“After the Ice Retreated” came from reading Stephen Pyne’s Vestal Fire, a history of the agricultural use of fire in Europe, and especially his pages on the linden tree, which colonized the north well ahead of people, and whose “totalitarian shadow” was something would-be farmers had to deal with. I imagine the world tree, Yggdrasil, as a linden, not an ash, and a tribute to the tree the people of those reaches battled for millennia. "Asparagus” is a poem about a word, two words actually, “sparrow grass,” the English term for asparagus, and about the shifting fortunes that shaped the English language.
After the Ice Retreated
When they had slashed and burned a linden stand
to make a field, they waited for the rain
to put the fires out and drive the ash
into the soil. They waited for the grass
their sheep might crop (or whatever it was they kept)
while the blackened stumps of trees grew less erect
and browner each season that elapsed, until
the earth they had proposed was framed and fit to toil.
Where they hacked down a forest and laid waste
the boreal shade, they summoned to the place
a world tree whose iron roots drove down
deep into that earth, whose branches touched the sun.
A linden, like every other tree around,
but one that neither fire nor patience would bring down.
Sparrow grass, the English called it once, tripping
over the Latin the Roman troops brought in.
But they must have had their own word for it, something
that meant first green shoot or lance of spring,
a word now lost, along with whatever the older
tribes driven west by the English might have called it
(Fairy’s spear? Big Will? Green baby’s bonnet?)
old names, setting like suns, one after another.
And sparrow grass itself is moving west.
Say it—sparrow grass—and we will speak
of birds, the small birds down among the stalks
and chaff, in their cities of straw, building the nests
the mowers will pass over while it is yet spring
and sparrows raise their young and teach them to sing.
©2017 Michele Stepto
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