White Lobelia

Little megaphones,
we hang out in the garden center and gossip
with the petunias three seasons a year.

With leaves too small to resemble
thumbs or hands or hearts, too soft
for any parts
of our threadable stems to grow thorns,
we prefer to pretend we are horns,
cornets and alto sax, prepared to assemble
in studios and sightread any charts.

We are of course for sale
to generous homes. Some of us have become
almost overfamiliar with ornamental
cabbage, with the ins and outs of kale.
Others have lost our voice
in a painstaking effort to justify our existence
as a perennial second choice.

Like you, we dismiss whatever comes easiest
to us and overestimate what looks hard.
In our case that means we admire
our neighbors’ luxuriant spontaneities
and treat the most patient preparers with disregard.

We strive for contentment in our
hanging baskets once
we know we will not touch ground.
We tell ourselves
and one another that if you listen
with sufficient
generosity, you will be able
to hear our distinctive and natural sound.


Copyright © 2016 by Stephen Burt. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 6, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“‘White Lobelia’ comes from an hour of very bourgeois shopping at our local garden center, Bonny’s Garden Center on Bay State Road (recommended). I am certainly not the gardener in our household—both my spouse and our kids have greener thumbs—but I do seem to find useful symbols in what they select and in what we try to plant, as well as in what’s just lying around plant shops. The lobelia in buckets are the good girls, the good students, the ones who follow adult rules and don’t try to stand out; they may feel rootless, or unnatural, or disconnected from instincts, or voiceless, and they may be right, but they’ve also chosen according to their own natures, and they might end up with a good life. They may underestimate their own ability to say something original; they may not credit their own strong feelings; they may view authentic feeling, real feeling, rootedness, originality, embodied power, as belonging to others, elsewhere—especially if they (the lobelia) are white.

That is: it’s also a poem about whiteness. The actual lobelia in the garden center were white, and the poem had several totally ineffective, misguided stanzas about the color white, which I cut, but it wasn’t called ‘White Lobelia’ until it was almost finished. It’s one of a few poems I’m working on this year in which I try to make whiteness, white privilege, white people’s insulation or distance from several forms of oppression, and from several forms of expression, into explicit topics-- though that’s not the first thing I set out to describe; I hope it comes across as #3 or #4, with the quiet good girls (some girls are boys, of course), imagining someone will hear them as they wish to be heard, at #1.”
—Stephen Burt