Alan: We tried growing begonias once or twice. The sun burned them, the cold rotted them, and the wind blew them apart. It’s not the Susquehanna River valley.
The Tuberous Begonias
Baffled against spring’s edge,
needy of sun, foreseeing summer
again too short, dry, cold,
you recall the old story –
driving south from Windsor
along a winding river road,
you come upon the small, tired house,
almost a shack,
completely fronted in lipstick-bright
Begonias potted along the porch rail,
jungling from shadowy eaves;
begonias waxing from window boxes,
coffee cans, resisting with pink
hungry mouths the wall’s sad lean.
You passed there a few times,
never stopped for the old man
who sat, amid roof-sag and paint-peel,
content in his poor-will’s paradise,
as if to do this one thing perfectly
could forever uphold a house, or a world.
You have travelled so far
from that valley’s nuzzling embrace,
for fifty years wishing you had asked him
how you could do this too,
in this scrape of rock by the salt sea shore
where the saw wind shivers your fruit trees
and mice gnaw incessantly at your roots.
Nancy: One smell, one taste... it’s early ‘30s depression Indiana. What a powerful effect our tastes and smells have on our memories.
Sweet Sovereign Root
My mother died in the Spring.
She died of thick blood. That grieved me
and I thought it astonishing; I thought
of her death as caused by a successful transition
to the middle class. I knew, without looking
behind the fruitwood veneer doors of her cupboards,
what I would not find.
No fever root, toothache root, sweet sassafras.
No sassafras. Mama, I thought, we’ve come a long way
from our childhoods, from black salve and sang
and spikenard to an empty cupboard
and you dead of thick blood.
No spicebush, flower of melilot, rose gold sassafras
tea of Spring, to thin the blood. Mama,
you never let me down; your paper packages
of bark followed me to college. You had never read
Proust, you only knew that it was dangerous
not to quicken wintry blood, but when I brewed
your roots it was suddenly Spring, even there,
among the unbelievers.
No more. The palm trees outside my mother’s room
denied the existence of Spring. I thought, if there are ghosts
(yes – I hope there are ghosts) they will be wise women,
with aprons full of comfort, and they will take her home
to chamomile, star root, sweet sovereign sassafras.
“Sweet Sovereign Root” first appeared in The Beloit Poetry Journal.