Great poem by Laurence Lieberman at Valparaiso Poetry Review

Laurence Lieberman has a beautiful and moving poem called “Exodus of Butterflies” in Valparaiso Poetry Review, available here.

It is a lengthy poem of 99 lines tied together by a narrative involving a tree. In more cases, “a poem about a tree” is not a great sales pitch for a poem (at least for me), but Lieberman’s poem works because of its odd and idiosyncratic imagery. Winfred, the artist intent on capturing the tree’s great spirit before it is cut down, spends time beside the tree to understand the variety of its experience. Rather than offering a plain description of natural processes, however, Lieberman gives us the striking imagery of Winfred’s dream:

Winfred dreamed that he sleeps

beside the fallen tree and awakes to find

the long zipper running

across his abdomen has burst open, releasing

a stream of twenty-two butterflies

 

(varicolored, and of many wing designs)

from the long slit in his belly.

What makes this a profound perspective, I believe, is that it is intensely human at the same time it is a nature poem. That is, Lieberman does not suggest that the spirit of the tree is only in the tree; it is in the human being that observes the tree, as well. This is a different than nature poetry that seeks to escape the human and enter a clear and crisp world of nature. Though the image is one of escape (e.g. the butterflies), it is an image of humanity and zippers and dreams and art. It is an image of connection, contiguity, and imbrication. Winfred understands the tree more deeply after spending time with it, but also after attempting to represent it, to capture its relation to the human imagination.

Lieberman ends the poem with a similar thrust, emphasizing the connectivity of human with environment in describing the “super-charged light” that Winfred sees. Lieberman even calls out these lines of connection: “Brain rays are lines / diverging from his eyes to the tree’s / widely branching puffed-out / top.” The poem insists that one must be willing to open one’s self up to nature in order to connect with it. This occurs not by shedding human subjectivity but rather by understanding humanity through its necessary relations. Winfred’s transformative aesthetic experience occurs as a result of letting nature, through the bright light, enter him:

He is tough,

a strong bold witness.

He looks back at the light, unflinching. Never

averts his eyes. It is a glory to him

to have come upon

this fierce gush and dazzle, at last. This holy

blaze! Famed light of his ancestors…

The light does more than return the image of the tree; it is suffused with humanity in the form of “family elders” who have come before him, who have understood the communion with nature that is part of what it is to be human.

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