Friday, August 21, 2009

Peonies and Poems

And then the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” -Anais Nin
Peonies, by Mary Oliver
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open ---
pools of lace,
white and pink ---
and all day the black ants climb over them,
boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away
to their dark, underground cities ---
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,
the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise,
their red stems holding
all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again ---
beauty the brave, the exemplary,
blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,
with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

When I read this poem, it's my aunt's voice that recites the words to me inside my head; the memory-echo of a hazy midnight conversation from last spring. I'd never heard of Peonies, but of course she had a copy, and read it to me over the phone from across the country, as I sat in my dark car and watched the rain make patterns on the glass.
I was probably eleven when this same aunt gave me my first book of "grown-up" poems - a collection of Mary Oliver's poems. Over the years I've grown to love Oliver's work, to salute her kindred spirit; that spirited, kindled flame of earnest, honest, unabashedly practical and voluptuously passionate zest for life that my own heart-fire leaps towards in recognition. (No surprise that she spent part of her youth living in Edna St. Vincent Millay's old house, helping Millay's family chronicle her work. One has only to read Dirge Without Music and Wild Geese together; they flow like they were written by the same hand....)
So yes, Oliver's work has that wild, achy beauty that I grew up loving, and I have my aunt to thank for steering me towards it - my aunt and my parents. I remember how as a very little girl, my father showed me his weathered, cloth-bound copy of The Old Man and the Sea, and explained how Hemingway's novella had that same quality; how if I were to keep rereading it as I grew, the words would keep unfolding into new depths. And I remember how my mother hung a plain, printer-paper copy of Mary Oliver's The Journey to the wall with a pushpin; simple reminders of the simple, complex nature of being human.
A friend in high school lent me my first copy of Sunflower Sutra.
My freshman year of college, someone else incorporated lines of Richard Jackson's For A Long Time I Have Wanted To Write A Happy Poem into a recycled art project, and I happened to walk by.
Two years later, a professor quoted Rumi while reading to us from a flaming book, the unexpected magic of the briefly flaring page illuminating the magic of the words.
And so it goes - illumination finds us as we wander through our tiny, instant lives, other people's songs tuning our ears to our own, intrinsic music; our own wee flowers, a catalyst for someone else's garden.

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