Asphodel, That Greeny Flower [excerpt]

- 1883-1963

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                        like a buttercup
                                                upon its branching stem-
save that it's green and wooden-
                        I come, my sweet,
                                                to sing to you.
We lived long together
                        a life filled,
                                                if you will,
with flowers.  So that
                        I was cheered
                                                when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
                        in hell.
I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers
                        that we both loved,
                                                even to this poor
colorless thing-
                        I saw it
                                                when I was a child-
little prized among the living
                        but the dead see,
                                                asking among themselves:
What do I remember
                        that was shaped
                                                as this thing is shaped?
while our eyes fill
                        with tears.
                                                Of love, abiding love
it will be telling
                        though too weak a wash of crimson
                                                colors it
to make it wholly credible.
                        There is something
                                                something urgent
I have to say to you
                        and you alone
                                                but it must wait
while I drink in
                        the joy of your approach,
                                                perhaps for the last time.
And so
                        with fear in my heart
                                                I drag it out
and keep on talking
                        for I dare not stop.
                                                Listen while I talk on
against time.
                        It will not be
                                                for long.
I have forgot
                        and yet I see clearly enough
central to the sky
                        which ranges round it.
                                                An odor
springs from it!
                        A sweetest odor!
                                                Honeysuckle!  And now
there comes the buzzing of a bee!
                        and a whole flood
                                                of sister memories!
Only give me time,
                        time to recall them
                                                before I shall speak out.
Give me time,
When I was a boy
                        I kept a book
                                                to which, from time
to time,
                        I added pressed flowers
                                                until, after a time,
I had a good collection.
                        The asphodel,
among them.
                        I bring you,
a memory of those flowers.
                        They were sweet
                                                when I pressed them
and retained
                        something of their sweetness
                                                a long time.
It is a curious odor,
                        a moral odor,
                                                that brings me
near to you.
                        The color
                                                was the first to go.
There had come to me
                        a challenge,
                                                your dear self,
mortal as I was,
                        the lily's throat
                                                to the hummingbird!
Endless wealth,
                        I thought,
                                                held out its arms to me.
A thousand tropics
                        in an apple blossom.
                                                The generous earth itself
gave us lief.
                        The whole world
                                                became my garden!
But the sea
                        which no one tends
                                                is also a garden
when the sun strikes it
                        and the waves
                                                are wakened.
I have seen it
                        and so have you
                                                when it puts all flowers
to shame.
                        Too, there are the starfish
                                                stiffened by the sun
and other sea wrack
                        and weeds.  We knew that
                                                along with the rest of it
for we were born by the sea,
                        knew its rose hedges
                                                to the very water's brink.
There the pink mallow grows
                        and in their season
and there, later,
                        we went to gather
                                                the wild plum.
I cannot say
                        that I have gone to hell
                                                for your love
but often
                        found myself there
                                                in your pursuit.
I do not like it
                        and wanted to be
                                                in heaven.  Hear me out.
Do not turn away.
I have learned much in my life
                        from books
                                                and out of them
about love.
                                                is not the end of it.
There is a hierarchy
                        which can be attained,
                                                I think,
in its service.
                        Its guerdon
                                                is a fairy flower;
a cat of twenty lives.
                        If no one came to try it
                                                the world
would be the loser.
                        It has been
                                                for you and me
as one who watches a storm
                        come in over the water.
                                                We have stood
from year to year
                        before the spectacle of our lives
                                                with joined hands.
The storm unfolds.
                                                plays about the edges of the clouds.
The sky to the north
                        is placid,
                                                blue in the afterglow
as the storm piles up.
                        It is a flower
                                                that will soon reach
the apex of its bloom.
                        We danced,
                                                in our minds,
and read a book together.
                        You remember?
                                                It was a serious book.
And so books
                        entered our lives.
The sea!  The sea!
                                                when I think of the sea
there comes to mind
                        the Iliad
                                                and Helen's public fault
that bred it.
                        Were it not for that
                                                there would have been
 no poem but the world
                        if we had remembered,
                                                those crimson petals
spilled among the stones,
                        would have called it simply
The sexual orchid that bloomed then
                        sending so many
men to their graves
                        has left its memory
                                                to a race of fools
or heroes
                        if silence is a virtue.
                                                The sea alone
with its multiplicity
                        holds any hope.
                                                The storm
has proven abortive
                        but we remain
                                                after the thoughts it roused
                        re-cement our lives.
                                                It is the mind
the mind
                        that must be cured
                                                short of death's
                        and the will becomes again
                                                a garden.  The poem
is complex and the place made
                        in our lives
                                                for the poem.
Silence can be complex too,
                        but you do not get far
                                                with silence.
Begin again.
                        It is like Homer's
                                                catalogue of ships:
it fills up the time.
                        I speak in figures,
                                                well enough, the dresses
you wear are figures also,
                        we could not meet
                                                otherwise.  When I speak
of flowers
                        it is to recall
                                                that at one time
we were young.
                        All women are not Helen,
                                                I know that,
but have Helen in their hearts.
                        My sweet,
                                                you have it also, therefore
I love you
                        and could not love you otherwise.
                                                Imagine you saw
a field made up of women
                        all silver-white.
                                                What should you do
but love them?
                        The storm bursts
                                                or fades!  it is not
the end of the world.
                        Love is something else,
                                                or so I thought it,
a garden which expands,
                        though I knew you as a woman
                                                and never thought otherwise,
until the whole sea
                        has been taken up
                                                and all its gardens.
It was the love of love,
                        the love that swallows up all else,
                                                a grateful love,
a love of nature, of people,
                        of animals,
                                                a love engendering
gentleness and goodness
                        that moved me
                                                and that I saw in you.
I should have known,
                        though I did not,
                                                that the lily-of-the-valley
is a flower makes many ill
                        who whiff it.
                                                We had our children,
rivals in the general onslaught.
                        I put them aside
                                                though I cared for them.
as well as any man
                        could care for his children
                                                according to my lights.
You understand
                        I had to meet you
                                                after the event
and have still to meet you.
                                                to which you too shall bow
along with me-
                        a flower
                                                a weakest flower
shall be our trust
                        and not because
                                                we are too feeble
to do otherwise
                        but because
                                                at the height of my power
I risked what I had to do,
                        therefore to prove
                                                that we love each other
while my very bones sweated
                        that I could not cry to you
                                                in the act.
Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                        I come, my sweet,
                                                to sing to you!
My heart rouses
                        thinking to bring you news
                                                of something
that concerns you
                        and concerns many men.  Look at
                                                what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
                        despised poems.
                                                It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                        yet men die miserably every day
                                                for lack
of what is found there.
                        Hear me out
                                                for I too am concerned
and every man
                        who wants to die at peace in his bed

