Image, Metaphor, Simile

From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago
(http://www.storystudiochicago.com)

Sunday, April 23, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price 
(http://www.english.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/russell-price.html)

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First, a word to the wise: unless you have a really good sense of humor, and/or a morbid fascination with your silly past self, you might want to throw away, unread, the journal you kept in the 8th grade (my mother kept everything, then sent all that everything to me). I was running late for this workshop, and it was the only notebook I could find. 

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I couldn’t even get the lyrics right. 

And here’s my Christmas list: 

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The upside was that I felt confident that anything I put in it today could only be an improvement.

Similes and metaphors are phrases likening two things. A simile uses ‘like’ or ‘as’; a metaphor is a little bolder, stating that one thing actually is another. ‘Does it dry up/Like a raisin in the sun?’ Langston Hughes asks of the fate of a dream deferred. ‘My mother is a fish,’ Vardaman Bundren muses in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It’s my conviction that our brains are wired to make these associations. We learn the world and life by comparing; it brings us a little closer to cracking the code of the essential mystery of things. We all do it; this is not merely the stomping ground of poets. Or, looked at another way: we are all poets. Spend some time noticing, over the course of the rest of today or even the next hour, how often and effortlessly you make an associative, symbolic link between one thing and another. Deployed deftly, honed and polished, metaphor is the resonant end result of an imaginative and intellectual process, the effort to engage with, understand, and express our experience of the world.

But it is also a fertile beginning, forging links between abstract and concrete, trivial and profound, self and other, life and story; cracking open locked boxes, setting all kinds of things in motion, pointing in all kinds of startling directions, setting writers and readers on a path both familiar and entirely strange. You feel for a moment as though the meaning in the words has visited from the outside: a whispered message, a bird on your shoulder. It has assembled you, rather than the other way around (and I think it’s a little of both).

‘What I want to do is ruin a word for everyone else,’ Russell said as the workshop began, explaining that they seek to link it so memorably to its association that readers can never hear that word again without the metaphor ringing in their ears.

And with that, we set out to ruin some words.  

We warmed up with a kind of batting practice fry, taking some tentative swings, warming up.


After listening to some examples from other poems, we were instructed to think of a body part or human quality: heart, eyes, courage, anxiety, then to freewrite our associations to it-concrete objects, specific details-for ten minutes (which as a writer knows is at once a very long and a very short time).  We then went back over what we’d written, bracketing the three IMG_3335.JPGmetaphors we liked best and sharing them around the table: an aging head is a rotary phone, a 60’s-era television without a remote, a plant with a tangle of roots that, when you pull it free, takes the exact shape of the pot it was in (these are mine; I shy away from taking those of others as I feel they’re not really mine to take, although this one is so good I just can’t help myself: a brain is a ‘machine made of meat’).  

Then it was time to step up to the plate (see how ingrained the habit is?). We were each given three small pieces of paper and instructed to label them: Noun, Verb, Adjective. Then, for fifteen minutes, we walked around the wonderful Volumes BookCafé in Wicker Park, searching for words. This was, as it was at the last workshop, an exercise in yearning and frustration: so many things to want, to sit down on the floor with and get lost in. But we had 15 minutes to find 15 words: 5 nouns, 5 verbs, 5 adjectives. The yearning was going to have to wait. 

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When we dragged ourselves away from the shelves and returned to the table we were instructed to sort our papers into three piles, which Russell then sorted, shuffled, and stacked. We each took one piece of paper from each of the piles, so that we had 15 words in front of us, 5 nouns, 5 verbs, and 5 adjectives, chosen by someone else

We were again given 15 minutes. We were to sit with the words in front of us, let them percolate, then cobble together a poem, bringing them into a relationship and compelling them to make sense, to arrange themselves in an entirely new way. 

