Jennifer Grotz’s “Poppies”
January 5, 2012 | by Ta-Nehisi Coates
What I love about poems is how they change in the light of repeated readings. Now this is true of most art (and I guess most things), but because poems are (often) so short you can actually experience the change over a series of days or weeks of rereading, or even, still, over the space of years. When I first read Jennifer Grotz’s “Poppies” all I could tell you was that I liked its sound. I didn’t have any idea what the poem was about. I just liked letting the words fall off my tongue when I read it aloud. It was elemental, and I think almost every poem I love is like that for me. At a base level it just sounds good. “That’s how the rain comes” just sounds good. “Black pepper and blood” just sounds good.
But then I went back and I saw the philosophy at work. Grotz writes of our constant desire to tame the world, and even the righteousness of that desire (“shouldn’t we love all things equally back?”). She writes of the anguish that ultimately comes from trying (the poppies are beautiful but only “like the feral cat who purrs and rubs against your leg / But will scratch if you touch back”) and then, finally, our sadness at the whole thing. “Love is letting the world be half-tamed,” Grotz writes. I think you could say that about a lot more than just the natural world that she is addressing. That’s a lesson we’re constantly learning.
There is a sadness everywhere present
but impossible to point to, a sadness that hides in the world
and lingers. You look for it because it is everywhere.
When you give up, it haunts your dreams
with black pepper and blood and when you wake
you don’t know where you are.
But then you see the poppies, a disheveled stand of them.
And the sun shining down like God, loving all of us equally,
mountain and valley, plant, animal, human, and therefore
shouldn’t we love all things equally back?
And then you see the clouds.
The poppies are wild, they are only beautiful and tall
so long as you do not cut them,
they are like the feral cat who purrs and rubs against your leg
but will scratch you if you touch back.
Love is letting the world be half-tamed.
That’s how the rain comes, softly and attentively, then
with unstoppable force. If you
stare upwards as it falls, you will see
they are falling sparks that light nothing only because
the ground interrupts them. You can hear the way they’d burn,
the smoldering sound they make falling into the grass.
That is a sound for the sadness everywhere present.
The closest you have come to seeing it
is at night, with the window open and the lamp on,
when the moths perch on the white walls,
tiny as a fingernail to large as a Gerbera daisy
and take turns agitating around the light.
If you grasp one by the wing,
its pill-sized body will convulse
in your closed palm and you can feel the wing beats
like an eyelid’s obsessive blinking open to see.
But now it is still light and the blackbirds are singing
as if their voices are the only scissors left in this world.
“Poppies” originally appeared in The New England Review.