May attempts to write poems about stars and trees have been invariably foolhardy. Poems might require leaps of faith but with stars, starlight, moonlight, the leap is almost insuperable. Superman himself would disappear and flicker out. There is a line in one of my early poems Stars through tree crowns,
How perfectly and with such a leap /the leaves become stars.
There was the evening when, perhaps thinking of my mother who used to get up at night and stand out under the stars, I gave myself a dare. Sitting on the back step, stars above, notebook below, I commanded myself to write something about stars. Now.
Look up and they’re word perfect I began some waffle about molecular structures like winding stairs But there are a few lines I would still pass:and the explanation of plants, their roots that may be of air or earth, wherever the desirable water is, a loving gaze.
I’d rather watch starlight than 100 brides. My garden has hundred-year-old pohutukawa trees that in summer cool the air like great fans. Coming up the drive from dinner or drinks I look up at the silvery sheen on their tops and wish I knew, atom by atom, what exactly is happening. For there is nothing static here, nothing even as calm as a heartbeat.
These topmost leaves can be seen particularly to advantage in a friend’s back garden. Beginning by his bean patch a narrow corridor of ash, beech, conifer and elm make a vista, as finely imagined in size, shape and tone as if their planting had been directed by Capability Brown. The topmost leaves are delicately defined. Starlight falling on them, I imagine, must have some of the pulsating wildness of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
This friend is an astronomer so I ask him to explain it. He lets me down gently. The phosphorescent glow on the camellia is a combination of starlight, moonlight, reflected light from planets and zodiacal light. Zodiacal light, he explains, is the diffuse light that differentiates the sky from the earth on moonless nights. The energy I am watching is a plant’s visible (invisible in daylight) reaction to any light source. “It might even be your eyeballs,” he goes on in a soothing fashion. “The tremulous energy may be the effect on the human eye of dampness in the night air, the same dampness that causes the leaf to vibrate. Think of light trembling on water.” He also says, “Your job is to present it as a metaphor.”
So if I have an explanation I have not lost the image or the effect of it. This amazing interaction between starlight and leaf. The apparent energy which seems to lick the leaf margins of the camellia or pour a cloak of shimmering light over the pohutukawas. At midnight I look at the crown of the camellia where small leaves are striving—now one leaf is ahead, now another—and the dance that seems to be taking place in the air above. I shall simply go on drawing the attention of guests to this phenomenon when I escort them to their cars. I think of Byron, himself a great lover of space, and his lines, destined for stuffy and suffocating drawing rooms. Swooning lines. She walks in beauty, like the night.
Perhaps, just perhaps, those camellia leaf margins and aged pohutakawas are being watered by stars.