In Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s picture of Apollo and Daphne in the National Gallery in London, the god appears like a bare-legged teenage sprinter who has just managed to lay hands on the fleeing nymph. Myth requires her to take root on the spot and begin to sprout laurel leaves and branches, so her loosely robed left leg does appear to be grounded while two big encumbering bushes have sprung from stumps on her shoulders. But her face between the laurel boughs looks back without panic at the face of her pursuer, just as the inside of his left thigh is making contact with the bare calf of her right. Intact she may be, but she remains forever touched and susceptible.
Laurel as emblem of a chaste escape makes sense, especially nowadays when the bush belongs so brightly and trimly in the domestic hedge. Daphne’s two sky-besoms do signify her joy at being out of reach, but a part of her is still reluctant to be free, the part suggested by bare legs at full tilt, the part where the erotic vies with the ethereal, the part that is more a birch tree than a laurel.
Birch is the tree of desire, ashimmer with sexual possibility even when it arrives swathed in botanical Latin. Betula pendula and betula pubescens, names of the silver and the downy birch, have an indolent sensual loll to them; and technical prescriptions of their various characteristics are equally suggestive, the silver variety having ‘young twigs hairless, with white warts’, the downy having ‘young twigs with velvety white hairs, without warts’. No wonder the tree reminded the poet Louis Simpson of ‘a room filled with breathing, /The sway and whisper of love’, where arms being raised to unclasp an earring are like a sallow trunk dividing into pale, smooth, slender branches.
Simpson’s birch is warmly and consentingly adult, as if it were a grown-up member of the group Robert Frost saw once after an ice-storm in a New England wood, bowed down like girls on their hands and knees, throwing their hair ‘before them over their heads to dry in the sun’. And the first time I entered a New England wood I too was full of the stir of poetry, and much else besides. I had read in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess that beith/birch was the synonym for B in the Ogham alphabet, and had translated Mad Sweeney’s praise of the trees of Ireland, where the blessed, smooth-skinned beithe bláith bennachtach sways magically in the breeze, under its crown of plaited twigs. But there and then all that airy, erotic energy and association got captured and confined (much as Ariel was by Sycorax in a cloven pine) in a section of birch trunk I found on the wood floor.
This was a thick-stemmed piece of sapling about ten inches long and as thick as a nymph’s leg above the ankle, in the shape of a Y that had been pruned. Just above where the young trunk divided, the two branches had snapped off, and afterwards the thing lay marinating in a compost of old leaves and moss until the heartwood turned altogether soggy. When I discovered it, the innards had actually decayed to the point where I was able to clear out the mush and was left holding an open-ended sheath of bark, flecked and grained, warted, dampish, a little bit tufty-downy at the cleft.
This was in May 1979, beside Eagle Pond in New Hampshire, where I had gone with my family to visit the poet Donald Hall, friend of Louis Simpson, disciple of Frost, and the inheritor of his grandfather’s farm, to which he had only recently returned. Eventually, therefore, my chance find became a memento of our visit to his poetry station, the memento became a keepsake, and when I read that the birch is ‘a light-demanding tree and will not grow in the shade of others’, the keepsake began to shine in my mind like a Platonic idea.
At the end of the weekend I took it back to Harvard and have not parted with it since. First I let it dry (when it stiffened, it was as if the word ‘birch’ were turning into the older ‘birk’); then I stood the blunted Y shape upside down so that it became a little torso agleam in its own whiteness, a puella forever pubescens, an armless, legless Venus de New Hampshire, as disinclined to move as Daphne was desperate to flee. A form which seems to ponder Rilke’s response to the archaic torso of Apollo – ‘You must change your life’ – before answering wistfully, ‘Yes, perhaps, but first you have to live it.’
Photograph © Jemimah Kuhfeld