In her column, Corpus, Jordan Kisner examines the stories our bodies tell.
Abraham Mignon, The Nature as a Symbol of Vanitas, c. 1665-79
I like flowers all right, I suppose. I like having them around, I like how they smell. I like their delicate skins, their manner of shedding yellow everywhere in a fine powder. I try to stop on the street, when I can, to bend down and look directly into their faces. I have mild flower preferences, in a bodega-selection way: ranunculus over chrysanthemums, peonies over roses, lilies over hydrangeas. Having lived in New York City my entire adult life, bodega-flower choice has been more or less the extent of the relationship.
It’s possible that I no longer live in New York City, a fact that won’t be decided until next year sometime and which I only relay here because the place I currently inhabit has a lot of wildflowers and no bodegas. Inasmuch as flowers exist here, they exist because they come out of the ground randomly, with no rubric or intention or market. First there were lilacs (on bushes!) and then when the lilacs died the peonies bloomed, which began wilting just as the day lilies and trout lilies and tiger lilies sprang open like self-peeling bananas. That was right around when Dame’s Rocket, highlighter purple, was all over the fields and dominating the unmowed grasses along the side of the road. A gigantic mock orange bush exploded into blossoms and made everything smell like, naturally, orange blossoms. Then vervain, then Queen Anne’s Lace like weeds, wild lupines. Right now we are in red clover.
Trying to articulate what’s so stunning about watching flowers just appear and disappear makes me sound like an idiot. I was on a long walk with an older gentleman who’s been watching the seasons cycle in this part of the world for something like ninety years, and trying my best. “They just arrive!” I said. “And then they go!”
He seemed briefly at a loss for a response. “That’s true,” he said, encouragingly.
Helplessly, moronically, I am amazed by them. Their brevity, for one. Lilacs bloom for … maybe two weeks? Most of the year they just look like bushes, and then for the briefest moment they burst into the lushest Day-Glo purple, a jammy, fragrant, fecund burgeoning. Everything within a quarter mile smells like sweetness. And then after a few days the purple begins to look slightly blurry, slightly less explosive in its presence. And then you wake up one morning and the bush is just a bush again: green, leafy, pretty but unremarkable. This repeats itself again and again in waves, as every flower’s death is met by the profusion of some new species whose moment in the season has arrived. This all happens, uninterrupted and untended, wholly separate from human timelines and activity, relentlessly.
I went to kindergarten, like everyone else, and so it is not technically a surprise to me that flowers have seasons, that they bloom and fall, and that this is a tidy metaphor for human life cycles. But I grew up in the suburbs in a climate where summer days are eighty-three degrees and winter days are seventy-three degrees, and then I moved to a place where flowers primarily appear in cellophane wrapping. Knowing it in the abstract, or knowing it on the pages of a book, didn’t exactly prepare me for living with it in time and space.
The film director Derek Jarman kept a diary from 1989 until 1990 as he was shooting his film The Garden, editing another, stage directing a stadium-sized rock concert, and dying of AIDS. It begins January 1, 1989, and continues, month by month, until September 3, 1990, after which he writes no more. He begins by describing the landscape surrounding the cottage in Dungeness where he lives most of the year. It faces the vast shingle beach, for which Dungeness is famous, and the ocean beyond that. “There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon.”
Any “plot” in this diary, inasmuch as life can be organized into a plot and recorded that way, is relegated to the background. Things happen: Jarman works on major films (Tilda Swinton dips in and out); friends, identified only by initials or first names, come to dinner or join Jarman in painting, or call to give the news that another friend has succumbed to AIDS. Jarman records trips back and forth from London, political events; he recounts childhood memories; he grows sick, and then sicker. But all that feels somehow secondary. Modern Nature, instead, is mostly a book about flowers.
“I counted 77 blooms on the early daffodils I planted two years ago. They are multiplying very slowly. At the water’s edge the sea kale is sprouting. The plants have small leaves of two or three inches; they are a deep purple.”
“Discovered a clump of ivy-leaved toadflax covered with bright blue flowers growing on a mound of asphalt alongside the lifeboat station.”
“The Californian poppy are growing everywhere: they have colonized the garden. In every nook and cranny the scarlet field poppies have germinated: if they survive the winter they are going to cover the garden in a field of scarlet.”
