Tree of Heaven

Tree of Heaven

Winner of the 1994 Iowa Poetry Prize

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“McKean's …lines offer up images that illuminate the human condition from within. These poems are simple, complex, and moving.”—PublishersWeekly

“It isn't enough to say that McKean joins the long list of tragic poets who catalog harms and brief glories of our time. With Tree of Heaven, he stands tall among them and sings very powerfully, faithfully, and most lovingly.”—Dave Smith

“An intelligence of the eye and heart makes a perfect trinity, and Tree of Heaven has that wholeness of heart and art.”—Sandra McPherson

This second book by James McKean displays a large, dignified, and precise talent—McKean is always looking and reaching out to the difficult world, pulling it to him for examination. Although beginning with outward themes of travels and crossings, Tree of Heaven circles in the end to the journeys of the inner life: the struggle to understand, the ability to see, to suffer the trials of illness and death, to survive love and longing, learning when to leave things as they are, when to let go. McKean's accomplished voice is quiet but firm, at times full of wonder, exploring the personal and discovering what salvation there is in rhythm and words.



Not heaven enough.
Brittleness outside

creaks, a bough
splitting. We lie awake—

the moon flooding
our room—and wish

for summer, for leaves
lifting pale

undersides in so little breeze.
We were warned.

Soft wood litters
the yard. No eye bolts

and chain, no trimming
against the wind will do.

Soon starlings—
rain-slick, iridescent

in oiled feathers—will shake
the crooked branch

they leap from into flight.
One way or another

this tree must fall,
a name's failure,

a weed praised for its reaching,
its hallelujah of

new shoots
heaving the sidewalk up.


At night I smell snow coming
and set out seed for birds,
wrap pipes, cut roses
back and bury them—all
the hard preparation
for air so cold the stars sit
as quiet as exhausted children.

The moon grows thin
on its diet of branches.

Then wood smoke
starts up morning, windows
iced over and wiped
back to their edges. Nothing out
but the yard so full
of light I squint, every shadow
taken. Once again
immaculate flakes drop
onto the steaming river,
onto my brow and tongue,
so the burden
of too many colors is lifted,
so I might lose
the poor horizon
and know the shape
of breath, the shiver
of understanding

that clean smell of snow
and green—for months ahead of me
only a memory.