Tuesday, May 04, 2010

`With Every Leaf a Miracle'

The life of flora, for humans, insects and a few fortunate birds, is a sequential handing-off of blooming duties. The previous owner of our house in Houston made sure at least two or three species were in blossom in the yard year-round. Here in Washington just two weeks ago the cherries and dogwoods turned drab neighborhoods into “floral censers swinging light in air.” Now the cherry petals have fallen and the dogwood blossoms have grown curled and brown. As Nige notes, it’s the lilac’s turn, “the bushes heavy with great swags of bloom.”

We have only one in our yard, an emaciated specimen sparsely flowered that stands beside the backdoor. The blossoms are white and fragrant but the bush is so scrawny it elicits more pity than admiration, though the bees don’t seem to mind. Nige writes:

“For me, lilac is associated not with the cruellest month or the dead earth, but with a cherished memory from decades ago - of holding my daughter, then a toddler, up to smell a spray of lilac blossom overhanging a fence, seeing the lacy shadow of the flowers on her face, and knowing something very like perfect happiness.”

During a brief hail storm Monday afternoon not a petal fell from our bush. Such tough beauty is enhanced by transience. I can’t see a lilac without thinking of Whitman and April one hundred forty-five years ago:

“In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash'd palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle -- and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color'd blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.”

It took Whitman, who died sixty years before my birth, to make me notice the lilac’s leaves are “heart-shaped,” perfectly so. But what of the quintessential lilac color, a lavender or pale violet. We trace our “lilac” eastward through French, Spanish, Arabic to Persian and, finally, to Sanskrit, nilah, “dark blue.” The color pre-dates the flower. This is how Guy Davenport begins “The Bicycle Rider,” a story collected in The Death of Picasso (2003):

“They could see through the grime of the barnloft windows, Anders and Kim, how far the field of sunflowers they’d walked across stretched down to where the sawgrass begins back of the beach, sunflowers higher than their heads, bitter green and dusty to smell. They could see yellow finches working the panniers, butterflies dipping and fluttering, the glitter and lilac blue of the sea where they’d been horsing around on the sand.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just caught up with this. So wonderful and on target. Midwest friends have been talking about lilacs and it made me ache a bit to be lying, as a child, under the bushes inhaling. Could not resist buying a large swag of them and filling my San Francisco studio with this Proustian scent. Thanks, Sandra