The Flower Artist
Late in his life, the painter Morris Graves, known for his symbolic and visionary renderings of animals, birds, and snakes, began to paint realistic portraits of flowers, which he arranged on his table or found at the street markets in Seattle. Hermetic, eccentric, having lived alone in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, Graves was, as critic Theodore F. Morris writes, “famous for his commitment to the vision of ‘the inner eye,'” which had resulted in such metaphysical paintings as Moon Chalice, Little Known Bird of the Inner and Millenium Light. I remember the story of him listening in the night outside his island home and drawing — inventing! — animals for the sounds he heard. I remember his “white writing,” which he adapted from the painter Mark Tobey, nests of lacy, squiggling lines encasing the Bird Singing in the Moonlight, or the discordant and troubling red and black pattern above the grasses in Spring with Machine Age Noise#3. Graves was a clairvoyant, someone able to see past the surface, with its colors and sounds, into the way light might affect the song of a bird or modern industry affect the grasses. His images came from another realm, that of dream or focused meditation, rather than the objective world. For an artist “so profoundly convinced that art’s primary purpose was to help advance spiritual consciousness,” critic Theodore F. Wolff states, to paint a simple bouquet of flowers on his table was a dramatic departure. Why, at the end of his life, flowers?
In Summer Twilight, Fruit and Flowers (Peruvian lily bouquets-yellow, two Borneo night-blooming flowers, and platter of apricots), it is the twilight I see first, a radiant aura around the yellow bouquets, the edges of the apricots on their celadon plate, a yellow powdered on the table top under the vases, not so much a reflection — the table is soft, not glossed — as an absorption of pollen. The vases, too, are soft, blue and green and clear and multi-cast with flower-light. The background and foreground are translucent, dappled with changing color as if they were windows hung with rice paper. And then, there are the flowers themselves, hieroglyphic and dreamlike in their reality, arrow-leafed, scalloped, more insect than any body akin to us, shaped like trumpets and dragonflies or something tangled and ancient found at the bottom of the sea.
Though the flowers are recognizably flowers, the table a table, a vase a vase, the paintings somehow highlight the strangeness that is the aliveness of plants, that sense, when we look closely at leaves or flowers or stems that, though they can’t be anthropomorphized, though their shapes and colors don’t belong to us, each one seems startlingly conscious, an individual, a person. As if each flower had developed its colors as one does a self. As if each flower had a secret name. What is astonishing, and what the painting makes us aware of, is that they are here, living in their completely alien, though parallel realm, right next to us. As poet John Yau states in the preface to Morris Graves: Flower Paintings, “In this century, one which has seen the rise of both abstraction and mechanical reproduction, Graves does something wholly unexpected and ultimately profound: he uses paint to restore to flowers their specific identity. He does so by halting at the edge of both abstraction and exactitude, by concluding at the limits of sight…”
A curious notion: the edge of both abstraction and exactitude. Can it be regarded as the same edge? In my study of Graves’ paintings, I have been made aware of many other painters who turned to flowers at critical junctures in their lives, painters who were often known for their Modernist and post-Modernist experiments with materials and form. The Impressionist painter Édouard Manet, in the last months of his life, weak and bed-ridden with syphilis, painted sixteen small and remarkable canvases depicting the bouquets friends brought to cheer him in his illness.
His images came from another realm, that of dream or focused meditation, rather than the objective world. “The vigor of each flower is contained in a kind of gesture, the gesture of the form of the flower, as distinctive as a name, and the light they return to us is as particular to their form and color as the sense of likeness we experience in front of one of the pastels of his friends,” writes Andrew Jorge in his introduction to a monograph of these paintings. Piet Mondrian painted flowers before his signature experiments in abstraction, and then he returned to them again and again, creating his highly abstract Modernist grids in primary colors alongside his shaggy, shopworn chrysanthemums and top-heavy stalks of red amaryllis with blue stems. The “relationship between natural lyricism and geometrical abstraction” — a phrase used by critic David Shapiro in speaking of Mondrian — seems to be less oppositional than creative, the flower, in particular, offering an image that moves between both, movement we see in the work of many other modern painters, including Odilon Redon, who didn’t begin his floating bouquets until he was in his sixties; Georgia O’Keefe, whose larger than life flowers appeared well after her experiments in abstraction; even Pop artist Andy Warhol who silkscreened unnamed flowers, as well as soup cans and Coke bottles. We have been educated to think of the romantic and modern, the abstract and representational, the symbolic and real, as antithetical. Yet photographers, such as Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, and Robert Mapplethorpe, while at the same time giving us strikingly edgy and un-sentimentalized images of war, machinery, and sex, have also given us some of the most moving, intimate, and, revelatory images of flowers. What drew these experimental artists to depict Dying Sunflowers, chrysanthemums, amaryllis, and Heavy Roses, which are certainly traditional, even stereotypic emblems?
