08 January 2017

Poem of the Week 2016/30

The Smaller Orchid

Love is a climate
small things find safe
to grow in – not
(though I once supposed so)
the demanding cattleya
du côté du chez Swann,
glamor among the faubourgs,
hothouse overpowerings, blisses
and cruelties at teatime, but this
next-to-unidentifiable wildling,
hardly more than a
sprout, I've found
flourishing in the hollows
of a granite seashore –
a cheerful tousle, little,
white, down-to-earth orchid
declaring its authenticity,
if you hug the ground
close enough, in a powerful
whiff of vanilla.

Amy Clampitt

(This is the Poem of the Week I was working on when the Great Computer Meltdown of 2016 occurred. I had been thinking of ending the series anyway, though I was planning to go through December, but technology decided I would end in late July. I thought I would go ahead and finish this one. After writing up and posting a poem every week since 2013, I felt it would be good to switch things up, particularly as my schedule has changed a bit this year and I seem to have even less free time than ever, and I wanted to spend more of it writing about the various performances and other cultural events I've experienced. I may resume the series at some point, on a regular or occasional basis. I hope any readers have enjoyed the poems and maybe found a new writer to love. If you've found anything here you've liked, please: follow the link (there's one in each entry) and buy the book!)

Clampitt opens with a sweeping assertion – love is a climate; that is, part of Nature, something omnipresent, something inextricably linked to our lives and the quality of our lives, but not something we are always conscious of, though it surrounds us – and then immediately draws it in: small things find safe / to grow in – moving from the broad encompassing sweep of climate to a safe space for small things, the little things among which we live, a place with room for growth, some nurture in the Nature.

She then qualifies the type of natural phenomenon love is, contrasting her early expectations of grand passion with what she has come to identify as true love. Significantly, her early expectations of Love are shaped by literature, in particular Proust's great novel, whose first volume (Du Côté du chez Swann / Swann's Way) she references: a cattleya is a type of orchid, and it plays a major role in Swann's love affair with Odette: pretending to adjust the flower she is wearing, he begins giving her the caresses she is pleased to receive, and do a cattleya becomes for them, in their private language of lovers, a way of saying to make love. The next few lines in Clampitt's poem give a quick summary of aspects of the early parts of Proust's novel, aspects that would strike a bookish adolescent wondering about love and the wider world as a thrilling glimpse of what Life must be like. It's all rather big, not just in size but in significance; this is not the everyday world, but one of glamour, hothouses and high society; not a place of ordinary visits or simple pleasures, or even regular happiness and sadness, but of bliss and cruelty, even at civilized, exotically European, ceremonies like teatime (and the bookish adolescent might think of the novels of James and Wharton as well as of Proust, or of Eliot's I have measured out my life with coffee spoons).

It's easy to get swept up in the heady perfumes. But Clampitt has begun by telling us that this is not what love is (and not is emphasized by appearing at the end of the short third line, right after a dash, which sets it apart, visually as well as grammatically). She slips us right into what she has discovered love is, starting with the contradictory but, without even a line break after teatime: but this  / next-to-unidentifiable wilding. . . . Though she is defining what she now feels love is, there is still a quality of mystery and strangeness here; love is like this a wild offshoot, it is next-to-unidentifiable, it is hardly more than sprout, it is small, and the somewhat odd use of tousle as a noun (indicating something tangled and disorderly; the unexpected appearance of the word as a noun rather than a verb helps maintain the sense of struggling towards a definition of something uncertain and unsettled) tells us not to get too cozy; there is still something messy and unruly in what might otherwise seem an overly domesticated – an overly old person's – definition of love. Clampitt devotes many lines to describing this little wild orchid that flourishes in the climate of love (or rather in making it clear that she is attempting to describe something difficult to describe, perhaps exactly because it not flashy like the hothouse cattleyas but small and cheerful, a random, easily overlooked woodland orchid), partly to balance the earlier lines dedicated to her youthful misconceptions of love but also to show that it is still not an easy thing to define. And her two conceptions are not worlds apart; both are flowers, and specifically orchids, a flower often linked, in its voluptuousness, to sexualities both male and female; in fact the word orchid derives via Latin from a Greek word for testicles. Underlying  this poem is a subtle insistence on the physical; the poet may start by declaring that love is a climate, but she immediately switches to describing it in terms of the organic and actual: first the cattleyas, as given to her by books (specifically Swann's Way), and then the little messy wilding, as given her by her life.

The granite seashore suggests something vast, hard, spiritually metaphorical about life; it is in this intransigent landscape, so briefly mentioned, and more exactly in a little hollow in it, that the love-plant is found – this is what has been discovered by her, among the hardness of the world. No matter how complicated this plant is to describe, it declares its authenticity, a forceful assertion of truthful authority in a deceptive world. How does it declare its authenticity? First you must bring yourself physically down to its small but commanding level; you must not only hug the ground (hug again reminds us of physical love), you must hug the ground close enough. You must bring yourself down to the level at which your senses can understand this at first insignificant-looking flower. And then you smell it, and that smell is its declaration of authenticity: in a powerful / outdoorsy-domestic / whiff of vanilla. The scent, like climate, is something we experience through our senses, though it is not a physical presence. It comes from a cheerful little white flower, and despite its unassuming-looking source it is powerful. It combines both the outdoors and the domestic. It has the whiff of vanilla. Vanilla is the flavoring par excellence of American desserts (my Portuguese grandmother used to complain that Americans put vanilla in all of their desserts), so it suggests something American as opposed to the European teatime, something domestic, sweet, and even wifely – yet vanilla is also produced from a type of orchid native to hot climates, like the cattleyas that must be grown in a hothouse, continuing and reinforcing the theme that there is something wild and exotic in what might seem a small, domestic and domesticated, love. Implicit even in the title is that her two visions of love are linked; though one is produced by people (in literature or hothouses) and one is found in Nature growing wild, the former are linked to and ultimately developed from the latter, and one does not preclude or reject the other. The poet's first, youthful, vision of love, so grandly expressed through someone else's dramatization, changes into her mature vision of love, with a kind of pleasure and even ecstasy expressed by close observation and physical experience of a small and intimate living thing.

This poem is from The Kingfisher: Poems by Amy Clampitt.

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