Sunday, February 1, 2009
A Reflection of Peonies
By Mary Oliver
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open –
pools of lace,
white and pink –
and all day the black ants climb over them,
boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away
to their dark, underground cities –
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,
the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
their red stems holding
all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again –
beauty the brave, the exemplary,
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,
with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
(Prompt #2 All italics reference lines from Mary Oliver’s poem.)
Reading Mary Oliver’s “Peonies” took me back to my childhood, back to the front yard of my parents’ house in Kentucky. In early Spring, the iris sent their sharp green swords through the earth where nothing but dead leaves and jumbled brown bulbs were before. Between the iris beds, there was a clump of peonies so big my five-year-old arms did not reach from one end to the other. Oliver’s description, “the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart,” is so apt. I remember wondering how that profusion of petals could possibly be contained within that tight, hard, green ball. After the iris were in full bloom, the peony buds would appear, swell and, suddenly, they were the size of ping pong balls. It is the memory of them now half a century later that breaks my heart.
The peonies exploding into bloom was always a wonder and a surprise. The peonies were mixed, snowy white “pools of lace” with red veins in their heart. But nestled under the huge snowballs were the smaller but cherished raspberry pink peonies. The pink ones were perhaps half the size of the showy white ones. Even Oliver’s ants in the poem were more impressed by the overshadowing white ones. The pinks were slower to open but when the white peonies were blowsy and tattered, showing the wear of the summer rains, the vivid pinks held their color and their heads high.
My mother would send me to the front yard with kitchen shears to cut flowers for the table. My childish hands would amass a bouquet of bluish-purple iris and white peonies just before their peak of bloom so they would continue to open on the kitchen table. Tucked into the bundle, I placed one or two of the glowing pink peonies. Their smaller blossoms were dominated by the mass of white and blue but they were always my secret delight, “and there it is again – the brave, the bright, the exemplary, blazing open.”
Mary Oliver’s poems seem to love nature but they look at it through wistful eyes. So many of her poems look into the past with bittersweet remembrance or they look forward with underlying sadness and an impending sense of loss. This poem of peonies is a sensual view, a Georgia O’Keefe voluptuous gaze with words into the fleeting beauty of a summer flower.
I have not lived in Kentucky for many years and peonies in the desert landscape of El Paso are just not possible. In my mind’s eye, I see that Kentucky front yard not as it is now with new owners and their tidy beds of petunias, but as it was fifty years ago. I see it on a bright summer day as a child with the morning sun on my arms as I shake the morning dew and the ants from the flowers my mother sent me to gather. My mother loved the iris best, their translucent sapphire petals crowning the fuzzy stripe of yellow that disappeared into the heart. She worried the peonies would carry ants and who knows what else to our dinner on the table. I shook each flower examining the furled petals so that she would welcome them and they could join the bouquet. Her iris and my peonies mingled in the Mason jar.
Gazing into the past, that moment in my childhood seems “wild and perfect.” The peonies of my old front yard are gone now but they remain, a captured moment in my mind, forever.