Shape and color, of course, have always been attractive to painters, and flowers, most of us would agree, are attractive in shape and color. Every culture, it seems, enhances its surroundings by decorating with real or imagined flowers, from the beading on Ojibway moccasins to the patterns on vessels from Africa or the rugs woven in Turkey. The archeologist Andrew Marshak believes that many of the abstract symbols on Paleolithic cave walls are not abstract at all but leaves and flowers of specific plants. Shape, color, fragrance, even the names of flowers set us dreaming — rose, hyacinth, lavender, violet, iris — as if by merely saying them we could move from the ordinary to the extraordinary:
I will have the gardeners come to me and recite
— Rainer Maria Rilke
In the catalog of a 2004 show entitled The Flower as Image, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humleback, Denmark, a show in which many of the aforementioned painters and photographers appear, the curators write that “many modern artists go on painting flowers even though the subject is quite at odds with the self-understanding of modern art as a critical, innovative thing.” Flowers, unlike other subject matter such as fashion, architecture, or technology, do not change. But our conception of what is beautiful, as Charles Baudelaire famously said, is made up of the “fugitive, the contingent,” as well as the “unchanging and the immutable.” Is there a specific challenge in painting flowers, then, besides the challenge of confronting beauty in a different — one might even say an uglier — historical time? (How against such force — the force of the modern — shall Beauty hold a plea? whose action is no stronger than a flower? Shakespeare asked.) Is it that flowers, because they are emblems of beauty across time and culture, confront artists with the ever-present formal challenge to, as Ezra Pound said, make it new? Or is it that true beauty, in itself, is a destroyer of emblems? “This transitory, fugitive element,” Baudelaire writes, “whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with. By neglecting it, you cannot fail to tumble into the abyss of an abstract and indeterminate beauty,” one that has lost its power to change the way we see.
In Graves’ case, what is stunning about the flowers is that, though they are not us, there is something about them that we recognize in us.
Unless we are talking of landscape paintings such as Van Gogh’s fields of sunflowers or poppies, flowers usually belong to the genre we call still lives, an oxymoron that many critics have pointed out. (It is said that American Indians could ambush and conquer regiments of white soldiers by simply sitting in tall grass and waiting for them to come to them. They could do so because we expect life to move.) Fruits and vegetables are arranged artificially on a table, sometimes a jug of wine or flask of olive oil, less frequently an animal, a fish or hare. The task of the still life painting is to bring to life that which is still. In Graves’ case, what is stunning about the flowers is that, though they are not us, there is something about them that we recognize in us. What is that? Perhaps it is their stillness, their solitude. Perhaps it is their radiance. Perhaps it is the fact that they do not open up to us, and yet seem as if they could, a metaphysical challenge par excellence. “The paint becomes coldly voluptuous,” Yau writes about the Graves’ paintings, “and, in that regard, resembles the flowers themselves, “sensual inhabitants of their own private domain,” an echo of which we can find a poem by Jules Supervielle, found in Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological book on the image, The Poetics of Space: “sensitive inhabitants of the forests of ourselves.”
It seems obvious that Graves did not quit seeing as a metaphysician when he began painting his winter and summer bouquets, just as Mondrian did not abandon his formal experiments when he painted his impossibly blue chrysanthemums. Their preoccupations, one could argue, were not with beauty so much as how to use visual form to express intangible and interior realities that were, of course, in dynamic relationship with the tensions created by a rapidly industrialized, and diminished, natural world. Flowers seem intrinsically to lend themselves to this effort as their forms and colors are timeless, cosmopolitan, and decidedly not human — neutral, in fact — and yet at the same time they mirror to us, albeit in a dramatically accelerated fashion, human processes, whether interior or exterior. They enter the world fragile. They bloom, decay, and die. They are ephemeral and yet joyously alive. They come to us concretely, already dressed in figurative language. As Yau writes, “Flowers are always both themselves and symbols to be read.”
