Bark                                                                                                                      —James Dott

Each poem a journey we embark upon.
But it’s not the bark of our embarkation
not the barque you’d board to begin the voyage
half-sunk in obscurity
its rigging scheme, its history
kept afloat by aficionados of the age of sail
like me and maybe you,
not that barque but the tree hide
flensed from logs
of straight-growing conifers
felled to make its masts,
had good speed, rose well to the wind
used as a whaler, grain hauler, and a slaver too.
And not the bark with yelp and snarl
that the makes the speech of dogs, their kin,
the woodland wolves,
but the pelts of the trees
where they whelped and roamed and howled
before it was all peeled away.

That bark,
the skin of trees,
armor against disease, injury, and desiccation,
if cut it bleeds,
heals over in scabby lumps,
can be damaged by the elements,
sun scald, frost crack,
some barks stand up to fire
others char through.

The green and gold of sapling bark
does not last
darkens or fades to new hues
birch-white to black oak-black
grades of gray, variations on brown
with overlays of lichen,
furs of moss.

Smooth at first
but for the nicks and slits of lenticels
air tubes so the inner bark can breathe
there the cambium builds the tree
a wall where
meristem cells decide and divide:
on the inner surface: woody xylem shafts
that lift water to the leaves.
On the outer: phloem cells
carry sweet sap.
Such a thin wall of life,
the bark its protector,
a sheath from root tip to twig end
which swells, stretches,
as the tree gains girth
so splits, peels, flakes off,
makes terrains both possible and surreal:
deep arroyos dissecting mesas,
braided streams through glacial outwash,
cross-furrowed labyrinths
from which there is no exit,
sinews of current that divide,
embrace boulders,
then re-twine downstream,
parallel ridges of black basalt
half covered by wind-blown snow,
plates that curl and finally fall away
dark icebergs swept off the sea
by storms.

Some chew through it
to the sapwood
even eat the bark itself,
though difficult to digest,
some hide within it,
others hunt them there,
porcupine and spider, mite and nuthatch.
For us: canoe hulls, roof tiles,
fibers for baskets,
soaked and pounded it makes a cloth,
cork, aspirin, cinnamon,
we blaze it to the mark our way,
carve crude hearts into it,
burn it when the wood is gone,
chew it off with de-barker blades
chop it into bark rock, bark chips,
grind it finer, make a mulch.

When the soul of the cambium
has disembarked
the bark is released
and though it may cling for years,
in time it tatters, tears open, sloughs off
in sheets, strips, chunks,
joins the ground, there
cracks and crumbles,
where beetles, wood lice, worms
work it down, work it down
to dust.

James Dott

James (Jim) Dott is a retired elementary teacher living in Astoria, Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River. He taught in Oregon and overseas. His poetry has appeared in Written River, Turtle Island Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Squid, and Rain. His poetry collection, A Glossary of Memory, was published in 2015. In October 2016 he participated in the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. Visit his website for more on his work. 

ISSN 2472-338X
© 2016