Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Emily Dickinson and The Language of Flowers

On Memorial Day I went to a special exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden. Apparently, Emily Dickinson was as much a gardener as a poet, and many of her poems weren't solely about death and solitude as revolved around the garden, where she devoted much of her time.
The exhibit attempted to reproduce, in spirit if not actual plans, the sort of mixture of plants that Emily Dickinson would have had in the mixed borders of flowers, herbs and vegetables, at her home. One of the things I am reminded of is that for thousands of years, people didn't need oil, coal, and gas to find meaning, joy, creativity, depth, philosophy, and communion with the natural world. Why has it become so indispensable now? (Oh silly me, I forgot, the profits...)
Interspersed throughout were panels with enlargements of some of her garden-related poetry.
Before we even got to the exhibit around the conservatory though, the pines exhibited woeful signs of decline.
And while examining the terrible condition of conifers, here is a bit from Wordsworth that Clive Hamilton included in his book "Requiem for a Species," in the section titled, "The Death of Nature:"

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: -
We murder to dissect.
I think Dr. Hamilton has made a brilliant and essential foray into exploring how it is that we have gotten ourselves into such a pickle, by separating human industry from the (finite) resources that sustain it - which has permitted the dangerous and fallacious fantasy that we can conquer our peril. He juxtaposes all sorts of fascinating analyses of the influences on human behavior from philosophers, scientists, and mythological characters - from Max Weber to Prometheus, Isaac Newton, and Descartes.
I long ago gave up the idea that I was going to be some sort of clever, original, influential force of intellect, and so I'm not going to make myself look foolish by trying to interpret his well-researched, insightful tome. I just recommend it, as a guide towards understanding how we have turned into ultra-predators and purely hedonistic consumers, and how we can perhaps understand that in doing so we have engulfed ourselves in the process...and where that leaves us.
So, back to Emily Dickinson. I am certainly a novice reader, and I don't want to be mocked for my impressions of her poetry either - but the mere fact that she spent so much time observing plants and their life cycles - and the creatures that revolve around them - makes me feel a bond with her, however undeserved. My first intention was to copy and paste some of her writing from online resources, but none allowed it! and so I had to transcribe every word from photos at the exhibit, which was painstakingly laborious...and why it has taken so long to compose this post - but also, it became an excruciatingly slow but contemplative exercise.
In her poems, I detect a prescient and intuitive grasp of the vital, crucial link that binds the human spirit with the food that sustains our bodies, as well as the complexity and delicacy of the relationships between forms of life that have evolved over time...and how sensitive they are to disruption. She certainly relayed the critical role of pollination more than once!
Of course, this post as every other at Wit's End must include photographs of foliage damaged by ozone, afflicted with damaged stomata - causing stippling, singeing, browning, chlorosysis, discoloration, and dead leaves. But I don't want to interrupt the poems, so all those images are just going to be interspersed with the verses, and the enchanting flowers that were blooming that day, and they will have to speak for themselves.
Suffice it to say, anyone who is unfamiliar with the significance of this pattern on leaves, had best scroll up to the top of the blog, click on "Basic Premise," and read some of the scientific research and maybe go through the archives before proceeding.
But aficionados of the tarantella dance between volatile organic compounds and ecosystem collapse will be able to empathize with this young lady (who probably doesn't realize she resembles every leaf I see)
and the best thing would be to start some favorite musical composition while scrolling through, while playing a new parlor game..."find the ozone damage in the flowers."
Oh but first
I couldn't decide which version of water lily garden I liked the best, so I am including all three.
I love the upside-down reflections.
And the deep blue sky.
The rest are the poems, and pictures from Emily's flowerbeds - outside and inside the conservatory.

