Laurence Lieberman: "Exodus of Butterflies"



One whole afternoon, Franz and his protégé
      Winfred sat on freshly hewn tree stumps, and brooded
together over the great five-hundred-year-old
    holy tree leaning over Franz’s boyhood home. He’d come to love
    that huge black sage tree like a grand old uncle
      who’d grown ever more crusty
         and mellow with age. But the tree’s gnarled roots
      had punctured the main sewage pipes
         of the town, then tore
             wide cracks across the road like an earthquake.
             So despite protests of nearby

home owners, the city fathers voted
      to cut her down in just three days. Chagrined Franz
wept at the prospect, and regaled Winfred
    with tales of family nurtured by the lordly tree. His young friend
    promised he would muster a series of paintings
      to honor the blessed tree’s
         spirit—to that end, he mused upon its densely
      outblown expanse of limbs and branches.
         He stayed and stayed, long
             after Franz retired for bed, holding steady
             In his brooding eye sharp images

of the tree by twilight, fullmoon light,
      starlight, and morning sun. Then he caught and held
vivid moments of the wind-blown tree in sudden
    gusts, wet tree drenched with five-minute downpours of rain, calm
    tree in dry still hours. His sketchbook in hand,
      he was growing familiar
         with the tree’s wide mood swings. Her gaiety. Her
      sulkiness. Her cringing at putrid smokes
         and whirling gas fumes
             from too many passing cars. Her welcome embrace
             of whole schools of nesting birds—

she loved nothing better than to be weighed
      down by great scads of birthing gulls. In the last hours
before the chain saws came to gnaw and slice
    through her centuries-thick tiers and layers of rings, he savored
    her fulsome girth, from bark to bole… The night
      after she was razed
         to a wide low stump, Winfred dreamed that he sleeps
      beside the fallen tree and awakes to find
         the long zipper running
             across his abdomen has burst open, releasing
             a stream of twenty-two butterflies

(varicolored, and of many wing designs)
      from the long slit in his belly. In the wild dream
he struggles to pull the flaps of his gaping
    wound back together, but whenever he tugs those flaps of flesh,
    they pop open at the other end. Or if he holds
      both ends, the middle splits—
         and there’s no stopping the steady migration
      of the butterflies from his innards
         out into the pasture…
             Springing awake, he rises without any pause
             from bed to his easle, and paints

his own figure leaning against the black
      sage tree’s trunk, while a spiraling long chain
of butterflies winds around man and tree
    circling upwards ,twenty-two in number as in his dream, ranging
    in size from tiny moth shapes near the man’s
      waist to great Monarch
         butterflies large as grackles, gliding high
      into uppermost branches. All colors
         of Winfred’s personality
             group and regroup in the rainbow palette
             of wing patterns, no two alike…

It rained all night. By daybreak, the sun
      peeked between storm banks of cloud, and Winfred
plunged into a second tree canvas, an exercise
    in perspective. A tall man, at far right, studies the black sage
    tree across the meadow. Day overcast. Storm
      thunderheads spreading
         over the middle upper rim. Brain rays are lines
      diverging from his eyes to the tree’s
         widely branching puffed-out
             top. A deluge of light—as if sourceless—comes
             roaring out from behind the tree


like waves of a flash flood, spewn forth
      from an unseen backdrop. But waves of light—not
water—engulf the trunk and lower limbs, so
    blindingly sharp despite the tree’s blocking any direct view
    of the original beams, the man must squint
      and shade his eyes with
         hand visor cupped over his brow to survey
      the gleamy expanse. SALTA, this super-
         charged light is called.
             He’d heard old tales about its inundations
             from the family elders, but now

encounters it for the first time pristinely.
      He holds his stance, but shudders in place, rocking
with the heaves of brightness—a glare that whips
    the viewer in the cheeks and forehead, shakes him from the roots
    of his hair to the pads of his toes. He is tough,
      a strong bold witness.
         He looks back at the light, unflinching. Never
      averts his eyes. It is a glory to him
         to have come upon
             this fierce gush and dazzle, at last. This holy
             blaze! Famed light of his ancestors…


Laurence Lieberman's recent poems have appeared in Five Points, Southern Review, Colorado Review, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of more than a dozen collections of poetry and three books of literary criticism.