To Elsie

The pure products of America
go crazy—
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of 
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure—

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags-succumbing without
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum-
which they cannot express—

Unless it be that marriage
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she'll be rescued by an 
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs—

some doctor's family, some Elsie—
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us—
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car


I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral--
for you have it over a troop
of artists--
unless one should scour the world--
you have the ground sense necessary.

See! the hearse leads.
I begin with a design for a hearse.
For Christ's sake not black--
nor white either--and not polished!
Let it be weathered--like a farm wagon--
with gilt wheels (this could be
applied fresh at small expense)
or no wheels at all:
a rough dray to drag over the ground.

Knock the glass out!
My God--glass, my townspeople!
For what purpose? Is it for the dead
to look out or for us to see
how well he is housed or to see
the flowers or the lack of them--
or what?
To keep the rain and snow from him?
He will have a heavier rain soon:
pebbles and dirt and what not.
Let there be no glass--
and no upholstery, phew!
and no little brass rollers
and small easy wheels on the bottom--
my townspeople what are you thinking of?

A rough plain hearse then
with gilt wheels and no top at all.
On this the coffin lies
by its own weight.

		   No wreaths please--
especially no hot house flowers.
Some common memento is better,
something he prized and is known by:
his old clothes--a few books perhaps--
God knows what! You realize
how we are about these things
my townspeople--
something will be found--anything
even flowers if he had come to that.
So much for the hearse.

For heaven's sake though see to the driver!
Take off the silk hat! In fact
that's no place at all for him--
up there unceremoniously
dragging our friend out to his own dignity!
Bring him down--bring him down!
Low and inconspicuous! I'd not have him ride
on the wagon at all--damn him--
the undertaker's understrapper!
Let him hold the reins
and walk at the side
and inconspicuously too!

Then briefly as to yourselves:
Walk behind--as they do in France,
seventh class, or if you ride
Hell take curtains! Go with some show
of inconvenience; sit openly--
to the weather as to grief.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
What--from us? We who have perhaps 
nothing to lose? Share with us
share with us--it will be money
in your pockets.

                         Go now
I think you are ready.

To a Poor Old Woman

munching a plum on 
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good 
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her