*Frantic scribbling ensues*

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But then, oh God, about 7 minutes in, Russell says ‘…and now for the curve ball,’ and proceeds to have us pass our nouns to the person to our right, our verbs to the left, and our adjectives across the table, so that we each now have three entirely new lists of words to draw from…for a total of 30 words.  Then the frantic scribbling recommences, new words folded in, old ones discarded, a rearrangement of meaning and image and…metaphor.  

And voilà: a poem.IMG_3330.JPG

Here is mine. At the next workshop I’m going to solicit contributions from other participants; anything they’re willing to share I’ll post in my Anthology section, so stay tuned. 

A Viewing

Grandfather in the barber’s chair
Furred clippers revise him
That grumpy, glowing face
That wild hair
An unfettered armadillo once
A crafty crocodile
A roughneck

Furred clippers revised him:
Happy now,
Undisturbed,
Eyes iced-over jellybeans
His fingers carrots in the dirt
An empty house
An android, vanishing

…a work in progress, but hey, it beats this: 

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And I feel compelled to add that I think that the goofy scribbles in this old notebook from (okay, fine! I’ll just say it!) 40 years ago propelled me into what I wrote in it on Sunday evening: a series of meditations on growing old. A 54-year-old sidled up to her 14-year-old self and maybe told her a couple of things she’d never have known otherwise, and maybe I learned something from her, too. And now we’re sitting there together, tucked between the worn-out covers of a (79 cent!) composition book.

Inspiration is everywhere.

Thanks, Russell, for another wonderful workshop.

Oh, and Go Cubs!

©Melinda Rooney, 2017

Found Poem

Nan Nickson

It was such a lovely night, the goats slept outside
under the stars in the grass.

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Painting by Erin Rae; erinraeart.wordpress.com

©Nan Nickson, 2017

Nan Nickson’s mission statement: ‘Running Rooster Farm is a live, organic, performance art project where I try to grow my own food wherever I am at.’

Part 2: Stories

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Stories tell us that language was bestowed by divine powers: gods, God.  Nowhere in them (that I’ve been able to locate, at any rate; if anyone has found one, please post it in a comment!) is there an account of that mysterious transition, in people, from silence to noise to words to speech to meaning to human connection and communication. What did that look like? What drove it? Was it gradual or abrupt? Private or public? Did it resemble a child learning words? But children have others around them whom they imitate, you might reply; the first speakers, whoever they were, were flying blind.

In myth, speech and language are always a divine gift, possessed first by its giver (and often used to create the world; language is handy that way) and then passed along to human recipients, often to the considerable regret of both: ‘As soon as we got language,’ Mark Pagel wrote, and as I think I’ve quoted elsewhere, ‘we became a really dangerous species.’ Stories about language’s origins aren’t strictly about origins at all, or, rather, they are about the origins of language diversity, how humanity went, usually by way of disobedience or arrogance, from one language to many, and they are each of them embedded in Creation myths: accounts of how it all began, theories born of imagination and the need to explain (mercurial parents, for sure) that can never be conclusively proven. Every civilization, every culture on earth has its Creation myth. They’re wildly divergent and eerily similar at once, and we’ll look at them in more detail later. But for now, here’s a pitifully incomplete laundry list of the world’s various divine bestowers of the gift of speech:

  • The Ancient Egyptian god Ptah, patron of craftsmen, created the world ‘through his heart and through his tongue’: ‘simply by speaking a string of names, Ptah produced all of Egypt, the other gods…the cities and temples.’*

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  • Vak (later called Saraswati) is a goddess in the Hindu pantheon, described alongside her immortal companions in the Rig Veda, the Ancient Hindu scriptures dating from between 1700-1100 B.C.:

“She enables one to perceive, understand, and then express in words the true nature of things…she is the Mother, who has given birth to things through naming them….On one level, Mother Vak is sacred speech, including the hymns and ritual chants. On another level she is also ordinary speech among ordinary people. She is far more than speech and includes the power of perceiving, grasping the nature of things, naming them, and expressing the perception with coherence and form.

