Monthly Archives: July 2010

Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas

The white Pink, and the Pansie freakt with jeat
– John Milton, Lycidas, ln 144

Viola tricolor

Viola tricolor. Illustration in: C.A.M Lindman: "Bilder ur Nordens Flora" 1917-1927.

These days, pansies are a popular flower for spring borders and containers. Modern hybrids grow quickly and bloom profusely in cool weather. They leg out and need frequent pinching when the weather starts to warm. I’ve over-wintered pansies in South Bend, Indiana (with protection); they made it, but were less vigorous in their second year.

As a curiosity, I’ve grown Johnny Jump Ups (Viola tricolor) too. These were probably the pansies Milton had in mind; our pansies were not widely cultivated until the 19th century. Viola tricolor is a rangy plant, with small, odorless, but very artful blossoms. A single plant will have plenty of variety in its expression of the three colors: purple, white and yellow. And so, for its delicate brush work, I actually prefer the humble Johnny Jump Up to the gaudy marketplace pansy. For that matter, I prefer your average yard violet (Viola sororia) too; I have a fondness for the natural, white-blue hybrids. But back to Milton and the Viola tricolor.

In addition to having its place here in a great string of old words with new meanings (pansy, freaked, jet), the plant has a range of literary associations. As in Milton’s poem, it is a flower of grief. The jet freaks (streaks in this case and not freckles) might be imagined as the streaks of tears on a weeping face. James Patrick McHenry in “A Milton Herbal” probably overstates the association in responding to a John Carey’s edition of Milton’s Complete Shorter Poems (1971):

I do not believe that Carey’s footnote, “The ‘jet’ is a sign of mourning” (250n144), adequately expresses the effect: having its black streaks highlighted, V. tricolor’s bloom becomes a face in mourning. (Milton Quarterly 30, no. 2: 45-110. See pg. 45.)

McHenry possesses a better imagination, perhaps, but I have stared at the flower cross-eyed and have yet to see the face of mourning.

Shakespeare also saw other associations. First, in his famous pun on pansy and pensive from Ophelia’s madness in Hamlet, Act 4, lines 191-192:

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,
love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.

And later, and here we get to the licentiousness of “freaked”, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Act 2, Scene 1, lines 168-177. Oberon instructs Puck:

Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

“Love-in-idleness” indeed and clearly sporting a brash, purple hickey. The herb accounts for how one might fall madly in love with a jackass. Coupling with plant with foolish sexual passion finds additional support in Milton’s later use of pansy in Paradise Lost. The flower is included in Adam and Eve’s post-sin sex scene:

Flours were the Couch,
Pansies, and Violets, and Asphodel,
And Hyacinth. (P.L., 9:1040)

The associations grower stranger when one realizes that what American’s have been calling a “Johnny Jump Up” the English have long referred to as Heartsease. While this is explained, perhaps, by its long medicinal history, although not for cardiac problems; how is it that a plant can at once be an emblem of grief, love, joy, “jump up” (whatever that might be), and the ease of one’s heart?

I’ll leave this question unanswered, and end on this: of the many common names, and though I am tempted by the randy “Kiss-her-in-the-Buttery“, I am most fond of Heartsease, and could use a good portion of it right now.

[Note: This is the sixth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: Lycidas, and White Pink: Lycidas.]

Landis Everson’s Early Deaths

Everything Preserved, cover

Landis Everson. Everything Preserved. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006.

Landis Everson’s Everything Preserved won the Emily Dickinson First Book Award from the Poetry Foundation in 2005. The prize is given to American poets older than the age of 50 years who have yet to see a book of their poems published. Everything Preserved includes many fine poems of whimsy and wit. A playful poet (as a younger man, he submitted a master’s thesis on a 17th-century poet of his own creation, the imagined “Sir William Bargoth”), Everson is more than willing to surprise and trick his readers. Although I expected to find good poems in this prize-winning book (and I did), this expectation does not account for my decision to read it in the first place.

