Butterfly Poetry and Critique by Elizabeth Gordon

Elizabeth Gordon

Elizabeth Gordon

 A New Poem, with Some Comments on Its Origin by Elizabeth Gordon

fall monarch butterfly

fall monarch butterfly

MONARCH
for Mary Ellen
What is love for
if not to give
to a poisonous insect?
Love should be challenging.
Where’s the thrill
in loving puppies or ponies
dimpled babies or cheery daffodils?
Love instead
the wormlike larva
whose first meal is the eggshell it squirmed from
who by its own gluttony outgrows its body four times
and four times eats its own shedded skin
before wrapping itself inside a green tomb
that morphs into a womb
and wetly births
a six-legged thing
with the compound eyes of a fly
a tongue like a coiled spring
and silent beating black-veined wings.
Love the one who will not cuddle in your lap
who cannot admire or obey or exude perfume
whose color says
consider this a warning.
Love anyway.
Love the one who takes your hospitality
and your nectary hope
and the prayers you pray
and leaves you
always leaves you
staring at the sky
your eyes stinging in the wind
waiting for that spark of orange fire
to light your world again.
____________________________________________

Background:

I’d been invited to participate in a poetry reading in honor of Earth Day 2013 at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist church, which my husband and I had recently joined. But what to read?

Always heedful—perhaps too heedful—of others’ expectations, I assumed most people would be anticipating poetry that celebrated the glories of nature: the sunrises and sunsets, the flowers, the seasons, the birdsong, the purple mountains’ majesty—you get the picture. Not that I don’t find “nature” glorious (though even the attempt to define nature, much less enumerate its glories, leads to its own predicaments), but the nature in my poems has seldom been the kind that’s traditionally celebrated. Meaning, I suppose, that it’s neither inspirational nor ephemeral. I like things gritty. Always have.

When others search the skies for rainbows, I’m squatting in the leaf duff, budging half-rotten logs, hoping to meet the shy creatures hiding in that beautiful, dank darkness. Maybe because I felt icky about myself for much of my childhood (okay, for much of my adulthood too), I’m drawn to facets of the planet that most others find icky, or at least not worthy of positive attention. These are my peeps: the silent, coiled and uncoiling snake; the slow and sticky-skinned salamander; the mantis twisting her neck in a measured swivel; the tiny, purposeful ant bearing his impossible load; the spent dairy cow, knees crumpling, being thrashed to keep her walking those final, painful steps toward the kill line.

On the other hand—and, somehow, there must always be an other hand—I’d met an amazing woman at the UU who seemed to me to embody a love and zeal for the natural world that was based not on hokey clichés but on genuine knowledge. Mary Ellen Ryall puts her science and her wisdom and her concern into action. This I admire immensely. Though she is known primarily for her expertise on butterflies, especially the monarch, Mary Ellen understands that the monarch is part of something much, much bigger—the “biotic community” that Aldo Leopold describes in A Sand County Almanac(1948):

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

I decided I wanted to write a new poem for the Earth Day reading, and since I’d been so inspired by Mary Ellen’s grace, intelligence, and passion for all earth’s inhabitants, I thought I’d try to write one for her. Of course, it had to be about her beloved monarch butterfly. But me being me, I knew that my poem had to be gritty, by which I mean not ugly or intentionally bleak, but simply real. And it occurred to me that the way to do this would be to write a poem that reminded us that butterflies belong to that despised category of animal life colloquially known as “bugs.” Scientifically, the classInsecta, which includes reviled species such as flies, mosquitos, termites, wasps, and cockroaches. Somehow, because our culture has sentimentalized and romanticized butterflies as symbols of beauty, the fact that they are (poisonous!) insects (and not “flying flowers”) escapes us.

(There’s a wonderful short story, “Butterflies,” by Maori author Patricia Grace that hinges on, among other things, the disconnect between those who understand the butterfly as a biological creature and those for whom it is merely the representation of an idea. When I teach this story in my college writing classes, almost every student—not surprisingly—fails to “get it.” Does our biotic community’s critical condition have anything to do with the fact that we’ve allowed connotation to obscure denotation? I believe so.)

That’s why my poem emphasizes the creatureliness, not the symbolization, of the monarch. To honor a thing, we must know it, insofar as we can, for what it is, which to me is more important than what itmeans—or rather, maybe I’m trying to say that what something means cannot/should not be distinct from what it actually is. Which reminds me of the last lines of Archibald Macleish’s poem “Ars Poetica”:

        A poem should not mean

        But be.