The edge between abstraction and exactitude (representation) is a flickering edge where the symbol makes its home. “When I say: ‘a flower!’” Stéphane Mallarmé writes, “then from that forgetfulness to which my voice consigns all floral form, something different from the usual calyces arises, something all music, essence, and softness: the flower which is absent from all bouquets.” It is almost impossible to really see a flower, Mallarmé thought, clouded as it is by cliché, the “usual calyces.” Writing in his 1803 essay, “Crisis in Poetry,” he was speaking for a new and modern kind of symbol, one that did not attach the object as a referent to an already established religious or cultural system — the rose as symbol of the Passion of Christ, for instance. To release flower from its representations might have been the same challenge to him as to these painters: “Why should we perform the miracle by which a natural object is almost made to disappear beneath the magic waving wand of the written word, if not to divorce that object from the direct and the palpable, and so conjure up its essence in all purity?” The symbol, as we know, presumes an other that is deeply connected to it, a presence or essence underneath, or beneath what we know of it. For Mallarmé, the task was not to name it but to allow or conjure that essence.
Many of Graves’ later flower paintings had their precursors in his earlier images meant to convey metaphysical realities, works such as Vessel Seeking to Achieve Its Ideal Image Form, Chalice, and Joyous Young Pine. These paintings “share the same, simple compositional device of two central formal elements — one, usually circular, above, and the other, usually vertical, directly underneath,” Wolff points out. This “one-over-one compositional formula,” a circle over a line, an upside down exclamation mark, the astrological symbol for Venus and for woman, resembles, of course, a human head over a body, as well as a bloom over a stalk. Wolff suggests that it was, for Graves, a “visual metaphor for man’s progressive spiritual evolution — from fragmentation and imperfection (the lower, earthbound forms) to wholeness and perfection (the moon/blossom).” Shapiro says of Mondrian’s individual stalks of chrysanthemum, sunflower, and amaryllis that “The thematic reduction to singleness [one flower] seems to speak often as a rhetorical devise: the flower for the body.” A phenomenology of the flower image might speak to this conundrum: the flower as the most real and the most abstract. The flower as body and the flower as soul.
II. The Flower as Body
Tell me, is the rose naked
— Pablo Neruda
If one is an herbalist, or an amateur botanist, finding and identifying plants is often dependent on first encountering them during their time of flowering. As sprout or stem or grass blade or leaf, the plant fades into the general background green in the same way that we become en masse on the streets of our cities. To flower is to distinguish oneself by color, shape, and fragrance, to become as individualized as the face of the beloved. Most of us can name our mother’s or grandmother’s favorite flower. My mother’s is lilac; my grandmother’s was gladiola. The idea that each kind of flower has a specific personality or quality or message to convey is the basis for a system of correspondences originating in Persia called The Language of Flowers, which reached the height of its popularity in Europe in the early 1900s, but which we still vaguely apperceive when we choose roses for our lovers or daisies or carnations for our friends.
What is the mystery contained in the image of a flower that we recognize in it something human, something flesh and blood and body? We find it in Stein’s famous whispering of eros in “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” or in Blake’s symbol of spoiled love, “The Sick Rose.” (O Rose, thou art sick! / The invisible worm / That flies in the night, / In the howling storm, / Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy, / And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.) But allegory is not what makes the flower paintings of Graves or Mondrian or Manet distinctive. To allegorize is not to “restore to flowers their specific identity,” as Yau wrote about Graves’ paintings, but to blur those distinctions in favor of a meaning everyone can agree on. Allegory, writes Henry Corbin, in his book on the creative imagination Alone with the Alone, is but a degraded form of the Image, one in which we no longer see the individual flower in front of us. “Allegory is a rational operation, implying no transition to a new plane of being or to a new depth of consciousness.” The allegorical image stays where it was first nailed down, in Persia or in England in the eighteenth century. It quits speaking to us. The symbolic image, on the other hand, “announces a plane of consciousness distinct from rational evidence; it is the ‘cipher’ of a mystery.” What is the mystery contained in the image of a flower that we recognize in it something human, something flesh and blood and body?
We have been taught that one of the differences between animals and plants is that animals are able to move, yet science has shown us that plants, though rooted in one place, are highly mobile. Many plants, for instance, are heliotropic (heliotrope is the name for the sunflower), bending toward the sun. They send roots into the ground for nourishment and moisture — “the roots of a sunflower can reach down eight feet, nibbling, evaluating, growing toward the best sources of food,” says Sharman Apt Russell in her book Anatomy of a Rose — and sprout upward toward the light, a miraculous force counter to gravity which Goethe, a great plant enthusiast, named “levity.” Most plants turn, reach, open, close, and quiver with excitement, as we do. They flower and produce seeds. They suffer weather and time, age, and die back. Their abbreviated lives often serve, in poetry and paintings, as allegory, in accelerated fashion, of our own human life processes. Mondrian loved chrysanthemums, the unraveling, aging quality I love in the prairie paintbrush. Shapiro says Mondrian “revealed his sense of time and suffering” in these flowers.
