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American Life in Poetry: ‘Naming the Trees’

By Ted Kooser U.S. poet laureate, 2004-06

We’ve featured several other poems by Bruce Guernsey, who lives in Illinois and Maine. But here he is visiting Gettysburg and giving us a poem for Memorial Day. “Naming the Trees” is forthcoming in the fall issue of Sow’s Ear Poetry Review.

Naming the Trees

At the national cemetery in Gettysburg

all the trees have names,

both family and genus

on small brass plaques at the base of each

to let the visitor know

the kind of oak,

whether red, white or black,

and is this rock or silver maple

looking once like any other

burlapped ball of roots

when it was lowered to earth

those decades after the war.

Colorful names like Tulip Poplar,

Weeping Beech, Buckeye,

Sweet Gum and Gingko –

sounding like nicknames almost, these trees

from every region and state

with broad leaves or skinny,

shiny, dull, or no leaves at all

like the Eastern Hemlock,

but all, all with names every one,

no matter the size and shape

amidst the many anonymous

mute stones in their shade.

Poem copyright 2020 by Bruce Guernsey, “Naming the Trees.” Poem reprinted by permission of the author. American Life in Poetry is made possible by the Poetry Foundation and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited submissions.

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