(with gratitude to https://shestirs.wordpress.com/tag/rig-veda/. Head over there for a wonderful description and examination of Vak)

Vak has a Japanese counterpart (the astonishing cross-fertilization of world mythology is something we’ll examine more closely later), Benzaiten, goddess of everything that flows: ‘water, words, speech, eloquence, music and, by extension, knowledge’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki)

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  • Ogma is the Celtic god of language, speech, and eloquence.

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  • Fabulinis is the Roman god of education and wisdom,  and is the protector of children: he teaches them to speak.

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  • Hermes is the Greek messenger of the gods, god of speech, and, interestingly, of tricksters, thieves, and all who live by their wits.
  • In the mythology of the African Yoruba people, Eshu is Hermes’ counterpart: a god who speaks all languages, he, too, is a messenger of the gods and a trickster.  (are you starting to notice an associative trend here?)Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 6.36.11 AM
  • Bik’eh Hózhó is the Navajo personification of speech. Storytelling is a powerful creative and social force in Native American traditions.

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  • Quetzalcoatl, literally ‘Winged Serpent,’  is the Aztec god of wind and learning, which are, when you think about it,  two essential components of speech.

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You get the idea.

Well, and who can forget this guy:

‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.’ [italics mine]

Every day for six days, God speaks, God names, and sees that it is good: the world blooms into being. God said…God said…God said. God is all-powerful, and he is all-powerful because he calls the world into being with words.

…and he bestows that gift upon Adam, the first man, who gets right to work with some naming of his own.

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And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

                                                                                             Genesis 2:19 [King James Version]

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for one thing, the serpent in the garden was also endowed with the gift of speech. Like all human ‘gifts,’ language is a double-edged sword: it can make the world, and it can destroy it. It can speak the truth, and it can deceive. It can kill and it can heal. It can be twisted into orders (‘But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.‘), pleas, prayers, oaths, promises, curses and lies.

Well, and then there was this whole mess:

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And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

                                                                                           Genesis 11:1-9 [King James Version]

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

(The Bible, among all of the other ways it can be read and understood, yields up so much about language: its power, its nature, its origin and dissemination, the gifts it bestows, the lethal damage it can do.)

For all of its great stories, though, this whole Divine Gift business feels a little like a cop-out, doesn’t it? At the very least, it’s a kind of magic-wand shorthand. Whether God was involved or not (and I have no idea), I kind of would like a few more specifics; we’ve grown accustomed to more scientific, rational accounts (which doesn’t necessarily imply that a power greater than we are doesn’t have a hand in things: greater powers tend to work in all kinds of ways).

As you probably already know from both sweet and bitter experience, language is both blessing and curse; God had some real regrets about having passed this particular gift along.

And there were some men who weren’t real thrilled about it, either.

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William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2

The godlike figure of Prospero, magician, philosopher, king, rules his own private island. He has only two subjects-his daughter, Miranda, and a hideous, half-savage servant called Caliban-until a handful of shipwreck survivors, among them the Duke who exiled Prospero to this place (hmm. Who do you suppose might have conjured up that storm?), washes up on the shore and sets the story of The Tempest in motion, a story shaped and arranged by Prospero.  For all his power, he regrets having taught Caliban language (much as God face-palmed as he looked down on Adam’s fall and the tower of Babel’s rise). The beast did not deserve it. And Caliban regrets having learned it, too: it has awakened him to all he can ultimately never have: intelligence, Aesop--s-Fables---The-Fox-and-the-Grapesdiscernment, noble humanity. It has given him a taste of these things, but, like the fox with the grapes, he can never have them. All he is able to do with words is curse his fate.

Max Müller, a German Sanskrit scholar, believed that myths were expressions of ideas that could not be conveyed in language. But I suspect that the drive to myth might just precede language, and shape it. In fact I’d go so far as to say it was the engine (or one engine, at any rate; it’s a long, long train) that drove its creation.

We were desperate for a story. And for a story, we needed language.

