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Cut Flowers

November 20, 2013

In the fictional universe, where I spend so much of my time, parents get old and die when their children leave home and start making their marks in the world. The next generation takes up any cause left undecided, and the camera pans away…twenty years of living quietly are covered in a couple of pages…parents impart their wisdom and fade gracefully out of the picture.

I’ve never been very good at quiet or graceful. We drove home in a storm the other night, hearing the tornado sirens, both to see it and to avoid having to sit in our friends’ basement. It’s not that we don’t value our lives; it’s that such caution seems excessive now, like adding a packet of chemicals to a vase, the kind designed to make cut flowers last longer.

Here is a poem about cut flowers and mortality, by Cynthia Huntington:

Cut Flowers

Though the cut flowers wilt
and the leaves wither, blanching
in the vase for days, still
they remind me of fields, the loveliness
of fading part by part, so many
changes, not sudden the cutting
down, not brutal but a way of
undoing. A fulfillment.
Merciful, you could say,
the cutting down and then
the slow undoing, which returns
forms to their beginning
as they go, petal by petal, and leaf
curling, how one shrivels
and falls. A blossom
that folds in on itself, remembering
the bud. Complete in its beginning.
As we say the flower is perfect,
and I feel my soul in danger
if I believe this because I am
a flower, no, a field of imperfections
and I may yet be cut down.
Be mercifully undone.
I’m sitting by the window and it is night;
I smell the cut grass, and gasoline
burning in cars that pass, and an insinuation
of skunk—these frighten me
because I cannot join them; they are not
sorrow or undoing, they are life fulfilling itself,
and I cannot settle my mind
from this ungainly sadness.
The window is open;
the flowers lean away from it, wilting.
A wish that I might be, not spared,
but taken back into this
night garden, made part of
something. This “I” a blossom
that opens and falls,
taken into a smell of cut grass,
whatever comes to me, for me,
across night, flown to this
single window, lit
from within by lamplight.

A faintest fragrance of fields
persists in these flowers, still lovely,
wilting without sorrow, without knowing loss.
And yet grief lives in the corners
and under our hair and nails, private
and untended against the world’s machine.
It prevails, this grief,
wrapped in moderation, and making small
gestures toward what breaks
the heart. But everything breaks the heart!
It is here to break, only invented to be
the fist of blood that bursts in the fire.
Why I love the wilting
flowers and the greens rotting
in the yellowing water, not gently,
not gently at all, but like some dead animal
held in the hand. It is not
merciful, I was wrong
to say “merciful,” that was wish only.
I have come to a place
here at the kitchen table where nothing
consoles me but these flowers
detonating silently by the window.
Somewhere a meadow strewn
with flowers untidy as stars, shimmers
in light. A meadow uncut, never turned.
I think I am talking about fear
and I know fear is only ignorance
of our true nature, mistaking
the loss of ourselves for an end
of being. The flowers stand up in the air
beside the window. They were not slain,
they were not rolled in heaps
into ditches to lie upon one another;
they stand up in the air beside the window,
translated, waning
as life wanes, in normal use, not in terror.
I am sitting by the window.
I am looking at the flowers.
The night air is cool and I breathe it
into every cell. Molecules of
darkness become me.

When “everything breaks the heart” there’s no point in protecting it, or in making a big deal about it, really. Simply to “stand up in the air beside the window” is a victory, some days. Just breathing makes “molecules of/darkness become me.” It’s a second adolescence, perhaps–we’re going to take risks again; we’re not going to go gentle.

What risks have you taken lately?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2013 12:02 pm


  2. Jenny permalink
    November 20, 2013 6:58 pm

    I think quite a number of novelists make the risks of the parents seem at least as interesting as the risks of the children. I’m thinking mostly of 19th-century novelists, though, like Hugo and Trollope and Dickens and Balzac and so forth. Today it still happens, but maybe less. I bet I could make a list, though.

    My risks are secret right now.

    • November 25, 2013 10:04 am

      Oh, make me a list, Jenny! When your life settles down.

  3. November 20, 2013 7:22 pm

    Well, think about Franzen, to cite an example that springs immediately to mind. All generations taking risks!

    • November 25, 2013 10:06 am

      I think that may be some of the kinds of books Jenny is remembering–the parents are important for a while, and then they fade into the background because the younger generation is carrying on the work they started.
      We talked about getting a macaw when my kids were in middle school, and decided against it because we weren’t sure they could commit to the care of a multi-generational bird.

  4. November 20, 2013 9:30 pm

    I’m working on the whole what should I be when I grow up. Guess that counts as a risk, right?

  5. November 21, 2013 9:25 am

    What a lovely poem. I am glad you made it safely home through the storms!

    • November 25, 2013 10:09 am

      They were not right on top of us, and Ron knows the sounds of approaching tornadoes (he lived in Kansas and then near Kansas City for a good while), so it wasn’t suicidal or anything. It’s kind of like how we eat our supper in front of the TV some nights, now–not something we’d have wanted to teach our children, but we’ve got no one left to be an example for, so we can do what we want.

  6. November 26, 2013 2:31 pm

    Having never witnessed anything like a tornado, I am frightened of the mere thought of them! I’m an awful risk taker and rarely do spontaneous things. Though in another way, I guess that not even looking for another job and committing myself completely to the book I’m currently trying to write might be considered a risk by some people. It’s funny, isn’t it, how that whole idea of risk turns out to be personal too. But in the relative sense, of moving out the comfort zone, you’re right that it’s a very good idea. Gorgeous poem.

    • November 29, 2013 9:10 am

      Committing yourself completely to something is always a risk. And yes, it is funny that the whole idea of risk turns out to be personal. Being in something of the same position, you get the urgency of it, of finding a new comfort zone.

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