Like it or not, ailanthus trees proliferated in this neighborhood

Before gentrification, as scraggly and numerous as the children

Of the Irish-, Portuguese-, and Italian-Americans

Whose families had lived here since the 19th century—

As plentiful, I mean, as the snickering kids who loitered

On the stoops of triple-deckers that the city had built

To accommodate all of the poor Catholic families

Migrating from Europe with the mandate always

To “go forth and multiply” their broods of hungry children.


Called trees of heaven in the Asian nations of their origin,

They took advantage of every innocuous opportunity

To prove their adaptability—the females, especially,

Casting on the wind the pungent stench of their fecundity

For a week every June, dropping sex-crazed clusters of blossoms

Onto sidewalks, rooftops, and streets, sending up shoots

From every patch of godforsaken earth, even those pocked

With pumice-like coal cinders from the obsolete furnaces

They heated all the houses with well into the 60s.


And that’s how it was until the professionals moved in

With their melancholic babies, their dark mahogany

Antique furniture, their slick wardrobes from Bauhaus boutiques,

And their heavy cultural baggage from seven generations

Of important American personages—planting this greenery,

Marking the hard borders between their renovated properties

With gingko trees and locusts, river birches, hollies,

And moody English yews, prettifying the gravel walkways

Of their perennial Zen gardens with herbs, shrubs, and ivies,

And adorning the intimate dooryards and stoop-side patios

Of their formerly very homely triple-decker houses

With azalea, viburnum, lilac, and suburban rhododendron.


But some of these trees of heavenly origin,

As scrappy as those teens in platoons of six or seven

Who jangled swing sets in underfunded playgrounds

And lurked in public-housing doorways and bleak city parks,

Drawing water from underground pipes, sluiced by drains,

Took such tenacious root along the ubiquitous wire fences

Which the residents collectively hired some outfit to install

Against the crime-wave of the 60s—plumbers and secretaries,

Carpenters and nurses, sailors and sales clerks, proud

To own their own homes after the Second World War—

Still remain, their elephant-gray trunks gaining

Such incredible girth that they have actually engulfed

Sections of those fences, so that a four-foot length of fence,

In a kind of no-man’s land between two “developed properties,”

At one time connected to the entire maze of fencing,

Can still be seen in the gray bark of a tree, threading in

And out of the surface of the bark, its diamond weave

Of rust-orange aluminum as visible as a scar in the flesh

Of someone’s trunk, like zipper-like stitching left hanging

In the soft skin of someone’s torso after a procedure

Where a hernia was corrected, open heart surgery

Was performed, or an appendix, a gallstone, or a tumor

Was removed by a surgeon in a routine emergency.