Advertisements

The Sanctuary by Audrey Scharmen

Lobilia cardinalis

Lobelia cardinalis copyright Cindy Dyer

Potomac Review, Fall/Winter 2001-02.

Audrey Scharmen and Mary Ellen Ryall are butterfly and cardinal flower friends.

In the aftermath of lighting, thunder and a heavy downpour with the horizon streaking rose and mauve, tall silhouettes of trees encircle a dooryard garden where the cardinal flower stands amid a bed of her offspring. She is regal and rainsweet, unbowed by the storm, each scarlet spike of florets beaded with diamond droplets aglitter in the fading light.

Lobelia cardinals, older than time, symbol of hope and continuity in an era when both are precarious, has chosen this garden of an herbalist and healer as a sanctuary. Here are boneset, lion’s foot and agrimony. Argiope spins silver among catsclaw and zebra grasses where winged Luna and Promethea linger to meditate and metamorphose. Here is a strident chorus of tree frogs and birdsong, the fecund scent of a generous season, and the subtle fragrance of white sage burned in an ancient ritual of welcome.

The gardener, who presides with the blessings of the natural world, describes an entourage of daddy longlegs spiders that came to spread a net about the cardinal’s buds when predators threatened. The spiders quietly retreated when the first flowers opened and the plant remains flawless. She tells of hummingbirds who came to pollinate-among the few winged creatures able to penetrate the deep nectar of the florets-and of a fat bumblebee who sleeps nightly amid the blossoms.

     And she tells of the cardinal’s coming. To this thickly wooded acreage that she has long tended in the watershed of a great estuary, where precious fossils of an inland sea abound, and where relics of Piscataway Indians who once hunted here lie all about, have come uncommon botanicals, seeking refuge from the constant threat of progress. But her garden lacked a cardinal flower, an elusive plant she coveted.

     It is a stunning survivor of the warm period that preceded the glacial epoch-its flowers so intense a hue the leaves often are stained with it. It is said that no color due to sustained sunlight could have originated in our temperate zone. Thus its birth has been traced to the Age of Flowers, to a sudden violent explosion that changed the face of Earth. The cardinal indeed may have been present at the creation.

The gardener’s efforts to transplant such a flower had been futile and she had gone in search of it in a woodland beside the bed of a brook in a nearby glen protected by dense undergrowth and tall trees. Stalks of summer things spoke of a secret garden, and she thought it an ideal place for the cardinal, a wetland plant with an aura of the rain forest, which craves a secluded habitat where it may keep its feet wet and its head crowned with sunlight. Hidden beneath a residue of autumn past were infant seedlings resembling those of the cardinal-flat green rosettes of leaves with baby fuzz still intact. But she was uncertain so she would return later when jewelweed and goldenrod bloom, in the time of the cardinal.

Fate intervened. A few weeks later four young people died instantly in a head-on collision beside the road that borders the woodland, steps away from a trail that leads down to a haven of seedlings. An entire community mourned and the crash site became a shrine. Candlelight vigils were held there and paper roses bloomed beside a white cross with photos of four smiling faces forever sixteen. The gardener considered the glen a temporary haven for the transitory souls of the children and so she did not return.

Autumn faded; winter turned quickly cruel and the wilted roses shed red on newfallen snow. Spring came early with clouds of dogwood to grace the shrine. Chaste stars of Bethlehem shone on the hillside and burgeoning foliage hid the path beyond from the eyes of passerby. Summer followed long and sweltering. No rain fell and the wetlands withered.

With late summer came rain, the heat subsided, Virginia creeper and sumac bled scarlet beside the road and white blossoms of autumn clematis covered the carnage of drought. A semblance of peace came to the shrine and the gardener returned to the glen. But the cardinal hadn’t come. Black eyed Susans bloomed in its place.

In early September it appeared in her garden-rising from tall stalks of feverfew and ferns beside the porch, undetected until a bright beacon of buds reviewed the presence. A rare albino deer had come, as well, to linger briefly at the woods edge, pale and ghostly in the blue twilight. Hummingbirds returned-none had been seen all that summer.

There is no explanation. Perhaps a single seed, dormant for centuries nurtured by one of many springs known to lie deep beneath the unique woodland, suddenly had awakened. It was the cardinal’s time.