Most plants turn, reach, open, close, and quiver with excitement, as we do. They flower and produce seeds. They suffer weather and time, age, and die back.
And then, there is sex. Except for the mosses, liverworts, conifers, cycads, ferns and gingko trees, all plants flower in order to reproduce, writes Russell. Dressed flamboyantly and heavily perfumed, they attract the bees, butterflies, birds, and even mammals that will carry their pollen to the awaiting stigma of another flower. Wide open or seductive in their ploys of lip and tongue, they are shameless. Of Mondrian’s flower paintings, so different than the rigid and programmatic grids of his modernist experiments, Shapiro observes, “They remained with their emotional curves a powerful force to trouble him.”Mondrian, celibate for the last part of his life, Graves, Mapplethorpe, Warhol who were gay, Manet suffering from syphilis — a psychosexual reading of these paintings will stall us as absolutely as an allegorical reading would, and is not the direction I would like to go in this essay. Yet the vulnerability of the flowers, their overt sexuality, their contrived attractiveness, to which we are always attracted, is most often described as female. “We might think of the flowers, then, as the real nudes in the œuvre of Mondrian and place our embarrassment [that he is painting flowers rather than grids] as a fear of desire,” writes Shapiro.
None of us wants to subscribe to a polemic that assigns to objects or feelings a gender, and, in fact, “about eighty percent of flowers are hermaphrodites,” containing both male and female sex organs. Still, when I read the words of the German mystic poet Novalis — “Should plants perhaps be the products of the feminine nature and a masculine spirit,” he asks. “And plants, say, the young girls — animals the young boys of nature?” — I feel some truth in them beyond the obvious and stereotypic dualities of gentleness and brute force, beauty and the beast. When I was writing my second book of poetry, wherein each poem grew out of a concentrated meditation on an individual herb, weed, or flower growing in a circumference around my home in Montana, I thought I was compiling a personalized, albeit poetic, herbal. Like an herbal, many of the poems contained the history of the plants’ origins and uses, as well as my own close observations. But as I wrote more and more of them, instead of my perhaps misguided intention to listen to the plant and hear what it might have to tell me of its life, they seemed rather to reveal a wisdom applicable to my own wounds — physical and emotional — as well as the spiritual and epistemological wounds of a larger world that has not only separated itself from nature but also from what I will call the feminine. In “Bluebell,” I wrote:
They are pebbles meant to fall,
Like butterflies, the leaves
If you have bells, then ring, heart
The poems began to reflect a sensibility, even theology, particularly in accord with the concerns of women, with their emphasis on cycles of birth and death, illness and health, childhood and aging, in other words, to the processes of the body:
Here, like a god in its particular uncurling, a bracken fan — brilliant — dips its fin into the stream.
or, in “Prairie Sage”:
A bouquet? A bride’s bouquet
Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, whose recent poems have also been an attempt to communicate with plants, animals, and insects, says of her method, in an interview with Lesley Scalapino, “In reality, it is difficult for me to tune into the thoughts of animals and insects. It takes time for me to become quiet and the animals are moving around. I could often receive ‘instant messages,’ but what I sent out myself tended to be pressured, and I don’t think that is the best way for animals to take in meaning… A plant gives me more time to get to know it.”
In her poem “Slow Down Now,” she leads us through this process, moving from objective observation of herself and environment to a more and more subjective stance. We can literally watch the image of the plant being absorbed into her:
I’ve been sitting looking at this plant without feeling time at all, and my breathing is calm.
There are tiny white rosettes, and the whole bush is a glorious cloud of feathery pink seed-
Even with closed eyes, I see flowers in the center of my sight, new flowers opening out with
There’s no stopping this effusion.
Looking at the plant releases my mental boundaries, so time is not needed for experience.
Late afternoon is like a stage, a section of vaster landscape, and my mood is of a summer
The dry arroyo sparkles around us.
Meaning I come upon on wild land strikes me at first as a general impression, then
I accept that I’ve aged and that some friends have died.
