Chapter 5 of ‘The Or Tree’

Toby Fitch

The great cloud which hung only over the century
buffeted, blustering long consequences
beneath its shadow climate.
Girt about with discoloured purples, oranges and reds,
the white of the snow enemies
was muddied. Outside, in unparalleled profusion,
no garden lacked a maze
— evergreen rioted in the dank fertility show,
innumerable leaves creaked and glistened.
From a damp bonfire at the end of the earth, rampant
cucumbers came scrolloping
and giant cauliflowers disordered the imagination
of special tinted clouds that turned and
tumbled like whales or elephants,
a thousand escaping the whole sky as it spread above
undistinguished gas. Later,
extinct monsters cannot even pretend
that the climate was the same puce and flamingo conglomeration
insensibly marbling over other excrescences
— crystal palaces, wedding cakes,
a figure clothed in sponge-bag trousers.
The incongruity of such indecent
objects afflicted Or with the most profound water-logged air,
a bombazine colour on their cheeks.
Sea-stained, blood-stained,
the manuscript of their poem ‘The Or Tree’
had been working for close on three hundred changes —
a gloomy, amorous, satirical
sometimes-drama — fundamentally the same same same,
nothing has changed the trees that carp.
No sooner had thought split than a round-headed monster —
something between a bat and a wombat
— reflected on the eternity of all things infirm,
all of a quiver, all of a stew.
Was it damp? The rain in the ivy could be taken for an answer —
a tingling vibration made of errant fingers playing
the queerest scales (erect themselves).
But remember, we are dealing with some of the dankest
manifestations of the human soul,
positively ashamed in a strange dress. What a world we overcome
with shame, that we write not with fingers
but with the hole of a person,
every fibre of our liver trouble completely inclined.
Or was antipathetic to the man
spirit. Lines bent Or the wrong way,
dressed lightly in skirts
so as to submit to the new tinglings of wild
autumn winds. Wet as
in Botany Bay, revolving clouds answered pell-mell
among the violet plumed rain —
“Am single, am mateless, am alone” — and glanced nervously
lest some mal form flaunting
a long cloak behind them like a silver pool
came over the birds.
Straight up into the golden foam
into which the clouds had churned themselves,
fields of irises fancied
then lowered themselves till they saw the great hump
out at sea — a nightjar’s head
pressing luxuriously on the love and death suck
of the wet. A few minutes later they became engaged
in the snake-like twisting descent of coming.
Unimportant details blew
from Or’s breakfast to the gilt leopard on the weathervane —
“You’re a woman, you’re a man”
(since the world began?).
Nowadays, spoonfuls of strawberry jam, peppermint
and the stars reel overboard,
which is tantamount to saying nothing
— hence the most ordinary
is often the most poetic and the most poetic
is precisely that which cannot be
written, filled to repletion,
a great blank space here, then blobs, lawsuits, children
pronounced illegitimate
(they inherit my sex and shadow —
lolling from their mouths, cream-coloured ponies
command the very same thing).
A parenthesis blazing in the trees
fell fluttering on Or’s foot among the azaleas.
A cock entered the current
so as to see the phosphorescence on waves,
icicles clanking,
determined to write all this,
but a thousand other things always echo, are seductive —
and no single echo was surprised that
a woman could be as ______ and ________ as a man, and a man
as _______ and ______ as a woman. Or (rather
that both could be) so interstranged, spectre-pale.
Shooting this way and that, Or struck the grass.
When bright colours like blue and yellow mix themselves
in our eyes, some of it rubs off
on our thoughts.
As if something were tossing a little dreamily Or was lying
in the bracken when a leaf cried, “The wind!”
They ran, scattering
Queen Mary’s prayer book, snuffing out lights.
They knelt as the shadow came flying,
its growl the word Obey, then up they rose
with the lightning and the rain
pouring like wild hawks
till they crashed and fell in a shower of fragments to the ground.

A Note:

The above poem and animated collage (gif) are extracts from a book in progress called Or: An Autobiography. The central 6-chapter poem of that book, ‘The Or Tree’, is a fictitious recreation of the fictitious poem, ‘The Oak Tree’, written by Virginia Woolf’s character Orlando (who in turn was a fictional rendition of Vita Sackville-West). ‘The Oak Tree’ takes Orlando over 300 years to write, in which time they live through multiple eras, burn their poetic oeuvre, have various affairs with queens, poets and critics, and change gender from male to female. ‘The Or Tree’ is an assemblage and erasure poem, or rather, was resurrected chronologically from the 6 chapters of a burnt copy of Orlando: A Biography. It is, amongst other things, an homage to androgyny. “Or” is a character in the poem, as well as a conjunction, and a ghost.

The gif is a sequence of collages that accompany each chapter of ‘The Or Tree’. These collages are made of textual fragments from a burnt copy of Orlando, pasted on to a cut-out of a Romaine Brooks painting, Self-Portrait at the Seaside, 1914, which is collaged on to a heat map of ‘/r/place’, which was a collaborative and social experiment hosted by Reddit on April Fool’s Day, 2017.