Thursday, July 12, 2012


I will refrain from tales of my recent computer apocalypse, especially since it’s not yet over, with Best Buy as the Whore of Babylon, while New Jerusalem, friends tell me, is getting an Apple. Instead let me say that I like to get up early, the morning still ghostlike, sip my coffee with Ganoderma lucidum, and read something beautifully useless.

(Unfair, you say. What’s Ganoderma lucidum? It’s a tree mushroom, “shining-skin shining” in Western nomenclature, “spirit mushroom” in Chinese. Bitter, yes, but how could I resist a name like that?)

When it comes to “beautifully useless,” however, a lot of poetry has been a disappointment. Useless, yes, beautiful, no. So imagine my near-ecstasy when I came across Margaret Szumowski’s Night of the Lunar Eclipse. Even her lesser poems seem to be in that sweet key of a minor. Her best ones, ah! – multiple orgasms and arpeggios.

The poem about women as Aurora borealis is my great favorite. Now I have found my second most favorite poem in that gorgeous volume (with its slightly coy lower-case titles titles, as if to say, “This is just a poem”):

the old man in the midst of renoir’s women

The old man loves the naked women in the museum,
calls to his old wife not to leave him behind
in the room with all the Renoir women,

ripe as apples in his country boyhood.
He calls to her, desperate she will disappear.
She gave him seven children, but one is gone,

and what does it matter now
if nymphs pull the satyr into the pond,
or if outside, the gardener cultivates

every kind of rose you could imagine.
They are old, their son is gone, but wait,
the old man still loves the old woman.

She is all he has as a woman, rushing away
on bunioned feet. She has spotted the gardener.
What to do about the rosebush

that won’t bloom no matter how carefully
she waters, and fertilizes, and waits for it.
She wants this gardener

to be God. “If you had been there,
my rosebush would be blooming.
My young son would not be dead.

Will you revive him?”
“Yes,” says the gardener. “He is here.
I woke him yesterday in the palest roses.”

~ Margaret Szumowski, The Night of the Lunar Eclipse

It’s so rare to find a new poem that delights me. 99% of poems I come across are instantly forgettable; some are not even readable. Maybe I’ve become too fussy: I want a poem to transport me to that “otherworld” of metaphoric vision. Too many poets use something that looks like a poem as a medium for writing prose, except it’s easier to write something that looks like a poem: a snapshot, a snippet – you can count the words – without the bother of giving us a fuller story.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s the task of a poem to give us a “full story.” No, just a wisp of a story will do, as long as there is mystery and more than one layer of meaning. A lyrical moment is always welcome, as are surprises. Here the gardener could indeed be God: note that the resurrection takes place in a garden (and echo of the Garden of Eden), and the resurrected Christ is mistaken by Mary Magdalene for the gardener.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” – you know the rest. I know from personal experience that after the death of the beloved we are prone to see him – someone in the crowd looks just like him. The brain produces these visions, these benign hallucinations, as part of the grieving process. The brain does a lot of things behind the back of our consciousness, so to speak. But I don’t mean to translate a poetic story into “neurotheology.” In poetry, we have to suspend disbelief and walk with the grieving woman into the garden, accepting the miracle.

But we don’t have to go into religious symbolism of the garden, be it the garden of Eden or the garden of the resurrection -- or, from a secular point of view, of becoming one with nature, returning in the beauty of blossoms. It’s enough to know the mother’s wish for the gardener who can restore her son, and the ending becomes heartbreaking in that wonderful way that only poetry can ascend to:

“Yes,” says the gardener. “He is here.
I woke him yesterday in the palest roses.”


But the first delight that the poem delivers is that roomful of Renoir’s apple-ripe women, also a kind of garden of Eden, an orchard with the Tree of Life (a woman is a tree of life). Only after presenting to us the miracle of art – making its subject “live” again whenever a painting is gazed on – we get the treat of another kind of coming back to life, the delicate and tender “I woke him yesterday in the palest roses.”

So what if it’s poeticized wishful thinking, and the ashes of the beloved have sunk into the ocean. The otherworld of poetry allows this kind of wish fulfillment – as long as there is beauty. And here beauty seems to reside in the image not just of roses, but of the “palest roses.” Paleness signals frailty, sometimes death itself.

But the rose is also the flower of Eros (oddly enough, Eros is the anagram of “rose”). Thus we have here the lovely fusion of Eros and Thanatos. The lost son is awakened by the gardener. And this miracle happens again and again every time the poem finds a reader.

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