Who among you be Ailanthus,
The Witness-Who-Reaches High?

If you question, you are elm beaten down by exhaust
or calloused feet
If you spring up in expectance, you are
the frond of Ailanthus
Absurd in its giving
Of shade to the dreamless street.

Who among you be Ailanthus,
The Witness-Who-Reaches-High?
Who among you be fair Ailanthus,

July 4, 1977 || Copyright © 1977, 2005 by David Newkirk. All rights reserved.

Poem reproduced from this location.

Part of the collection David Newkirk: Writings.

Ailanthus: a poem

By John Marin


Please take a moment and think about the Ailanthus.

No-one plans it.
No-one plants it.
No-one waters,
Or prunes,
Or sprays it,
Or gives it plant food or weed killer or even manure.
It squeezes between tall buildings,
Through sidewalk gratings,
And cracks in concrete,
And in angles of fences where mowers can’t reach it.

It survives
Unassisted, and thrives.
It stands up to road salt,
And car fumes,
And dog piss,
And the hardened indifference of big-city life.
Only let it be:
And it will sink deep roots,
And form stout branches,
And cast a shade as good as that of any planted tree.

The Ailanthus is all unwanted children
And the adults they become.
It’s those who got adopted
And those who never did.
It’s those who learn their origins
And those who never will.

It’s the kids who glut the System
And call it Home:
In orphanages,
In nurseries,
And in foster homes,
Waiting for chance to graft them onto someone’s family tree.

The Ailanthus,
Laughing at rejection,
Sings out:
“I was born a bastard,
What’s your excuse?”,
Then turns its leaves to the sun,
And grows.

Please take a moment and think about the Ailanthus.


[“Ailanthus” (C)1996 by Jonathan Marin]
[Reproduced with permission of author]

Eid Mubarak, Selamat Hari Raya

Two, three cat running
Not the same dog running
Two, three day more raya coming
Everything is ready huh??

Pandan Island far-far in the middle
Daik Mountain has three branches
During Ramadhan everybody struggles
So during Syawal don’t spoil the chances

Jump frog jump
Jump high-high
What knowledge u try
Ketupat rendang very delicious

High-high were the sun
Buffalo kid dead in tied
10 finger hamba susunkan
Fault & mistaken harap dimaafkan

A friend forwarded this to me just before raya. It is in the Malay poetical style of pantun; the first couplet establishes the rhythm and strikes an image, often totally unrelated to the second couplet, which delivers the meaning. It reads almost like a direct translation except for the malay in the last couplet, which would be “Your servant holds ten fingers together/ begging forgiveness of faults and mistakes.”


TS Eliot: Four Quartets

The great poet TS Eliot uses Ailanthus altissima in his poem “Four Quartets”.  Here is the opening stanza of the third Quartet, The Dry Salvages:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

Here is the full poem.  The English student G. Michael Palmer writes about the garden and nature imagery in Four Quartets:

It is through flowers, and especially the rose, that Eliot is most connected in Four Quartets to his own poetry (as it is through fruit and gardens that he is connected with Milton).  Through the growth and withering of flowers Eliot allows us to experience both pain and resurrection, as the poem contains both the endless “withering of withered flowers” (DS 80) and the rising “lotos” “in the pool” “of light” BN (36; 38; 37).  The generic flowers of the poem, and the flowers such as the ailanthus and the sunflower serve, much like the specific fruits in the poem, to introduce a sense of duality, and in a more overt way, a strong sense of decay.  The ailanthus is “rank” (DS 12), and “the dahlias sleep in the empty silence” (EC 22).  The “hollyhocks…aim too high” (EC 55) and die, and there is always “the silent withering of  autumn flowers” (DS 50).  This flowery withering is explicitly Eliotic, and a common image in his poetry for conveying spiritual decay.

This is great stuff; Ailanthus as metaphor for “spiritual decay”!  Palmer’s not a good botanist though; Ailanthus is not a flower but a tree.  And the whole thing stinks, but especially the leaves.

I’m not a reader of

I’m not a reader of poetry. But this poem was presented to me at my wedding by my grade-school teacher, Rob Huchingson, now dearly departed. I have treasured it ever since. If all you’ve ever smelled is cologne or that thin alcohol-laced stuff they sell to ladies at Marshall Fields, you can hardly appreciate the mystery and wonder of true ‘attar, scented oil, that Cavafy is evoking. It is ancient and magical, like pure gold, or fresh snow. The first bottle of musk I was given was a nearly empty vial, thick and black, barely able to drip out the mouth. It was purchased on a perfumists’ street near the Jama Masjid in Delhi, nearly 20 years before it was given to me. I received it like it was buried treasure, just unearthed. I still have it, mixed with a few drops of sweet almond oil to resuscitate it. Moving in Muslim circles, there is always the opportunity to come across new and sublime scents that Calvin Klein will just never know. Some I’ve rationed out because I don’t know where to ever find them again. Others, happily, are easily obtained.