A FEW PALM TREES: On Lions, Loins, Life in The Golden Age and Historical Similarities

Sharp October light. There is birth, life, death, of course.

One hundred years before me, too-long afternoons still bullied their prey. The moon, scalpel-sharp, cut holes in the night. Mouths uttered, even then, lists of obscene concrete nouns: Rita, for example. Barracuda.

Our bodies, then, welcomed ecstasy and supine defamation. Words arrived in bursts of gentle fire, precarious as geode concretions.


One hundred years before me, Britain sent Indian workers to Kenya to establish the Kenya-Uganda Railway, Lieutenant John Henry Patterson leading the charge.

I open the tent to an image whose perspective is alarmingly flawed. How do the mountains look, flattened? Is that small blue square someones cigarette pack on the grass? We have moved beyond meaning and the fruits—god-bless—are oversexed and indecent. The bees are fatigued. It is not blue it is yellow. Formless. Shape unidentifiable as language recedes. My orange tree is in blossom (again), indicating that it is time to mature and still I can’t vanquish the pen. Nature Morte, whispered someone as teeth sank into their calf.

One hundred years before me, a pair of maneless Tsavo lions stalked the Indian campsite at night, dragging workers from their tents and devouring them. In the sun we feign calm, speak robust; watch the road cook its kill, a divine omelet of life. We are adrenalized, black as olives in the shadow of a half finished bridge. The men swat flies pooling their face. Lieutenant John Henry Patterson, abrupt in his signage, waves a fist in the air and declares war on on their fear. He charges into the brush and reemerges triumphant, dragging the lion’s carcasses all the way back to camp.


Suppose we aged backwards, sifting through treasure in vanities housed in New York. Found ourselves re-birthed in tenements salvaged before the deluge. “SIR – We, your Overseer, Timekeepers, Workmen, Mistaris (Urdu for ‘lined’, for ‘ruled’), present you with this silver bowl as a token of our gratitude for your bravery in killing two man-eating lions at great risk to your own life, thereby saving us from the fate of being devoured by these terrible monsters who nightly broke into our tents and took our fellow-workers from our side.”      

We find telephones and insert them into our holes, uniting common points of resistance.

At dawn, ceremoniously stroke the lion with golden fur. Reaching, touching something from before. Crepuscular fantasy, Nighthawk. Patterson laying his pelts down for rugs. His soft feet treading—————————-I am minutes       and simply admire your ankles,


as they slip into educator’s shoes. Rogue shoes from Spain, from the rump of a wild horse roaming free in Cordova, paper clay smeared with red dirt.


The server is not responding.


Arroyo de Los Pinos, a vortex in the desert, sand and the Central Banking System: We are concerned. Patterson always said that he considered the silver bowl to be his most highly prized and hardest won trophy. He said nothing of those people, the ruled, their broken backs beneath his feet. Today the information is shared, the palm trees are passed back and forth, all the little broken things. Perhaps it is to avoid some great tragedy, a child spreading her legs for those shoes, that we dismantle narrative, weave rugs from synthetics. The beaches here are splendid, yes, but the people are crying in broad daylight, in the sun weeping like seals.


I am tired of dead dogs on the freeway, this slippage of fingers, this dislocation of bones. Instead I try to imagine you female, with small, pert breasts looking up to the sky. Hair like: remote; like a flat-bottomed cloud; like a cat pressed hard to a window and wanting inside. Lieutenant Patterson is dead now, and buried some place far away. Perhaps dancing. Perhaps crouched with his back to us all; spitting venom, extinguishing lights with a septic thumb.

This body, balanced like ungulates on the tips of their toes. I stare again at your muscular thighs. Think hoofs, picture you smashing guitars and antique floral plates, setting fire to the storage container, blowing smoke across the slab-like atlantic to conjure nothing less than an outrageous, mimetic volcano. These images of palm trees are bodies, some squat, some impossibly slender, cut-out from their surroundings and presented boldly as if floating alone in deep space. I turn to face the only open window in an empty house, to feel nothing more than a breeze unmarred by breath. We refuse the vulnerability of shopping carts, full as they are with plastic.

Everyone is at work in this cave. The leaves get up and lay down voluntarily. Everyone is working so hard for you, Lieutenant, and still we cannot get ahead.


100 years before me, the lion made peace with the couch. Then he was skinned with his own claws after death. You suck hard on the fingers of Heracles. I nibble the belly fluff falling away from your chest. Just this morning I finished a book about post-war rewards: the LP record, the Porsche 356 and the creased tassel loafer. No one mentioned those lion-pelt rugs, the broken railways, the un-finished bridge or the arc of Patterson’s life.

I left when I couldn’t find you in ratios, in bodies mute on the street. The things we love stay and spread like disease. I see our fate in the acceptance of speed cameras and homogenized milk. I understand now why magic is scorned but the stars, they cling: it’s faith. The golden rule. The last sacrificial sea-monkey. Surely some revelation is at hand? The age of Leo was molten, an ancient global warming. FACT: Deglaciation and the modern world. FACT: Shaved ice does cry. it all comes down to a seashell harmonic. One enduring final motion which navigates and propels the burial stone up the steep gravel hill.

100 years before me, Lieutenant John Henry Patterson sold his lion pelt rugs to the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, kept the silver bowl on his table for spitting pomegranate seeds. In The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Hemingway details Patterson’s formative years but we find the lion transformed into a girl who wants nothing but shoes. Today there is death in Texas, dying in Spain. We awake to gunfire in Paris. Bombs going off outside of the Stade de France. All of this expertly captured in the iridescence of parakeets screaming above the unimaginative L.A. river; in dogs barking wily at immense rat colonies mobilizing beneath our feet; in a child who leaps from her window to land bent in the grass. We find telephones, now, inside of the cave, but we’re fat and infested with flies. We hold time like a cherry pit, pink rubbing off on our hands. The straw hat is brittle, stabbing my eyes. Still, I demand a rug from morocco and tiny hangers to peg this bundled flesh. It doesn’t help much that I understand the meaning of cucaracha, scrawled on a mattress in the gum-dappled street. It’s too late, Rita, for linguistic conversions, statistics, vaccines. You try telling the bears that nuisance flooding is on the rise. We remain male-like and breathing, seeking revelation, a Porsche 356 and a pair of creased tassel loafers.

All photographs courtesy of Peter J. Cohen, selected by Melissa Catanese

A Few Palm Trees is an ongoing experiment in photography and literature, edited by Joanna L. Cresswell for Paper Journal. Each month, a collector is invited to select a set of images for a writer to respond to.