Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 22: Vanessa Zimmer-Powell

Vanessa Zimmer-Powell is another wonderful Mutabilis Press alumna, and I’m pleased to feature her ekphrastic poem “Shadow Sonnet” tonight.

One significant feature of the Houston landscape is its trees. We don’t have hills or anything else to make the terrain dynamic, but we have trees like no one’s business. There’s still a pine forest in this city, even it’s filled with uber-expensive estates, and another one that’s actually just a big park. And when you fly into Houston, particularly from the north, the greater metro area’s outskirts look like bins filled with stands of broccoli. So many trees.

And our oaks, among other varieties, are beautiful. They grace the boulevards in the more elite neighborhoods and the yards of most mature subdivisions. Trees two and three stories tall, with canopies stretching over the streets and houses. When we had a solar eclipse here in 2017, you could view the crescent suns through the shadows their leaves made on the ground.

Mature trees are a firm selling point in our residential real estate market, and they are one of the things that make this city livable, especially in the summer.

Shadow Sonnet

            After viewing Anila Quayyum Agha’s installation, Intersections, Rice Gallery

I know the shadows of oak; at this hour
they trace their lace on the homeless body
at the edge of campus, on the students
who need the calm of shade sometimes, and then
there’s me, the interloper, collecting
intersections formed by absence of light,
frottages that linger like dark henna,
or a smell that I carry when I leave
the presence of a stranger. She was
breathing into a respirator and smelled
like orange Ivory, if that exists, you know
I carry her into traffic, the patterns of truck
shadows, a freeway where we do not move.
Each car spreads its gaunt halo of anger

or light.

This poem was originally published in San Pedro River Review(Spring 2016).

***

Vanessa Zimmer-Powell’s poetry has aired on the radio and has been published in numerous journals and anthologies. Recently, she has taken an interest in writing and filming cinepoems and has been a ReelPoetry and Gulf Coast Film Festival juried cinepoet and filmmaker. Awards include first place winner of the 2017 and 2016 Houston Poetry Fest ekphrastic competition, and Top Honors in the 2017 and 2019 Friendswood Library ekphrastic poetry competitions. She also received honors at the 2013 Austin Poetry Fest, and a 2013 Rick Steves haiku award. Her chapbook, Woman Looks into an Eye is published by Dancing Girl Press.

Poem-A-Day: Vanessa Zimmer-Powell

Many years ago, when the incipient gentrification of Houston’s Montrose area was still rocking the neighborhood boat, my husband and I lived on the top floor of a duplex that had been built in 1936. The house next door to us, a single-story bungalow, had been recently and lovingly restored, and the young couple who rented it often came out and visited with the neighbors on their front stoop, in the shade of a grandfather oak whose canopy shaded their house, our front yard, and most of the wide street in front of us.

One day, the neighbors said they were moving out. They’d been given notice: the owners of their home had sold it to a developer named Ghods. About a month later, in the very early summer of 2001, I sat in my living room window and wrote poetry all day as I watched as a crew of day laborers bring the tree down. The neighbors hadn’t been gone more than a few days, and the house wasn’t slated to be razed for a while, but a city ordinance protecting Houston’s historical trees was about to go into effect, and so the developer wanted to get in there and saw the oak down before he could be prevented from doing so.

It took eleven men, armed with chainsaws and axes and chains and a pickup truck, eleven hours to hack the tree off its stump. They needed all those weapons, too, including the truck. Once they’d finally sawn through the base, they chained the trunk to the back bumper and spun the wheels for half an hour to budge the tree.

When the grandfather oak finally fell, it landed in the street with enough force that it shook my house, shook my chair on the second floor, shook me sitting next to the window writing shaky poetry. The destruction crew cheered that their herculean task was over.

Six adults could stand comfortably together on the tree stump. The next day they came back and chopped the tree into fireplace logs. They stacked the logs in the front yard; the stacks were taller than the abandoned house. All week people drove by, horrified, and left notes and flowers on the tree’s stump. Ghods was informed through these memorials that he had “committed a crime against the neighborhood.”

Less than a week after the logs and chopped canopy had been carted away, Tropical Storm Allison came through and dumped about three feet of water on Houston in a night. Ghods, the now-locally-infamous developer, had a hole-in-the-wall Persian rug shop on the commercial district on the outside of our neighborhood, and once the water drained away, people driving past his shop could see his soggy inventory, its colors running onto the strip center’s tiny parking lot, hanging on ad hoc drying racks in front of the open door. The next week he hung up a banner advertising a 90% off sale on Persian rugs. Schadenfreude-laden whispers of “Karma’s a bitch” might have been heard here and there.

On the lot next to our house, where that small 1930s bungalow had stood, Ghods erected a condo duplex. Three stories, garage underneath, no yard. It was the template for many such milquetoast houses which would come later, before people got creative with the architecture and tried to make the neighborhood artsy again. Ghods’ units were going for $600K apiece, which at that time was a small fortune, especially for the neighborhood. He had to move into one of the units because no one would buy them. And the city still penalized him over his antics: he was required to plant 300 trees, each a minimum of three inches in diameter, around Houston. One of them got planted in our front yard.

Honestly, it wasn’t quite the same.

***

Live Oak

On Flowerdale
the bulldozers were busy last night
taking Mrs. Miller’s house,
her driveway,
the lake,
her neighbor’s car.

This morning I walked into silence,
found a missing block of houses,
a devoured acre of sidewalk.

On this street the developers are hungry;
I feel their breath.
They send my house letters—
woo her in front of me.

She will get a new school,
fancy streets,
the drainage will be better.

I cast my eyes downward,
fear Stepford houses.
Am I strong enough?

Should I tell her that she will die
stripped of her trees and flattened
in just a few hours?

I think to send her a picture
of “Live Oak,”
the new neighborhood
within the neighborhood
whose acres
have only one live tree.

***

Vanessa Zimmer-Powell is a Houston poet and Speech-Language Pathologist. She attended the University of Texas at Austin where she received a bachelor’s degree in English, and a Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders. Poetry honors and awards include first place winner of the 2016 and 2017 Houston Poetry Fest ekphrastic competition, third place winner of the 2017 Friendswood Library ekphrastic poetry competition, Poetry Honors at the 2013 Austin Poetry Fest, and a 2013 Rick Steves haiku award. Her poetry has aired on the radio and has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Austin Poetry Fest anthologies; Avocet; Blue Hole; Bearing the Mask: Southwestern Persona Poems; Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review; Chaffey Review; Copperfield Review; Ekphrasis; Historical Feathers; Houston Poetry Fest Anthologies; San Pedro River Review; Texas Poetry Calendars; and Untamable City. In 2018 her poetry has appeared in Weaving the Terrain: 100-word Southwestern Poems and Echoes of the Cordiellera: Attitudes and Lattitudes Along the Great Divide. On the radio, her poetry has aired on KTRU, KPFT, Houston Public Media, and the Rick Steves radio program. Her chapbook, Woman Looks into an Eye, is published by Dancing Girl Press.