Climbing the Tree


                          Timor mortis conturbat me.

Touring Australia, doing the tourist things–
a descent into the jeweled cave, all lit up
with giant tree-roots piercing the ceiling,
having augered deep. They cracked rock
and kept going. And the guide takes us deeper
as I think of the womb, how unpleasant it was,

how unhappy my mother was even then
and how we both were assaulted, struggled, fought
for life. Wet walls gleam and alabaster
glows here too, as of tombs. We emerge safe
in the light and I am greatly relieved,
still panting, gasping for air, terrified.

Later the same day we stop at the Gloucester tree,
a great karri named for the Duke because he once
paid a visit, though he did not climb it
as you do in the dusk–hand over hand far up
in a spiral, then waving from the tower aloft.
The tree is like the mast of a ship. You both sway.

The cave was enough adventure for me. I sit
on a bench with a wife who complains–her husband
should not be climbing the tree, not at his age.
"In the morning his legs will be mush," she says.
And I think what a good job Mother did, teaching me
fear of everything under the sun, all she too

was afraid of, ever the child. Everything under
and over us, everything known–and the unknown as well.
In dark or in light fear was given carte blanche,
always had its way with us. And we were afraid
of each other, it goes without saying. What a waste
it has been, a lifetime of fear. Would it help,

I wonder, if I returned, made myself climb
that Gloucester tree? Or is it too late to change–
there's another fear added. Trembling,
I greet you, grasp your wrist, feel a pulse
not even quickened. "It was fun," you say.
"You ought to try it." Yes, indeed. And bless

every spider I've killed and the darkness
I stayed awake to watch and waters and sky
that not once have betrayed us. Not yet.


David Ray, Kangaroo Paws, Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1994.