"the perfumed silkiness of a geranium"

Jan van Huysum's Basket of Flowers

Sylvia Plath's "Tulips" begins:


The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here...

And then:

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle, they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between they eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The tulips eat my oxygen.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies around them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea
And comes from a country far away as health

I purchased a pot of rosemary this afternoon, along with a large bloom of chrysanthemums. And as much as I love the above poem, they do not have quite the same effect as Sylvia's bunch of tulips.

I was seized by a craving to have living things in my apartment with me, more specifically, to have living shards of history and language and growth. I can spend hours with my copy of Fuchs' Herbal, flipping through the illustrations of Seaside Balsam, fever-few, heartsbane, hollyhocks, coskcomb etc. The meticulous drawings do not, however, breathe as much life as the names accorded to each tiny specimen of verdant life. As I walked through the greenmarket at Union Square yesterday, I was struck by the plethora of names we have for flowers and herbs and plants. And the poetry of those names! Hyssop and Hog's Fennel; Lady's Mantle and Mountain Laurel; False Damiana and Saw Plametto. They're as aromatic and savory as the plants themselves. And so, by bringing a pot of chrysanthmums into my home, I have brought a word which never fails to delight me when I say it (aloud, or silently and to myself).

I have so many beloved memories of little growing things. Of the marigolds I used to plant in the garden that smelled of tomato vines and soil; of the spears of snapdragons, the cornflowers that were so difficult to pluck, the morning glories that wilted as quickly as they sprung back. I remember lilies of the valley and grape hyacinth and those straw flowers that prick and crackle and retain their color long past their life. I especially loved those flowers that smelled more of earth than of perfume. Marigolds, chrysanthemums, geranimus. Strange biting smells that lingered.

There is something about an herb or a flower that always makes me think of lost knowledge. There is an entire language to these little sparks of nature, a language that gifted names for very particular reasons. The knowledge of a plant's usefulness, its history, its life--these are things which are no longer easily accessed. We don't easily commune with the things that spring forth from the earth; there is no desire to. But they never fail to delight me, with their scents, their abundance or delicacy, with their attendant insects. To feel the waxiness of the leaves or the paper-smooth elasticity of a petal.

To have plants in my home is to feel my life a bit differently, in a growing, gleaming way.