Friday, January 09, 2009

`As New a Miracle as the First Crocus'

Ours is stout-hearted weather here in the Pacific Northwest. The locals think so. Snow, then rain and a brief hail storm, but mostly rain. In 24 hours I cleared the sewer grate in front of our house three times. By the third time, backed-up water had “ponded” (a verb I learned in Houston) to the middle of the street. Nearby towns have flooded but we’ve been spared. At its noontime brightest, the sky is pewter-colored. What snow remains is sooty, the name Ernest Shackleton gave one of his sled dogs.

The narrow strip of ground between the sidewalk and our rented house is covered with reddish, clinker-like stones, the by-product of some industrial process, like slag. As I returned from retrieving the trash bins in the rain I noticed a fleck of white in the red. It was a crocus, a single white blossom, bowed like a woman in mourning. I judge the seasons against the Midwest and Northeast where I’ve spent most of my life. According to my internal field guide, this was a sport of nature. Like the first robin, a crocus is supposed to signal spring, even on January 8. That’s Geoffrey Hill’s understanding, too, in the first stanza of “In the Valley of the Arrow” (from Without Title):

“First flowers strike artificial at first sight,
the colours appear concocted, perhaps they are.
Crocus for starters soon looks pretty
much washed out.”

The same flower shows up in one of Hill’s poems from Tenebrae, “Veni Coronaberis”:

“The crocus armies from the dead
rise up; the realm of love renews
the battle it was born to lose,
though for a time the snows have fled

“and old stones blossom in the south
with sculpted vine and psaltery
and half-effaced adultery
the bird-dung dribbling from its mouth;

and abstinence crowns all our care
with martyr-laurels for this day.
Towers and steeples rise away
Into the towering gulfs of air.”

The poem’s dedication reads “A Garland for Helen Waddell.” Earlier in the day, by odd coincidence, I had pulled out Waddell’s The Desert Fathers and The Wandering Scholars. A friend introduced me to her books 35 years ago and I’ve always prized them. Look what she writes in The Wandering Scholars:

“There is no beginning, this side the classics, to a history of medieval Latin; its roots take hold too firmly on the kingdoms of the dead. The scholar’s lyric of the twelfth century seems as new a miracle as the first crocus; but its earth is the leafdrift of centuries of forgotten scholarship.”


Nige said...


Mr Bleaney said...

As we all know, certain passages that we have read seem to stick with us over the years, for who knows what reason. Well, whenever I see the first crocuses, the end of Humboldt's Gift always comes to mind.

The scene is the bleak cemetery in which Humboldt has been buried. One of the characters (whose name I forget) spots a flower on the ground and says: "What do you suppose they're called, Charlie?" Charlie Citrine replies: "Search me. I'm a city boy myself. They must be crocuses."

Thus ends my contribution to a potential anthology about the coming of crocuses. Thank you for the post, and for pointing me to Helen Waddell. (Yet more unread books to read!)

Patrick Kurp said...

Mr. Bleaney, if you feel comfortable doing so, please send me your e-mail address. And thank you for the Bellow connection. I wish I had thought of that.