Why couldn’t I find a story that described humanity’s first tentative stabs at speech? Why is there no myth depicting the birth of speech in people? Invoking a deity was a way to explain what we could not comprehend, but maybe it’s more than that. Maybe the human origin of language has no myth because myth itself is the origin. It sounds crazy, but maybe the yearning for a story that explained the world to us, explained us to ourselves, came first; language followed. How do we tell stories without words? Cave paintings tell stories in images; why was that not enough? (and were they created before or after the birth of language?) Well, cave walls aren’t super portable, for one thing, and can’t spread like wildfire. We needed a way to carry our stories with us, and pass them around. My hunch is that the need to tell them was so innate, so powerful, that it drove the creation of the medium by which they are put out into the world, spoken and heard by us and others, binding us into communities of common effort, explaining, entertaining, world-building.

So my personal True Beginning is that language began as a way of defining, expressing, and satisfying our curiosity, our desperation to explain and understand. Language began, and was driven by, our need to know. And that need to know was best satisfied by way of entertainment: a good story.

 

EXERCISE

FIRST:
pull out your phone or laptop (OR, if this is used as an out-of-class assignment, go to the library too) and examine the Creation Myth of any culture you like (as with scientific explanations, there are tons!), and scribble a brief, summary description. As with the exercise from Part One, push past Wikipedia, although you can start there, as it has many references to other sources.
SECOND:
Sit quietly and come up with a story, a myth of your own, addressing the following questions:  1) How did everything begin? 2) How did speech and language begin? Depict your answers as scenes of a story. Write them down. 
THIRD:
Tell it.

As with the Science exercise, the research and writing aspects here can be tweaked to fit either into an in-class context or an out-of-class assignment.
Younger students, rather than being asked to do full-on research (although some modeling of this process is never ill-placed, IMHO), can be presented with a series of stories, ideally recorded and played.
During the telling portion of this exercise I pull my buttonhole-an-unsuspecting-student thing, asking him or her to repeat/summarize a just-told story. If he/she fumbles and stumbles I open it up to the whole group, then invite embellishments and additions (this is, after all, the way a lot of myths evolved: tellings, re-tellings, additions, deletions, repetitions, contradictions, the whole nine yards). I seek to establish a context with this exercise that will carry over into later stuff having to do with oral traditions, and the fact that so many stories came to life prior to the development of writing. The oral tradition has, of course, left its fingerprints all over every story ever told, and a big one has to do with how these stories got shaped and told so that they were remembered and passed along from one teller, and audience, to the next.

*Davis, Kenneth C. Don’t Know Much About Mythology. New York: Harper-Collins, 2005

©Melinda Rooney, 2017

Blackout/Whiteout

From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago
(http://www.storystudiochicago.com)
Sunday, April 9, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price
(http://www.english.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/russell-price.html)

I promised the poet who taught the workshop that I would not steal any ideas. They laughed and said ‘Oh, steal them! Steal anything you want!’

All writers are thieves, after all, and the prizes we treasure most are words.

The workshop consisted of two parts.

Part One: Blackout

Step One
Two back issues of two different literary magazines were passed around the table, and we were instructed to open each at random and rip out a page. We each cringed a little, all avid writers and readers, loath to defile a book. All the same we closed our eyes, flinched, and tore. IMG_3307

Step Two
We were instructed to read quickly over them and cross out all of the words that didn’t ‘jump out’ at us.

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Step Three
Giving us 7-10 minutes, C. Russell instructed us to rapidly compose a piece consisting of the words we had not crossed out, going back and forth between the two pages from the two different magazines, dovetailing words together.

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Step Four
We went around the table, each reading our pieces aloud. I wish I’d thought to pull out my phone and film it (though that might have been met with protest, so maybe it’s just as well).  I wish I’d captured the amazement on both readers’ and listeners’ faces as we heard what we’d written spoken aloud, how each piece cohered, flowed, meant. Our instructor listened intently, scribbling madly as we read, noting one or another striking image, association, emotion, larger meaning. Then they read theirs to us, for as all good teachers do, they had done the same work right alongside the students.

