Saturday, February 20, 2010

`Most of the Savory Words'

Learning the names of a flower’s sexual parts from Miss Whistler, who never uttered the word “sexual” and about whom I never harbored a sexual thought, was like learning to sing my part in an oratorio. She was my sixth-grade teacher, stern and encouraging, the first I can remember wanting to please. It was necessary first to learn that flowers, like pieces of music, had parts of any sort. Until then a flower, like a musical score, was an undifferentiated whole. A flower, I thought, was something like a rock (later I learned even rocks have parts, but not sexual parts). Part of wit is the capacity to hold parts and wholes in the mind at once, like a double exposure without the blurriness.

The nomenclature of floral anatomy is wondrously musical: calyx, sepals, corolla, torus, pistils, stamens, anthers and carpels. To know flowering plants are heterosporangiate is to admire them more ardently, not to mention the teasing forthrightness of androecium and gynoecium (titillating etymologies). Flowers and words share roots. Daniel Mark Epstein has written “Fleur de Lys” (from The Glass House, Louisiana State University Press, 2009) in celebration of “savory words / That make a flower”:

“When sepals and petals look the same,
As in the tiger lily, we call them
Tepals, these bright blades of perianth,
Sheathing the tulip and hyacinth,
The blossoms that do not bother to put on
Green calyx beneath the corolla gown.

“If all this is Greek to us, then
So it is. Most of the savory words
That make a flower: anther, stamen,
(Not pistil, which some Roman
Named because its style reminded him
Of his pestle, and his swords),

“Were spoken by Aristotle and Phidias,
Long ago, by hero, virgin, and wench.
Much later came the tepal, coined in Paris.
Once the ancient gardeners were done
Spinning flowers from words, no one
Dabbled in such magic but the French.”

“Tepal,” like “perianth,” I acquired much later, as did English. Epstein is correct: we borrowed it from the French tépale, which my dictionary says was “influenced” by the French sépale -- just another ménage in the history of linguistic cross-pollination.

No comments: