Sondra Zeidenstein describes herself as a gardener who can't get enough of flowers. Flowers grace her desk, her table, her kitchen counter. A summer's day finds her sweeping trails of pollen dust and petals. She has studied flowers through her magnifying glass. She has sketched them, although she says she has no flair for drawing. She has read and even written poems about flowers.
So when Ms. Zeidenstein went through what she calls "a season loss, with parents, uncles, aunts dying in quick succession, a generation coming to a close," she decided to collect poems about flowers and put them into a book. The result is "Heart of the Flower: Poems for the Sensuous Gardener," a first-of-its-kind collection.
Ms. Zeidenstein's book focuses on life. It was, however, occasioned by the death of loved ones. William Carlos Williams, writing in "The Ivy Crown," a poem included here, explains it: "We are only mortal/but being mortal we can defy our fate." Love -- "I love you or I do not live" -- he says, is one way to defy fate.
This book, dedicated to Ms. Zeidenstein's parents, attempts to defy fate through poetry. It was put together for people who like gardens -- even if they don't like poetry. Many people were schooled to believe that poetry is hard work, Ms. Zeidenstein says, that it has no connection to daily life: "This is the fault of our schooling." Poetry animates our daily lives. Our inability to see this is the result of our blindness. Losing sight of poetry, we lose insight. Losing insight, we lose ourselves and our world.
Most of the 51 poems in the book are set in a garden. All but two of the 42 poets represented are Americans of the 20th century, most of them well known. There are two Japanese poets. One of the most telling poems in the book is the hai- ku that it its epigraph: "The temple bell stops/ but the sound keeps coming/ out of the flowers." (Basho)
Ms. Zeidenstein arranges her book according to a gardener's year. The poems begin with the seed catalogs of winter and end with the final days of autumn. They include the activities and frustrations of gardening -- pulling weeds, planting, transplanting, mulching. They describe flowers, bees, butterflies, and slugs. In the center of the book is a rose garden. A garden of houseplants lies near the end.
Speaking of flowers, these poems speak about relationships: love, lust, creativity, loneliness, revolution, what Ms. Zeidenstein calls central human concerns, "the heart of the flower." They bring to life not so much the flower in the garden, as the child, the mother, the father, the lover.
There is a beauty to these images -- their very authenticity makes them beautiful -- but this beauty is never maudlin. It is something dynamic, as the Greeks understood the meaning of the word beauty. The energy of the flower inspires the energy of the poem. The poem holding the flower, like a vase or a hand, brings beauty. Readers find rest in that beauty. They also find reconciliation and remembrance.
Several of the poems were written as remembrances. "When I Am Asked," by Lisel Mueller, is such a poem. Here the poet thinks back to the day her mother died: "The sun blared endless commercials for summer holidays. . . . Nothing was black or broken and not a leaf fell." Sitting on a gray stone bench, surrounded by nature's indifference, the poet placed her "grief in the mouth of language."
"Tulips," by the late Sylvia Plath, describes the almost abrasive beauty of tulips in a hospital room, as the poet examines her own mortality. Recovering from an opera- tion, she looks at the flowers sitting beside her. "Their redness talks to my wound . . . upsetting me with their sudden tongues." Their redness makes her aware of her heart: "It opens and closes its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love for me."
Toward the end of this collection, the poet laureate, Mona Van Duyn, muses on "A Bouquet of Zinnias." that delight by their color: "pure peach-cheek . . . the red of boiled beet, . . . perky scarlet, . . . flamingo pink, . . . sunsink orange, . . . yellow from a hundred buttercups, . . . bleached white linen. . . ." And they reach out. "I have studied these blooms who publish the fact that nothing is tentative/ about love," Ms. Van Duyn explains, "[I] have applauded their willingness to take/ love's ultimate risk."
Poetry, this book suggests, takes the ultimate risk. Poetry is, as William Carlos Williams put it, whatever the heart fumbles in the dark to assert. "I love you or I do not live," it says.
Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State. "Heart of the Flower: Poems for the Sensuous Gardener" is published by Chicory Blue Press, Goshen, Connecticut.
In Praise of Allium
No one celebrates the allium.
The way each purposeful stem
ends in a globe, a domed umbel,
makes people think,
"Drumsticks," and that's that.
Besides, it's related to the onion.
Is that any reason
for disregard? The flowers -- look--
are bouquets of miniature florets,
each with six elfin pointed petals
and some narrower ones my eyes
aren't sharp enough to count,
and three stamens about the size
of a long eyelash.
sends up a sheaf of sturdy
ridged stems, bounty
to fill up your embrace. The bees
care for the allium, if you don't --
hear them now, doing their research,
humming the arias
of a honey opera, Allium it's called,
gold fur voluptuously
brushing that dreamy mauve.
What rich joke does
the comically spherical peony bud --
like the big button on a gong striker --
hold, that black ants
crawl all over its tie-dyed tightness,
as if to tickle it forth?