The last line arrives abruptly and yet not artificially. It has grown organically out of the images before. We can follow it back. Traditional beauty is what has initially caught the poet’s attention, the “glorious cloud” that is the flower head gone to seed. It is dying back. But because she is in what Corbin would call “sympathy” with the plant, honing her attention, her breath calms, her body calms and she is suddenly not “feeling time at all.” The flower has enabled a shift in consciousness. She is in plant time, so much so that she can see the plant with her eyes closed.
If there is an equivalent in human beings to flowering, perhaps it is in the way feeling overtakes us.
In the center of her sight — one wonders whether she means the center of her closed eye or being — an effusion, much like a blossom, is pouring forth. Is this unrestrained expression flowing from the plant or has it set something in motion inside her, a feeling that takes the image of the bud opening and then the incredible transformation into seed? “Compared with the leaf, the flower is a dying organ,” writes J. Lehrs, quoted in The Secret Life of Plants. “This dying, however, is a kind we may aptly call a ‘dying into being.’ Life in its mere vegetative form is here seen withdrawing in order that a higher manifestation of the spirit may take place… In the human being it is responsible for the metamorphosis or organic process which occurs in the path from the metabolic to the nervous system, and which we came to recognize as the precondition for the appearance of consciousness within the organism.” Looking at the flower gone to seed, Berssenbrugge suddenly accepts her own aging and with it her grief for her friends, as if the flowering has made room for this acceptance. It is a new-found awareness she has grown into.
If there is an equivalent in human beings to flowering, perhaps it is in the way feeling overtakes us. I’m not sure what I mean by this, but when Berssenbrugge writes, in another poem, “There is an affinity between awareness and blossom,” I read “awareness” not as a way of thinking but as a feeling, feeling not as an emotion but as a tool, a trans-sensory tool, that introduces us to a different way of perceiving. Flowers are capable of this kind of feeling; they surface and bloom. (Perhaps that is why they are so associated with the female, granted as women are with that permission.) Radiance flowers, as do ideas, love, and epiphanies in the body and in the mind. The flower as verb. Communication flowers, between people as well as between humans and plants, as in this last section from the aforementioned poem, “Slow Down Now”:
One time, you may need a plant you don’t yet know, in order to connect pieces in yourself
It may be a rosebush at the end of the road, a summer rose, whitish on the outside of each
When a plant receives this kind of communication, it begins altering the wavelengths its
The plant or another person will awake from embedding in the livingness of the world and
The internal chemistry of plants is one primary language of response that they possess.
The pairing of a plant with human feeling of loss, “in order to connect pieces in yourself or in a person you are trying to be with,” whether that person is disconnected from you through death or distance or some other kind of estrangement, is an ancient pairing that Herbals are based on, the connection that we might call “healing” or making whole. One can encounter this pairing in hundreds of poems, as if in merely saying the name of a flower, its healing properties might be enacted. John Felstiner, in an essay about Paul Celan, published in Parthenon West, speaks of one form of the classical Romanian folk song called the doîna, wherein despair is paired with the name of a plant. In this folk song, which is sung while expressing real grief in tears, the first words are always foaie verde, literally “green leaf”:
Green leaf of the plantain,
Like the old-fashioned herbals, which seek to pair the virtues of a particular plant with an illness, in this form the singing of the plant name serves to provide consolation to the person who is suffering, as if the language itself awakened the spirit of the form it refers to. Felstiner calls it a “folk elegy.” Here is Celan’s version of it:
As a boy in pre-occupation Romania, Felstiner writes, Celan kept a notebook wherein he recorded all the names of the flowers surrounding his village, until the hills and forests were barred to the Jews. “An acute awareness, a reach and touch for naming the natural world, would later help him offer the history of a world turning unnatural, intolerable,” writes Felstiner, a world that would kill his parents in the concentration camps of World War II and that would ultimately lead him to suicide.
The image of the flower, it seems, mediates: between lovers, between the sick and the healthy, between the dead and the alive, and for the human body.
Fifty thousand years ago, even the Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers. We know this, says Russell, because traces of pollen were left behind, “ancient versions of blue hyacinth, yellow groundsel, knapweed, and yarrow.” An artist friend, who first told me about Mondrian’s late flower paintings, found herself painting a series of what she called “sad flower paintings” after her mother died from breast cancer. A poet tells me that, in her daily meditations, she often visits her dead parents as plants and flowers. Her mother is a peace lily. Her father is a pussy willow. Because they have taken the image of plants, she can go to them in a less fraught way than in their human form. She can sit close; she can attend to them. The image of the flower, it seems, mediates: between lovers, between the sick and the healthy, between the dead and the alive, and for the human body.
