Howard Nemerov – “Dandelions”
These golden heads, these common suns
Only less multitudinous
Than grass itself that gluts
The market of the world with green,
They shine as lovely as they’re mean,
Fine as the daughters of the poor
Who go proudly in spangles of brass;
Light-headed, then headless, stalked for a salad.
Inside a week they will be seen
Stricken and old, ghosts in the field
To be picked up at the lightest breath,
With brazen tops all shrunken in
And swollen green gone withered white.
You’ll say it’s nature’s price for beauty
That goes cheap; that being light
Is justly what makes girls grow heavy;
And that the wind, bearing their death,
Whispers the second kingdom come.
—You’ll say, the fool of piety,
By resignations hanging on
Until, still justified, you drop.
But surely the thing is sorrowful,
At evening, when the light goes out
Slowly, to see those ruined spinsters,
All down the field their ghostly hair,
Dry sinners waiting in the valley
For the last word and the next life
And the liberation from the lion’s mouth.
From Collected Poems. © Collected Poems University of Chicago, 1977. Reprinted with permission.
What strikes me about this poem is how Nemerov has made something as simple and uninteresting as the dandelion seem so beautiful and powerful. I like his phrasing, too: “grass itself that gluts / The market of the world with green”; “Inside a week they will be seen / Stricken and old, ghosts in the field”; and those last 7 lines. They make me see the things described in unusual ways.
He makes these little flowers, that are so common and unremarkable that we usually think of them as insignificant, seem to have a part in a cosmic plan, even in the revitalization of the world (“the second kingdom come” – interestingly avoiding any kind of destructive element usually associated with the Christian Apocalypse, focusing instead on the remaking of earth into God’s heavenly kingdom). Of course, that part is supposed to be a “you” that the speaker somewhat rebuffs, and paints them with a more melancholy brush. The “liberation from the lion’s mouth” is essentially death. But doesn’t it also transcend death to know that the decay of dandelions can be transformed through the power of poetry?
Despite it making perfect sense, I never would have thought of the withering of dandelions as “liberation from the lion’s mouth.” Maybe that’s what good poetry should do – say things that make sense to us, and yet startle us. I feel like that’s what this poem does. Its images and metaphors are unusual, but fit the dandelions perfectly.