Long after the yellow funfair tent
with its sudden shower of pollen
& its sweet prize has been packed away,
after the bees have gone
in search of other diversions
& the forest has grown dark & thick,
the violet hosts a quieter, stranger sideshow:
the cleistogamous flower, a tent
that never opens & admits nobody.
Like a Wall Street investment firm
writing I.O.U.s to itself, it has
all the magic it needs
within its green inviolate room.
We may infer the success of its transactions
only from its conversion
into a new instrument,
with contents set for future release—
a hedge against all the vagaries
of spring & commerce.
Above the road bank where
the hepatica has just come
into bloom, carrion beetles
clamber through the quills
of a dead porcupine.
Spring azure butterflies ring
what’s left of its mouth—
a void spanned by a pair
of yellow rails—
& ignore the blossoms
swaying on their downy stems
in all the colors of the sky,
white & pink & blue.
The snow hasn’t been gone a week,
but already life & death
seem far apart. The rusty leaves
that lasted the winter out
are relaxing into the earth,
& soon will be indecipherable
even to the most ardent follower
of the doctrine of signatures
in search of liverleaf,
or those who seek respite
from dreams of snakes.
An earlier version of this poem appeared in a post from April 17, 2006.
Golden groundsel, butterweed,
life root, squaw weed,
uncum root, waw weed,
false valerian, cough weed,
female regulator, cocash weed,
many were the handles
for which you once were plucked,
used as a uterine tonic, an ingredient
in Lydia Pinkham’s famous compound
(mostly alcohol) for “hysteria,”
feeble appetite, irregular menses,
cramps & backaches, prescribed
even to men for breathing troubles,
swollen testicles or sore perineum—
until the discovery of alkaloids
that can damage the liver.
“Life root,” indeed!
Now you spread in peace again
through wet woods & meadows.
Your small suns open
only for the cinnabar moth,
who mines your heart-shaped leaves
with her terrible eggs.
you of the shocking
blue pollen Chocolate Flower
root once used
as a styptic Old Maid’s Nightcap
the head of a bird Cranesbill
expelling the seeds Crowfoot
each seed with a tail
that curls & straightens Sailor’s Knot
pulling itself into
a likely crevasse Rockweed
invented these names? Shameface
a flush beloved
of the bees
Sheltered when small by
the three deeply cut leaves,
this so-called windflower
sways on its thin stalk even
from the wake of a passing fly.
Its pale sepals serve
as an almost mirror
for the April sun,
warming the sexual organs,
perhaps even helping to attract—
in lieu of nectar or fragrance—
the solitary bees that bring it
carnal knowledge of its mates.
Veined like flesh drained of color,
sometimes flushed pink underneath,
its close relatives reminded
the Egyptians of sickness
& European peasants of an ill omen,
especially the way it folds up
each night like a tent.
What is it trying to hide?
What secret pleasures prompt
such incessant trembling?
It’s bitter, they say,
burns the mouth & throat,
causes nausea, vomiting & diarrhea.
But the deer in early spring
are ravenous. It wants to live.
By midsummer, flower & fruiting done,
its ruined leaves melt away
into the damp ground.