloud,
Foretelling metamorphosis in me.


photo courtesy of
Ellen Datlow
Marly Youmans is the author of six books of fiction and a collection of poetry. Her latest novel, Val/Orson, satisfies her long-time desire to write a book set in trees. The story also finds some of its inspiration in the legendary account of twins, Valentine and his "wild child" brother, Orson. It appeared in two limited editions from P. S. Publishing (U. K.) in September, 2008. Earlier work in Mezzo Cammin: 2008.1 & 2007.1


Sarah Busse
Barbara Crooker
Jehanne Dubrow
Annie Finch
Ann Fisher-Wirth
Dolores Hayden
Melanie Houle
Michele Leavitt
Diane Lockward
Charlotte Mandel
Ann Michael
Tatyana Mishel
Jennifer Reeser
Wendy Sloan
Diane Arnson Svarlien
Marilyn Taylor
Kathrine Varnes
Terri Witek
Marly Youmans

Marion Belanger: My current project, Continental Drift: Iceland/California, is structured around the geologic boundary that forms the edge of the North Atlantic Continental Plate. I was particularly interested in the fact that this geological boundary has no political allegiance, was not determined by wars, by financial interest, or national demarcation. It is a boundary that cannot be controlled or contained by human intervention.
32 Poems
The Academy of American Poets
The Atlantic
The Christian Science Monitor
The Cortland Review
Favorite Poem Project
The Frost Place
The Iowa Review
Light Quarterly
Modern American Poetry
The Poem Tree
Poetry Daily
Poetry Society of America
Poets House
Raintown Review
String Poet
Valparaiso Poetry Review
Verse Daily
Women's Poetry Listserv
The Yale Review

Bread Loaf
Poetry by the Sea


Barefoot Muse Press
David Robert Books
David R. Godine Press
Graywolf Press
Headmistress Press
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Louisiana State University Press
Northwestern Univ Press
Ohio Univ Press
Persea Books
Red Hen Press
Texas Tech Univ Press
Tupelo Press
Univ of Akron Press
Univ of Arkansas Press
Univ of Illinois Press
Univ of Iowa Press
Waywiser Press
White Violet Press

City Lights
Grolier Poetry Bookshop
Joseph Fox Bookshop
Prairie Lights
Tattered Cover Bookstore

92nd Street Y
Literary Mothers
Poets & Writers