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What We Read

Margaret Gibson

Once there were women who read books in trees.

Beneath a green canopy, balanced or precariously

settled, we read a litany of tales,

following the twists and turns of the mind

through subtext and understory, listening to silences

as well as to the words.

We read Little Women, The Scarlet Letter.

We read about other women who were betrayed—

Ophelia, Eurydice, and about occasional

dark triumphs—Isabella, who planted her lover’s head

in a pot of basil. Judith,

who stole into the enemy’s tent with her long knife.

We read Plato’s Symposium, to which we were not invited.

We eavesdropped on Machiavelli’s advices to the powerful.

We read Housekeeping— the novel— and for the sustenance

of its well-crafted prose, French Country Cooking.

We read Jane Eyre, Oronoko, The Color Purple.

We read Emily Dickinson, Anais Nin, Virginia Woolf.

In leafy shade, with pools of sun on the grass below us,

we read A Room of One’s Own,

as the leaves and branches knit an essential solitude

around us. Our mothers called us home,

and we did not go, we kept on reading.

We chose Athena over Aphrodite, changed our minds

then changed them back—this went on for a time,

until we saw that choice didn’t depend on the dyad


The wind rose, the stars broke through, or vanished behind

clouds, and the summer of our youthful years

stretched into a lifetime of reading, as the branches

spread their shadows over the yard,

over the arboretum, the city park, the forest floor.

We took our own measure by reading the portraits of women

imagined by women or by men—

Antigone. Medea. Rosalind, Jane Eyre.

Madame Bovary. Elizabeth Bennett. Scout Finch.

We read the way gluttons eat olives and pancakes and peaches

We read The Second Sex and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.

We read Sappho. Izumi Shikibu. Mirabai. Lal Ded.

We read The Golden Notebook, underlining good phrases,

taking notes in the margins—

and we began our own notebooks.

Over time, we wrote our own stories. The plays we penned

built the stages we needed to walk on

when we let ourselves down from the tree branches

and made our way slowly home.

And the poems . . . ah, the poems. We wrote them

at first in secret, later read them to our mentors,

to our mothers, to our lovers, to the trees.

And hear this, all these years, all these lifetimes,

not once did we inscribe our names onto the trunks,

whose branches, embracing us with a green permission,

offered us a place to rest, refresh, re-imagine.

Unlike Daphne, who was changed into a tree, we never

turned our backs on desire.

We ran from no insight, no challenge, no catastrophe.

We read books in trees. We stood our ground.

We were, and we are, our own.

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