Everson’s editor, Ben Mazer, has pitched the book as a comparative study across many decades. The book, implicitly, asks: what happens when a talented young poet “retires” from poetry for forty years? Mazer and Everson have divided the poems into two sections: an initial, brief selection of poems written prior to 1960 (in the poet’s 30s) and a longer, concluding section for the poems written from 2003 to 2005 (his late 70s). The division invites comparison and speculation. Did the older Everson write better than the younger? Do the two Eversons share vocabularies? Do the poems by the older poet answer questions left unresolved in the poetry of the younger poet? And, if the two sections differ: how, in the forty year retirement, did the poet travel from point A to point B? In other words, what are the undocumented events which have shaped the poet of the second section, those missing forty years?

While I think these are all interesting questions, and while the editorial arrangement contributed to my decision to read the book, I worry that these questions do the book and the poet a disservice. Therefore, in this reading, I have tried to avoid such nosy prying. If I were the poet, I would want people to read the poems for what they are, poems, and not as curious artifacts in the life of an aging writer. Thus, in this review for the Spotlight Series tour on Graywolf Press, I am ignoring the first section of the book, the ambitious exercises of the young man, and I am focusing on the longer section at the end of the book, the poems written in Everson’s 7th decade.

Several of Everson’s poems refer to the act of writing, and (as such) might be construed by the reader as aesthetic statements of purpose. I have read his poem “Genie” in this way, but at my own risk. One should be careful not to assume too much of Everson’s intentions. The poet is a wit and fond of chess; gleefully ironic, he mocks self-referential poetry (poems about writing poems) as masturbatory dead ends in “Decision for Self-Love” (pg. 45):

Sometimes you write poetry about poetry.
You can’t help yourself.
Your fingers stray down there where there is
still feeling

On the chest of drawers the teddy bear
someone’s mother put there
doesn’t crack a smile
as you leave it out.

So, with this wry caveat and a not-very-amused teddy bear as witness, I turn to “Genie” (pg. 33) as an entry point to Everson’s book:

The poem grows
a preconceived experiment
the lab scientists knew exactly
how at the end
the test tube would turn blue.

But, bam!
a bright explosion
an experiment gone odd.
Out of the disaster a genie scowls.
A bridge collapsing
the engineer swore it would hold
3 elephants at one time
but one, only one
cracked the suspension.

The elephant fell into the river.
It was the end of the bridge, the circus and the waterlilies,
but the best thing that happened,
the genie unfolded.
Give a free poem to each poet who promises us
an early death.

Everson died the year after the publication of his first book. Although he left us at the age of 81, it was an “early death”. I think, however, this fact should not distract us, his passing is not the “death” the poem promises. Rather, in “Genie”, as in many of Everson’s poems, it is the death of the poet’s “preconceived experiment,” (the “bam!”) that he embraces. Everson willingly lets his poetry veer off into unexpected territory. Or, as he writes in the beginning of his poem “Landscape with Deer”: “The forest [he steps] in has to be imaginary” (pg. 68). And thus, from out there, out in the badlands, where the elephants break the bridge and crush the waterlilies, the genie unfolds for the poet a “free poem”.

Although I could write about Everson’s “early death” in many of my favorites from this book, including: “Sacrifice”, “How to Remain Dry When it Rains”, “Poems Along the Wall”, and “A Prism of Birds”, let’s turn the page and look at the next poem the collection, “I Reach for My Knight” (pg. 34). Here is another fine example of Everson’s imaginative and sly playfulness. The poet begins with the game of chess, with its constrained rules of play and highly abstracted symbols. After an initial stanza, in which Everson brings some of these symbols back to the mythological characters (the knight, the bishop, and the king) they have always been, he clears the board and restarts:

Instead, play me the game again, but not to win, play
on a flat plain with the knight on it alone
naked except for the fine horse and
that long lance stretched forth into the future
and the Holy Grail he’s always searching for
that is said not to exist–
I will hold that under my ribs where life itself begins.