Part Two: Whiteout

We repeated Steps One, Two, and Three, with three variations:

  • First, rather than using the pages we had torn out and marked up, we marked them up then passed them to the person sitting next to us, so each of us had an entirely unfamiliar set of words to work with.
  • Second, we got up and wandered around the bookstore where the workshop was being held, picking up one book and then another at random, choosing five words that jumped out at us and writing them down on another piece of paper. We then returned to the table and exchanged those.
  • Third, we were given 7 minutes to compose a poem out of the available material, but this time we had to ‘whiteout’: impose connecting words of our own to cobble together the un-crossed-out ones (and remember, they’d been chosen by someone else!) on the page. This was *really hard*.

Step Four
We went around the table, each reading our pieces aloud.  And while everyone agreed that this exercise was much more difficult than the previous one (we were using words we had not chosen, had been asked to impose words of our own onto them and cobble meaning together), on the whole, again, there it was: the same amazing experience, the same amazed reactions.

We had destroyed, then created; defaced and repaired; unwoven, then rewoven, obliterated meaning and brought it to life again in an entirely new form, with an entirely surprising shape.

How did that happen?

One of us spoke of how desperate we are for meaning, that we will seek it, and find it, or, failing that, insist on making it, in, or out of, the most random collections of things. We talked about how there are stories in everything, just waiting to be told.  We talked about how nice it was-as writers constantly worrying over our work, the possibility of eventual success, the inevitability of failure and rejection and the effortful determination to shake it off and stick with the work- to return to the thing that had made us want to be writers in the first place: the pure joy of literally playing with words. I thought about the freedom that rules and strictures make possible. I thought about how lonely writing feels, when the truth is it is about as communal as it gets: we are immersed in conversation with our characters, with one another, with (ideally!) our readers, with all of the writers and words we’ve ever read; the authors of the pages we’d marked up were, in a way, sitting there at the table with us. Would they be annoyed at our appropriation, our desecration of their carefully wrought pages? Possibly. I’ll admit I might’ve been. But I suspect not.  ‘Oh, steal them!’ they might have said. ‘Steal anything you want!’  After all, we weren’t stealing their voices. We weren’t appropriating their meaning. We weren’t telling their stories; only they can do that.  We were simply playing with the words they’d played with too, arranging them like Legos into something entirely new. We were recycling.

Think of the possibilities, C. Russell said: medical textbooks, cookbooks, travel magazines, each of them using words in very different ways: technical, descriptive, instructive, lyrical. Think of pulling words willy-nilly from each or all, mashing them together and seeing what surprising things simmer to the surface. I wish I had all of the pieces generated there to share here; I wish I had the pages so I could show you, up close, the scribbled ground from which the pieces grew.

Here’s what I do have.

Blackout
or
Motherhood: A Log of Regrets

Oh, litany and happy prospect,
You’re just like your father.
A peasant.

The press of many matters,
The South Seas,
The Sandwich Islands

Stop it, mother

Seizures
Amusement
Self-Pity
Invective
A volunteer fireman!

Stop it, mother

Your haircut of a father
A demigod, numinous, biblical, divine.
How could this have been my life?

Physical afflictions
A glass on the table
A pleasure and an honor
Grindingly dull, adrift on seas of island flowers
A hundred days

The press of many matters

A slow, meditative cloud
Wallows: malign, aggressive, fractured images
A shining past, exalted primogeniture
it might cost you a nickel-
Conjuring the myth.

You’re just like your father
A schooner, a captain, two crewmen, a second novelist

You must not call me, Mr. Stevenson. 

Whiteout
or
Passing the Bar

Perfect glasses, black and grey
The lawyer pursed her lips

Viewed the statue.
Remembering brick,
She said
 ‘There is one thought enough to kill me.’ 

She sets up her easel
Loud, marigold-colored paint
Pink and candy-blue,
Hydrangea bushes.
‘I don’t understand,’ she says,
‘all of the beauty and fashion of Rome.’

