painted by Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890)
"How well he has understood the exquisite nature of flowers!"
French art critic Octave Mirbeau (1848 - 1917)
The irises were lovely this year. Every spring, when they bloom, I think of Rukeyser's poem "Iris": "blue below blue . . . blue before blue . . . blue behind blue." As the opening line reveals, this is really a poem for May, but I think that it is equally suited to mid - June. For one thing, the irises often continue well past the middle of the May. For another, today is Flag Day, and I can still remember from childhood that my grandmothers always called these stately waving flowers by their popular common name: flags.
Middle of May, when the iris blows,
blue below blue, the bearded patriarch-
face on the green flute body of a boy
Poseidon torso of Eros
sky below sea
day over daybreak violet behind twilight
the May iris
midnight on midday
Something is over and under this deep blue.
Over and under this movement, etwas
before and after, alguna cosa
blue before blue
That might be the wrong word
The iris stands in the light.
Death is here, death is guarded by swords.
No. By shapes of swords
flicker of green leaves
under all the speaking and crying
shadowing the words the eyes here they all die
raging withering blue evening
my sister death the iris
stands clear in light
In the water - cave
ferocious needles of teeth
the green morays
in blue water rays
a maleficence ribbon of green the flat look of
eyes staring fatal mouth staring
the rippling potent force
curving into any hole
death finding his way.
Depth of petals, May iris
transparent infinitely deep they are
petal - thin with light behind them
and you, death,
blue behind blue
What I cannot say
in adequate music
something being born
transparency blue of
light standing on light
this stalk of
(among mortal petals - and - leaves)
American Poet (1913 - 1980)
photograph from Vatican City ~ by TheCityGoddess
The iris plant takes its name from the Greek word for rainbow ~ iris ~ and the closely related eiris, meaning messenger. The elegant, delicate flowers are also named after Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow. As daughter of a marine god and a cloud-nymph, Iris is a goddess of both sea and sky. To read more about her roles as personification of the rainbow and messenger of the Olympian Gods, take a look at these beautiful explanatory sites: Owl's Daughter and Theoi.
Rukeyser's poetry is rich in Biblical and classical allusion; in "Iris" she draws on the Greek gods to make an unexpected connection. She sees the tall flag - like flowers with their sword - like leaves not only as rainbows and messengers, but also as a unique combination of Poseidon, God of the the Sea, and Eros, the God of Love. The iris blossom is an aged Poseidon, "the bearded patriarch," while the lithe stalk and narrow leaves remind her of a youthful Eros, "green flute body of a boy." Together they form the flower we love. Eros is an airborne god, and Poseidon rules the sea. Taken together, these two elements, air and water -- like Iris herself -- combine with light to create that phenomenon we love -- the rainbow.
While some still refer to the multi - colored irises as "flags," others call them "swords," as Rukeyser does in this poem: " . . . death is guarded by swords. / No. By shapes of swords / flicker of green leaves." Poseidon and Eros each possess a sword of sorts, Poseidon controling the calm and storm of the sea with his trident; Eros controling the calm and storm of human hearts with his golden - or (for those less lucky in love) leaden - tipped arrows.
Iris as flower, flag, sword. Iris as rainbow, goddess, messenger. Iris as air, water, and sky. Both Muriel Rukeyser and Louise Gluck (in the following poem) honor the complexity of this remarkable plant. In both poems, the flowers are respected as messengers from the afterlife, traveling back from the otherworld, offering new perspectives on mortality and light.
The Wild Iris
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
It is terrible to survive
buried in the dark earth.
Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
American Poet (b 1943)
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
(my blog of shorter almost daily posts)
SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, June 28th
More Louise Gluck:
Penelope, Who Really Cried
More Muriel Rukeyser:
Icarus, Who Really Fell
Lot's Wife, Who Gave Her Life For a Single Glance
All the Little Animals
Another Good Poem by Muriel Rukeyser
The Wrong Answer