In the Gardens Beside a Library

A poem by James W. Applewhite
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July 18, 2014
james applewhite

The willow oak has written in it
an ink of time-underlayment.
I say the word emeritus
and the wind-rubbed coppery surface
touches my eyes like a worn rug.
Corded by limbs to a base in soil
it recovers those years of toil
that layered other leaves in another place.
The library’s vellum and coffee still drug
my memory, like Gothic walls and trees above.
There I and my gnarled masters strove,
limning interpretive cursives and dots
onto the passionate dead’s still living arguments.


There wide-browed Lionel carried his satchel
into the crenellated tower, kindly, impersonal
and shone his lamp through a diamonded
window, out toward me, where I read
my fortune through the screening tree
and fed ideals on its shadowy history.


The fortress-like place of these pasts,
standing behind me, casts
no shade on my course
where free in the twilight I pass
the labeled species, these knowledge-trees —
not reading, and with no remorse.


As I walk farther on
one orange-green golden
final maple says that vision
is wisdom, that beauty is changing
and is its own meaning.
The space of time is at last my own.


Applewhite ’58, A.M. ’60, Ph.D. ’69 is a Duke professor emeritus of English and the author of twelve books of poetry. He was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2008. His new book is Cosmos: A Poem. This poem originally appeared in 27 Views of Durham: The Bull City in Poetry and Prose, and is reprinted with permission.