Dear March - Come In -
How Glad I am -
I hoped for you before -
Put down your Hat -
You must have walked -
How out of Breath you are
Dear March, how are you, and the Rest -
Did you leave Nature well -
Oh March, Come right upstairs with me -
I have so much to tell -
I got your Letter, and the Birds -
The Maples never knew that you were coming -
I declare, how red their Faces grew -
But March, forgive me -
All those Hills you left for me to Hue -
There was no Purple suitable -
You took it all with you -
Who knocks? That April -
Lock the Door -
I will not be pursued -
He stayed away a Year to call -
When I am occupied -
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come
That Blame is just as dear as Praise
And Praise as mere as Blame -
A Light Exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period -
When March is scarcely here
A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.
It waits opon the Lawn
It shows the furthest Tree
Opon the furthest slope you know
It almost speaks to you.
Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay -
A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament -
A science - so the Savans say
"Comparative Anatomy" -
By which a single bone -
Is made a secret to unfold
Of some rare tenant of the mold -
Else perished in the stone -
So to the eye prospective led,
This meekest flower of the mead
Opon a Winter's Day
Stands representative in gold
Of Rose and Lily, manifold,
And countless Butterfly!
There is a flower the Bees prefer -
And Butterflies - desire -
To gain the Purple Democrat
The Hummingbird - aspire -
And Whatsoever Insect pass -
A honey Bear away
Proportioned to his several dearth
And her - capacity -
Her face be rounder than the Moon
And ruddier than the Gown
Of Orchis in the Pasture
Or Rhododendron - worn -
She doth not wait for June -
Before the World be Green -
Her sturdy little Countenance
Against the Wind - be seen -
Contending with the Grass -
Near Kinsman to Herself -
For Privileges of Sod and Sun -
Sweet Litigants for Life -
And when the Hills be full -
And newer fashions blow -
Doth not retract a single spice
For pang of jealousy -
Her Public - be the Noon -
Her Providence - the Sun -
Her Progress - by the Bee proclaimed -
In sovreign - Swerveless Tune -
The Bravest - of the Host -
Surrendering - the last -
Nor even of Defeat - aware -
When cancelled by the Frost -
The Skies cant keep their secret!
They tell it to the Hills -
The Hills just tell the Orchards -
And they - the Daffodils!
A Bird - by chance - that goes that way -
Soft overhears the whole -
If I should bribe the little Bird -
Who knows but she would tell?
I think I wont - however -
It's finer - not to know -
If Summer were an axiom -
What sorcery had snow?
So keep your secret - Father!
I would not - if I could
Know what the Sapphire Fellows, do,
In your new-fashioned world!
Whose are the little beds - I asked
Which in the valleys lie?
Some shook their heads, and others smiled -
And no one made reply.
Perhaps they did not hear - I said,
I will inquire again -
Whose are the beds - the tiny beds
So thick opon the plain?
'Tis Daisy, in the shortest -
A little further on -
Nearest the door - to wake the 1st,
Little Leontodon.
'Tis Iris, Sir, and Aster -
Anemone, and Bell -
Bartsia, in the blanket red,
And chubby Daffodil.
Meanwhile - at many cradles
Her busy foot she plied -
Humming the quaintest lullaby
That ever rocked a child.
Hush! Epigea wakens!
The Crocus stirs her lids -
Rhodora's cheek is crimson -
She's dreaming of the woods!
Then turning from the reverent -
Their bedtime 'tis, she said -
The Bumble bees will wake them
When April woods are red.
I hide Myself within my flower,
That fading from your Vase,
You, unsuspecting, feel for me
Almost a loneliness.
Of course not least her poems of flowers were all about love -
I tend my flowers for thee -
Bright Absentee!
My Fuschzia's Coral Seams
Rip - while the Sower dreams -
Geraniums - tint - and spot -
Low Daisies - dot -
My Cactus - splits her Beard
To show her throat -
Carnations - tip their spice -
And Bees - pick up -
A Hyacinth - I hid -
Puts out a Ruffled Head -
And odors fall
From flasks - so small -
You marvel how they held -
Globe Roses - break their satin flake -
Opon my Garden floor -
Yet - thou - not there -
I had as lief they bore
No crimson - more
Thy flower - be gay -
Her Lord - away!
It ill becometh me -
I'll dwell in Calyx - Gray -
How modestly - alway -
Thy Daisy -
Draped for thee!

The Soul selects her own Society -
Then - shuts the Door -
To her divine Majority -
Present no more -
Unmoved - she notes the Chariots - pausing -
At her low Gate -
Unmoved - an Emperor be kneeling
Opon her Mat -
I've known her - from an ample nation -
Choose One -
Then - close the Valves of her attention -
Like Stone -

Essential Oils - are wrung -
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns - alone -
It is the gift of Screws -
The General Rose - decay -
But this - in Lady's Drawer
Make Summer When the Lady lie
in Ceaseless Rosemary -
The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants -
At evening it is not -
At morning - in a Truffled Hut
It stop opon a spot
As if it tarried always
And yet it's whole career
Is shorter than a snake's delay
And fleeter than a Tare -

It will be Summer -eventually.
Ladies - with parasols -
Sauntering Gentlemen - with Canes -
And little Girls - with Dolls -
Will tint the pallid landscape -
As'twere a bright Boquet -
Tho' drifted deep, in Parian -
The Village lies - today -
The Lilacs - bending many a year -
Will sway with purple load -
The Bees - will not despise the tune -
Their Forefathers - have hummed -
The Wild Rose - redden in the Bog -
The Aster - on the Hill
Her everlasting fashion - set -
And Covenant Gentians - frill -
Till Summer folds her miracle -
As Women - do - their Gown -
Or Priests - adjust the Symbols -
When Sacrament - is done -
Baffled for just a day or two -
Embarrassed - not afraid -
Encounter in my garden
An unexpected Maid!
She beckons, and the Woods start -
She nods, and all begin -
Surely - such a country
I was never in!
Through the Dark Sod - as Education -
The Lily passes sure -
Feels her White foot - no trepidation -
Her faith - no fear -
Afterward - in the Meadow -
Swinging her BerylBell -
The Mold-life - all forgotten - now -
In extasy - and Dell -
Within my reach!
I could have touched!
I might have chanced that way!
Soft sauntered thro' the village -
Sauntered as soft away!
So unsuspected Violets
Within the meadows go -
Too late for striving fingers
That passed, an hour ago!
This poem was not part of the exhibit but, in honor of youngest daughter who long ago wrote a lovely essay about it (and with apologies to DesdemonaDespair, who rightly has no indulgence for such plagues),
I include this addendum, Hope is the thing with Feathers
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

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