Jarman loves flowers. He loves poppies and lavender and Alexander and burdock and samphire and bugloss. With each passing month, as more of his friends die, he devotes page after page to recording what he did in his garden, how each flower is doing in the harsh, salty climate and soil of Dungeness. He in particular tracks emergence and disappearance: “Beneath the willows at the Long Pits I found the first primrose of the year.” Later: “There is one foxglove out behind the house, and along the lakes, just three. Last year there were thousands. Alasdair phones to say Spud has had his cancer removed. Hardly a day passes without illness invading.”
All diaries are a record of attention, but this diary feels more acutely so because mostly Jarman writes about what he has spent the day looking at and touching, rather than thinking or feeling. He records the slender bodies of flowers with more detail than any of the human bodies that come and go, with more detail than he describes his lover’s body or even his own body, which starts gradually to die as time and pages pass. By the end of the book, Jarman has begun to go blind, which feels particularly unfair as this will make it difficult for him to know whether the lavender has survived the next storm.
Why record a flower? What’s the point? They’re ephemeral, they’re never the same from day to day, they’re so brief, there are so many of them. Incremental change, inevitable loss. Their scale is both too large and too small. I’ve never before wanted to write about them, except that I am noticing them now, and the way they make me feel time, make me see time. On their bodies I see time much more clearly and poignantly than I see it on my own. And yet my body, too, is in time, and its season is indefinite. It, too, is just one of so many. “Flesh dreams toward permanence,” wrote the poet and essayist Mark Doty, who survived the AIDS epidemic but buried many people he loved and wrote about it. He writes also about the natural world, the ocean, lemons, painting. In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, a meditation on still life portraiture that is also a meditation on loss, he writes, “Description is an inexact, loving art, and a reflexive one; when we describe the world we come closer to saying what we are.”
Jarman is very much what he describes his flowers to be: scrappy, planted defiantly in an inhospitable landscape, delicate, beautiful, hardy, worthy of care. “As I sweat it out in the early hours, a ‘guilty victim’ of the scourge, I want to bear witness how happy I am, and will be until the day I die, that I was part of the hated sexual revolution,” he writes Wednesday, September 13, 1989. “And that I don’t regret a single step or encounter I made in that time; and if I write in future with regret, it will be a reflection of a temporary indisposition.”
One varietal of the seventeenth-century Dutch craze for still life paintings (out of which Doty’s beloved painting Still Life with Oysters and Lemon came) was the vanitas painting. A vanitas was a kind of memento mori, or artwork designed to remind the viewer of the inevitability of death. Typical memento mori paintings had skulls, clocks, extinguished candles, that kind of thing—but a vanitas was typically a still life with flowers or musical instruments. Sometimes the flowers were fulsome and blooming but accompanied, subtly, by a piece of bone, or a turned-over hourglass. Sometimes their edges were just starting to curl. Sometimes they were in full wilt, losing petals, bowing over gently toward the ground, as if in acquiescence. The function of these paintings was not only to remind us that we’re all dying, but to encourage the viewer to let go of their vanities, the worthless worldly pleasures that serve no purpose in a Judeo-Christian afterlife. Stop paying so much attention to the flowers, these paintings tell us, because soon they’ll be dead and so will you and all this frivolity will have done you no good.
Flowers are frivolity, maybe, nature’s frivolity—a production of beauty with so much variety and playfulness that it exceeds any obvious purpose. Looking at flowers, doting on flowers, is frivolous, I suppose, in the sense of engaging with beauty for beauty’s sake. It is also frivolous if we assume (as the theology behind these paintings did) that taking our eye off the eternal and training it on the ephemeral is an empty, if glorious, distraction.
Jarman’s diary is its own kind of vanitas in that it offers us flowers and death in one work, but its spirit is precisely opposed to the original intention. He wholly embraces what might be deemed frivolously beautiful or ephemeral, trains our eye on it, dwells in it without shame or rebuke. His diary argues thrillingly for pleasure, for joy, for tender identification with the wilting stem. A gardener with a death sentence, he valorizes what is beautiful and must die.
While the original vanitas asked the viewer to look at flowers and think forward to death, to an afterlife, flowers as Jarman writes them are about life as it presently exists, which is beautiful precisely because it is transient.
Right now, there’s prairie phlox in the field. There’s yellow lady’s slipper dying in the woods behind the house, and white baneberry. Right now, hepatica. Right now, goldenrod.
Jordan Kisner’s writing has appeared in n+1, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, GQ, the Guardian, The American Scholar, and The New Yorker, among other publications. Her debut essay collection, Thin Places, was published this year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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