Saturday’s Poem 4/25/09

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.

Commentary
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.

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8 Responses to Saturday’s Poem 4/25/09

  1. Angele says:

    Ah, the humble dandelion, one of my favorite flowers unfairly deemed a weed. Even its mature heads are beautiful–spheres of down called “clocks” that are composed of seed-bearing parachutes.

    Some of the language in “Dandelions” is striking. The final line, “And the liberation from the lion’s mouth,” not only signifies death and rebirth, but is a play on the flower’s name, and recalls Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19, “Devouring Time, Blunt thou the lion’s paws..”

    I take issue, however, with Nemerov’s comparison of this flower’s life cycle with that of a woman (women whom the speaker views as tawdry, “light-headed,” and destined to be ruined), and I detect a smug and patronizing tone in the speaker’s pity:

    “…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…”

    (again, I think of Shakespeare: Cleopatra, describing her youthful affair with Caesar: “My salad days,/When I was green in judgment…”)
    ………………………………………………….

    “You’ll say it’s nature’s price for beauty
    That goes cheap; that being light
    Is justly what makes girls grow heavy;…”
    ……………………………………………..

    “…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…”

    I thought it would be interesting to reverse the gender allusions in this poem, and then ask you how you think it reads, as follows:

    These golden heads, these common suns
    Only less multitudinous
    Than grass itself that gluts
    The market of the world with green,
    They shine as handsome as they’re mean,
    Fine as the spiked sons of the poor
    Who sport proudly their knuckles 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 manhood
    That goes cheap; that flashing might
    Is justly what makes boys 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 gangsters,
    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.

  2. staringatangels says:

    I try not to take offense at a poem’s use of metaphors or subject matter, so long as it’s written well. Reading the poem with the gender reference changed doesn’t bother me a bit. If I can enjoy a poem like “Black Art,” I think I can enjoy anything.

  3. Angele says:

    I was wondering if you thought that “Dandelions” reads differently with the tired woman-as-flower metaphor reversed. I think that it’s more poignant.

    Did you really ENJOY “Black Art”? I’m not sufficiently evolved to enjoy certain poems. I’m speaking specifically of work written in an era in which the poet and the reading public are familiar with the concepts of racism, sexism, homophobia, and the poet chooses to epater les bourgeois–but without irony, subtlety, or humor.

    I acknowledge that it can be instructive to read and discuss such work, I would defend to the death anyone’s right to publish it, and I would not remove any poet’s crown of laurels–however withered or spiked–but in your post you used the word “enjoy,” to take pleasure in something.

  4. staringatangels says:

    I don’t really read it differently, because I wasn’t reading it as being as closely linked with femininity as you are. I was seeing it more as a metaphor of general human experience, femininity only being the vehicle. So to me, the same thing comes through when read through the vehicle of masculinity.

    I do enjoy “Black Art.” Remember, I also enjoy things like black metal. I can listen to a song about burning down a church, or murder, when I know full well that the musicians involved would in reality support such actions, or may have actually done such things. I can also listen to Christian black metal about Jesus even though I don’t believe in Christianity. For me, at least in such cases, the form and content mean more to me than the author’s social views or politics that may be reflected in the work.

    For the Nemerov poem as well as the Baraka poem, I like the metaphors, images, and language. In “Black Art” the violence of the language is amusing to me, in a way, because it’s so extreme, just like black metal (Christian, Satanic, or Viking). There’s a sort of liminal space that I like between fear or revulsion and mockery or hyperbole. Like how we could laugh last night at listening to Cattle Decapitation, death metal exhortations to wipe out the human race so the other animals can live without our presence corrupting the Earth.

    I’m not necessarily offended by anything by itself; it depends on how it’s presented. I enjoy music by The Great Kat, a thrash metal musician who is a self-styled dominatrix and sings about lovely things like castration and mutilating men. Why? Because I like fast, thrashy metal, and I think she plays that well. But if Britney Spears sang about that stuff, I’d hate it. Hopefully, this makes my point clear.

  5. Angele says:

    “Confront the dark parts of yourself. … Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing,” August Wilson said. Even when one person’s angel is another’s caterwauling demon.

    In that spirit, please send me a copy of one of The Great Kat’s CDs. There’s a sort of liminal space I might like creating between arousal and terror with her paeans to male mutilation playing in the background.

  6. staringatangels says:

    Good quote. Sure, I can burn you some of her stuff. You might also like a band named Bitch. Does this mean you’re going to start writing about emasculation and poems like Jan Beatty’s “Shooters”?

  7. Angele says:

    Who said anything about writing? On paper…

    I remain liminally yours & etc.

  8. speaking of says:

    speaking of

    Saturday’s Poem 4/25/09 | Staring at Angels

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