I’ll let other readers decide where exactly under the ribs “life itself begins” for a lance toting, naked knight and his poet. The poem, however, exemplifies the way in which Everson can step out into the imaginary forest (or even a checkered chess board) and find suddenly, his intimate self, open and exposed. Once again, the poem is “free” when the genie wins the game.

I believe the poet enjoyed this process, this repeated “early death”–putting aside the self and letting the imaginative process win. At least, I hope he found in his last years a great deal of pleasure in the writing. In any case, he has left us a book of playful surprises.

Galton Hollow List

Having just returned from a week on the water at the Dale Hollow Reservoir, here is a short, incomplete inventory:

Shale: everywhere
Cliff-side yuccas: plenty
Opuntia: several
Bluegills: plump
Chiggers: yes
Dragonflies: uncounted
Dragonflies perching on the rim of my beer can: 3
Spouse’s siblings and nephews: 6
Green Herons: 2
Water snakes: 2
Turtles: 2 (one dead)
Catfish lines: way too many
Unidentified, waterside shrub covered with butterflies: frequent
Stainless steel bowls accidentally pilfered from houseboat: at least 1
Raccoons witnessed at 4am: 1
Minnows in my trap: 0

Black Berries

Black raspberry

Black raspberry, watercolor 1893

Here, Indianapolis, only the last raspberries, those hidden deep in the thorny shade, remain on the cane brambles after July 4th. I found a few of these on my bicycle commute to work. The fruit hides just off the paved path topping one of the White River levees. I’ve stopped there nearly everyday for a month–decreasing my work productivity by a few minutes, daily. On one of these days, a black guy stopped his regular trek (I see him often) to ask me what I was doing. I told him that I had found some raspberries and I gave him a handful. He ate these and noted: “We call these ‘blackberries'”. I think I might have tried to explain that what I call a “blackberry” (Rubus fruticosus) is different from what I call a “raspberry” (Rubus occidentalis), but he wasn’t interested. His manner suggested that he already knows what “we” call these berries, and I (not being of his “we”) have no place to call for clarifications.

I had a similar discussion in November at church. There I made the white error of referring to the “dressing” as “stuffing”. I was told that “we” call it “dressing”. (I think I’ve heard my white, southern relatives call it “dressing” as well … so, that “we” might be more inclusive.) I will concede that “dressing” seems more sophisticated than “stuffing” … also, “stuffing” is seldom stuffed these days. However, I happen to think that life is one berry richer with (and one berry poorer without) the raspberry, but that is beside the point. Also beside the point, is the fact that one may find plenty of raspberry recipes in soul food cookbooks. (See, for example, Patty Pinner’s Sweety Pies.) Not every black person thinks “blackberries” while eating raspberries, but the above “we” do.

“We” matters far more than the names of berries. One might afford some poverty in exchange for the communal wealth of “we”. I have heard, in my limited experience, a lot of “we” in black speech. It claims the territory and recognizes a difference; it lets everyone (“we” and not-“we”) know that another cultural currency is alive, well, and perhaps beyond reach.

White people use “we” too; in reference to any group: a church, a profession, a family, or a community of people with shared interests. Do white people use “we” when talking to black people about the ways of whiteness? I cannot remember having done so, but I’m sure that “we” do that sometimes. Whiteness assumes a broader territory. Whiteness imagines itself as the norm; a norm against which any “we” might be employed for distinction. White people, therefore, do not want a “we” for whiteness. White people look for a “we” elsewhere … or they join the Klan.

Of all the “we” inclusions a white person might assume to someday achieve (political parties, team allegiances, religious affiliations, professional associations), blackness is beyond reach. In the case of my fellow commuter, “we” is worth a poverty of berries. Sadly, “blackberries” are free, but roadside raspberries are a luxury not everyone can afford.