I received a request from Cosmos member @vmatekole to write something to go on the wall of a café he is opening with his partner Gyorgyi [sp?] in Berlin, called Meet Me by the Baobab Tree, and the piece I wrote—a poem—needs a German translation. Could anyone help with this? Anyone? (Ahem, um…@achronon? )
The following is an account of my writing process for this poem, for any and all interested. This may ultimately turn into a blog post on our new blogging platform. I do not know whether Victor will like the poem, but this is what came through! Either way, it was a joy to have a real world occasion for bringing a new poem into the world. If nothing else, this account may serve as a case study on my symbiopoetic process (thanks to @johnnydavis54 for the new vocabulary word) which may be useful to other writers.
First, for context, here is what the front of the building (under construction, opening soon) looks like:
And here is a picture of a Baobab Tree (native to Madagascar and a few other countries on the African continent):
(There are surely other, more flattering pictures, but the big, grotesque ones seem to be the ones that hollow out as they age—some up to 2000-3000 years, as measured by carbon dating—serving as gathering places, shelters, and village centers; even a pub has been created inside a Baobab tree!)
We’re a building a cafe and community space in one of the poorest parts of Wedding, Berlin. It will have multiple functions — cafe, deli and events, etc, etc. Coding workshops for kids, open kitchen events, etc, etc — all solely targeted at the enrichment/elevation of the community.
There will be a wall at least 5m+ most probably in a bright Yellow, immediately to your left as you walk in to the space. The text will be in black, and it goes:
"The Baobab tree gives life where there is little… Water her with kindness and respect and she will afford you the same, tenfold. With her tremendous fruit and enormous presence, she nourishes, shelters and waters those that come to her. In the winter she protects and keeps warm all that occupy her, in the summer, when it is dry she continues to give water and fruit. Come meet me by the Baobab tree my friend, she is a source of inspiration and hope, where ALL are welcome to come together and create something bigger than the sum of us.”
At the moment I think it is really shitty … But the goal is to elucidate how the Baobab has historically functioned for indigenous communities. Communities in the sub-saharan Africa often have built their villages around the tree, usually a single giant. Communities have been lured to it because it can provide water and fruit in places where there is little. It is the meeting point for the community, the life aid, the spiritual place where discussion is made and decisions taken for the good of the community.
So I thought about it for a while and talked with Victor and took notes, and did some research into stories and legends about the Baobab, including one that described the Baobabs as being punished for “lording it over” the smaller vegetation. These various tales are accounting for its weird appearance and “upside-down-ness” (which is such a resonant concept for any culture in a state of transformation and upheaval), for which it is explained that a god must have uprooted the Baobab and stuck it back into the ground the wrong way.
Yet this strange feature becomes the Baobab’s gift, part of the reason this tree gives life so abundantly. Almost every part of the Baobab can be–and is–used by people to sustain life. Even the inside, the empty space within the tree, provides something of benefit for humanity (and other animals). I imagine the café serving a similar function–like the generative hollow inside the tree.
But it remains a funky and absurdist species, which is why I thought it must sometimes feel sorry for itself, and so I began the poem with the line:
I am the ugliest tree in the world.
This line occurred to me one morning while I was writing, and it became the grain of sand around which the pearl of the poem would grow. A poet once told me that the first line of a poem is a gift; the rest is work. And so it is! However, this is the line I also feel most unsure about; it’s the most vulnerable. It would be easy not to like it. I would understand, for example, why one might not want this written on the wall inside a respectable business establishment. Nonetheless, there is something endearing about the sentiment (proud and vulnerable simultaneously) that made me want to keep it.
The next symbiopoetic association the occurred to me came from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, which begins:
A tree rising. What a pure growing.
Orpheus is singing. A tree inside the ear!
trans. Robert Bly
And so that gave me a way to tie together the African and Germanic/Grecian-European cultures in the figure of the tree, which is now interiorized as the poet’s song, which grows “inside the ear”–i.e., through one’s listening. So there is a fractal meta-innerness suddenly: a tree inside the ear, which itself, as the Baobab tree, has its own hollow inside, actualized as the interior of the café, where people will gather, mainly, to talk and listen to one another. As the space is incubational in intent, this ‘meta-innerness’ functions also as a creative womb, an encompassing sonosphere where the magic happens (as Gebser teaches, the ear is the magical organ) and the poet’s song is born.
However, I wanted to contrast Rilke’s earnestness with the tree’s gnarly nubbiness and tribal love of play. The ugly-fugly Baobab is not above poking fun of itself. What a pure growing! (Other translations say, “transcendence!” There is no great English equivalent for Übersteigung, it seems.) There is some gentle irony here.
The cosmogenetic correlation continued as I thought of René Magritte’s trees discussed by Peter Sloterdijik (illustrating his “womb theory”) in Chapter 5 of Bubbles, which we read together in this space. And I thought of Tim Ingold’s work (following Deleuze & Guattari) on “lines” of flight/movement through the world, which we’ve also discussed in the forum; and how Victor’s café will serve as a similar convergence point for life-lines flowing through. I thought also of the refugees and other uprooted people who will pass through the space and find comfort there.
And then I watched a few travel videos about Baobab trees on YouTube with my daughters (it turns out they had previously read a children’s book about Baobab, and the Baobab is also mentioned in The Little Prince, albeit negatively), and got a sense for what excited them, and got myself inspired—it was a sunny Sunday afternoon; I had good material to work with, and a good feeling—and I got to work!
The poem below is a meshwork of these various cosmic, cultural, and local threads, and various other tricks, which I hope will serve to invoke the nourishing spirit that inspired Gyrogyi and Victor to create Meet Me by the Baobab Tree.
Victor said the inside of the café will be an “explosion of color,” so I wanted to say something bold…but also something that could be seen and re-read many times to contemplate deeper meanings. Ultimately, I wanted to invoke the intended/envisioned creative communion inside the hollow provided by the café, with people meeting and collaborating, talking and listening to each other, mingling their souls, in a convivial atmosphere.
Imagine this written on the side wall as you walk in. Thoughts? Reactions? Translations?
I am the ugliest tree in the world. O reine Übersteigung!
A Great God punished me well, for my ambition wasn’t always so innocent—
Plucked me out and stuck me upside down, so I look like a fat yam,
A big toe jutting from the earth; I must grow my roots into the sky.
The lines flowing through me come from all sides, shores beyond shores.
I have weathered a thousand years of storms, drought, meteors,
Magical Beasts taking refuge in my bowels, to welcome you near
As brothers and sisters, builders of worlds I have only dreamed.
I am a monster when I dream! But I am only strength through what I give—
You are the song the animals want to hear. I give you my shadow.
I give you my leaves, seed, fruit—my own body, emptied and sweetened,
For the womb inside your ear.