“Paper Birches in Snow” by Rebecca Starks

Rebecca Starks


Impossible to see the birches and not 
think white fragility, their thin skin 
and shallow roots making them first to topple 

with the thaw, here aslant across the path two
caught easily in the crook of a red oak.

Or of my uncle in Bowling Green crying 
in an argument no one was having:
I have roots too, just as good and just as true.

Or how a working-class neighbor left her church
once the minister spoke of white privilege.

Everywhere the sodden white segments lie
ringed and knuckled black, and loosened scrolls of bark 
curl around coral-yellow lining. 

Now that he’s retired from the bank, my uncle 
spends his days rooting in genealogy,

looking backward to what made him who he is.
Mourning, more than he did Mother when she passed,
his beloved dog curled by the fire. 

* * *

Last night snow fell, covering the dormant limbs,
April fools, and all morning it’s rained  
from the canopy in drips and splats, pitting

the water-logged slush below and haloing 
tree bark in that unearthly Tarkovsky shine—

some with overlapping shingles of lichen,
some furrowed in rivulets, some smooth, 
spackled, streaked, or raw pink where woodpeckers tossed 

aside old roofing, each detail riveting 
eyes eager for earth tones—worm castings,

mud budding with minutiae, little green antennae 
sent up from soft moss, speckled fawn leaves, 
mushrooms thrusting through matted red pine needles—

after months of indiscriminate whiteness.
Difficult now not to think white privilege,

this verge of snow you can trample in any 
direction without risking wounding  
anything to the quick, at most a dead limb

cracking beneath the billowy comforter
and yours the only tracks, leading you back home.

* * *

And when it melts: more white fragility.
The last time I really saw my uncle’s wife

I was little, they were hosting Derby day,
mint leaves in lemonade, bouncy toys for us  
kids running wild, our blond, home-cut hair unbrushed,

and then the hush. I knew she was crying
because she could never have children. 

That we were something you could have. Now I see    
in the peeling flap of graying bark 
a family keepsake, the brittle bill of sale,

and reaching over all the other branches,
outlasting them, the brown hand at the auction. 

Now I understand my uncle’s looking back.
The birch’s light bark was meant to be its strength,
refusing the sun’s fugitive warmth

before it could be retracted with the frost.
The snow was never white, only transparent. 

With the thaw you pick your way more carefully.
Water drops run bulging over leaves, 
magnifying every fertile vein and pore.

from Rattle #72, Summer 2021


Rebecca Starks: “I’ve never been interested in family history, but over the past few years I’ve started thinking about why I’m not, why some of my family members are, and why I left my home state and never looked back. I’ve started looking back, trying to understand what has made me who I am. Writing poetry, mapping what I am beginning to know onto what I know, is my way of trying to make out the forest—and make it out of the forest—tree by tree.” (web)

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