Meet Me by the Baobab Tree

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? :pray: )

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):

baobab fat

(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!)

Victor writes:

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.


Shall I send this poem to my German poet friend Ashen? She would probably enjoy making an attempt. Her translations of Goethe etc are always poetic in English?


Hi @Philippa, thank you! Of course, please feel free to share this…although at the moment, I am keeping this post private (in the “creative studio” channel, which requires forum membership to view) until I get a little feedback, especially from Victor. (It may not work at all for the café!) However, feel free to copy and email the content to your friend, and if she’d like to participate here I can create an account for her.

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If there is a native-language speaker who has experience translating poetry, then they can certainly have a go. If need be, I can always give it a try myself, though I would like to see what eventually comes out, as I might be able to learn something.

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Although I am German I don’t feel to be able to translate poetry, sorry!

Despite my other limitations, I needed something to get my soul in gear after my trip, so I took a stab at a translation. I know you’re still feeling your way through this gig, and that’d be a good way to look at the translation, too.

20171005_Meet Me By The Baobab Tree_Translation-DE.doc (35 KB)

I can’t judge the German, @achronon, but thank you.

Victor let me know that he was in the midst of a flurry of final construction work on the café, along with a couple other projects, and that he would reply here soon. I just hope the poem serves the space! And if it isn’t right, well then, I still like the poem and enjoyed writing it, and now it has a double, too… :smile:

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Hello all,

Firstly, my regrets for my prolonged response. I have been super busy with the build of BAOBAB, whilst juggling my many responsibilities. @madrush I am humbled by your contribution to this project and thank you so much @achronon for the translation!

In all honesty I am not sure what to say in terms of feedback and my intuition says a poem should be received, as is, rather than have requests for micro changes… I loved the approach @madrush took in developing the foundation for this poem. I think he has in essence, captured the spirit of the Baobab along with our ambitions for the space, in this wonderful poem.

As for the German version it is being distributed as we speak to native German writer colleagues. I will let you know feedback as I get it.

@madrush please make this post public, I would like to hear others feedback too.

Daylight picture of the space along with my youngest son, Levente.


Thanks for the update, @vmatekole. It’s nice to see how the place is coming along (and Levente, too).

Just want to comment that I’m not above taking feedback on specific wording or other aspects of a poem like this. I’ve grown to trust my intuition and creative process, but everyone experiences language slightly differently; and especially for a public-facing, place-conscious work, I don’t feel a strong personal attachment to any specifics, other than that the language rings true and serves its purpose for the community.

Please keep us posted—and good luck with all your preparations!

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Hi all,

Apologies for my hiatus … After 9mths of building and launching “Meet me by the Baobab tree” I can finally share some more details with you. Please find our website here — And a photo of the poem erected.

@madrush it has been so long, since we spoke. I really have been in the trenches with BAOBAB but now have some breathing space. I will contact you in the next days, be nice to hear your voice again and catch up!


Hi Victor, Good to hear from you again. I love the bright colors of the café! And from your website, I can see that the menu looks delicious too. I hope to visit one day. Yes, it would be great to catch up…