‘I can end this terror,
This posthumous existence, the sweat of 
Those boys.’
In the name of profit, she turns,
Questioning potted honey lilies and spiderplants:
‘Who is to say that I’m not a criminal myself?’

Indigestible words
Earliest days in Rome

Everything I have reminds me of her. 

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©Melinda Rooney, 2017

[For other workshops like these, and other writers’ resources in Chicago, please see http://www.storystudiochicago.com. Many thanks to Jill Pollack, founder and director, and all who work there, for what they make happen. Special thanks to C. Russell Price, *from whom I shamelessly stole*]

The Art of Healing

 

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All the ill and the afflicted
All the aged and infirm
All who seek the healing way

You could do worse than cable.

Where once there was a pilgrimage for lame and halt
A dusty road
There’s now a place where hope is offered
Tucked between the binge-watch shows

Honey BooBoo
Law & Order
The World’s Most Trusted Name in News
Here is where the cures are gathered
hiding in your program queues

Tucked between the horror stories
Here are lives that could be yours
Minute segments, bright as Christmas
Perfect people, perfect cures.

Roaring fireplace
Seaside restaurant
Festive kitchen
Verdant yard
Pills
Injections
Patches
Lotions
Nebulizers
Info card
(read it closely, strain to hear the warnings
hummed beneath our breath
Don’t stress yourself; we have to say it:
Seizures, strokes, necrosis, death)

Where once depression, limpid joy
Where once ketosis, healthy boy
Plaque psoriasis? Arthritis?
Hug your baby. Build a toy.

Where once was limp there now is stiff
Closed-mouth kisses
Tubs plein air
You needn’t worry
(Four hour boner?!)
How you’d ever fuck in there.

You are stronger than your weakness
You can look like these folks do
Laughing mothers, jogging seniors
Ask them if it’s right for you

Everybody dies of something
No one here gets out alive
All that said
Would you not rather
Look terrific til you die?

So build that go-cart
Swing your grandchild
Grill those steaks and seek that thrill
If you know you’re not allergic
Go ahead and take that pill

‘But I’m not thin!’ you shout while all those pretty women jog up hills
‘I don’t have a puppy!’ ‘I’m not rich enough for outdoor grills!’
You say it’s not what illness feels like: splashing gaily in the pool.
Illness is a grinding constant, sky-high co-pays, bloody stool.

These treatment options don’t intend
To make your pain a source of shame
But should you opt for rank self-pity
You only have yourself to blame.

We’re up against it, even ad men quaver in the face of death
We’d rather show you pretty people
Whiter teeth and fresher breath
Get you all to think that maybe
If you play your cards just right
You can be just like these people
Ask us how we sleep at night.

And if you just don’t have it in you, can’t commit to getting well
Don’t blame healthcare or big pharma; they’ve got shit they need to sell.

©2017 Melinda Rooney

 

Botanical

Ayala Hecht

hith-animal-mummies-E

A mummified cat sits above your head.
A man’s ashes trap time in the wall.
You say you crave life, will wrest it from this showcase
parlor of your mother’s house. Her gilt-laden fingers fashion
keepsakes, off-kilter veils, velveteen nooses
from skinned teddy bears. Go out the window.
Japonica flares, no one dares cut the tangles,
her garden bursting with belladonna lilies,
livid chartreuse iris, the zinnia called Envy, bleeding hearts.
Angelica gigas guards orchids engorged by aphids.
Somber purple persica, columbine and Queen of the Night
adorn the still beating mausoleum
of her heart. She has set you up
with options. Refuse her.

I plan for your arrival, sow green basil and apple trees.
My cannas grow fat. Choose life. Choose me.

Schoeller-Cottage-Garden-stone-pathway-flower-gardens-rustic-fence-gate

©2017 Ayala Hecht

Ayala Hecht is a proud graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. She resides in Baltimore, Maryland. Botanical is her second poem to be published in Recycled.