The Korean poet, Ko Un, in the preface to his book of poems entitled Flowers of a Moment, writes of the flowers laid on graves: “I am convinced this heart-offering of flowers is the essence of poetry. Long before [poetry], people prayed with poetic hearts for their dead to be reborn in another world, a world of flowers, flowers representing the sorrow arising between presence and absence.” These “word-flowers” are the flowers of a moment in his title, an image for feeling that arises from the hearts of the grieving, and words, he says, that arise in his dreams:
In this poem, we, as readers, don’t know if the speaker is going down into sleep or down a mountain, whether the flower has died or been lost, picked, or forgotten, and yet in these few words we feel the loss of all things disappeared on our return over familiar terrain, an edge that seems able to straddle both memory and forgetfulness. Here, the ephemeral and eternal nature of flower or person floats, neither real nor ideal but transcending both, Mallarmé’s “flower which is absent from all bouquets.”
How can one flower ever be alone?
Ko Un states that the poems in his book “arose” from the shadows of sleep the way colors arise from night at dawn, almost imperceptibly. He says, “My brief poems have their roots in my dreams.” Thus, they are inexplicable. They drift like flowers drift over the surface of the real world, in between sleeping and waking. The question that begins this poem — is it rhetorical? We know that flowers sometimes are alone. We have found them, a stalk of lupine or larkspur, though more often than not, they grow in clusters or patches. But over there, in the dry river bed is someone else; we don’t know if it is another flower or a person or a snake. The poem has turned to face us; it suddenly addresses a you. Whatever is in the dry riverbed — we assume a flower — might be our love. Does he mean that the flower might be someone we love, perhaps someone who has died, or is our love, our capacity for love, emblemized in this flower? Or is the you a flower he is addressing? The poem doesn’t answer. The image is there and more-than-there, a cipher, meeting place and edge of an opening world. What do we make of it? We halt at this edge between abstraction and representation. We must go further, up to the edge and past it. Who is our love? Who is the flower?
III. The Flower as Soul
The One and the Other
Ah, rosebush, why do you endlessly sway, through long rains, with your double rose?
— René Char
For over thirty years I have seen plants when I close my eyes. They began appearing when I was in my twenties and weeding my first garden. I saw what I’d pulled for hours, sometimes days afterward. I thought they were after-images, ghosts of what I had killed “with my bare hands.” But then, flowers also appeared, often when I was most happy, or often, too, unexpectedly, not linked to anything I had just seen. I feel their color rather than see it, though their shapes are distinctly here, if instantaneously here and then gone. They are not generic (as our feelings are not generic) but specific: lily, columbine, rose, hyacinth, sometimes simply leaves. Like Ko Un’s poems, they seem to rise up from the soil of mind I must be carrying inside me. I began this essay in search of what they might mean.
What is unique about the flower image is that it is both threshold for this experience and form of that experience.
The image takes root at the heart of the world, writes the poet Adonis in his book Sufism and Surrealism, “a real world deeply rooted at the heart of the world of appearances.” This world, which the Sufi mystics say lies between the sensory world and the ideal or divine world, is accessed by the creative imagination, whose door of perception is the image itself. “The significance of the image,” Adonis writes, “does not lie in its visible surface but rather in the fact that it is a threshold to whatever meaning it has and a door that leads the spectator to what is behind it: the absent or the abstract, in its essence or nature,” in other words, the invisible, the unknown. What is unique about the flower image is that it is both threshold for this experience and form of that experience. What I mean is that at the same time that it exists as a means to contemplation, it also mirrors, in its shape and colors and perhaps fragrance, a specific and age-old path that one might take from unseeing to seeing, from ignorance to revelation, an organic, even alchemical, path that is shared by many cultures who have attempted to come face to face with the soul.
“Flowers are allegories of consciousness,” writes Novalis, in a fragment quoted in Shapiro’s essay on Mondrian. I recognize the allegory, the agreed upon parallel between our inner experience and the outer world of appearances: from deep below the surface of the earth, which is colorless, dark, secret, a seed sprouts and sends up a shoot that flowers into its own unique form in the same way that a thought or dream or awareness arises from ignorance into knowledge, from nothingness into presence. As it enters the light of consciousness, it takes shape. It moves into our world, petal upon petal, growing from a center that often becomes sunken or hidden, yet signals with stripe and color, luring birds and bees and other seekers. Yet if it is to move past allegory to symbol, as Corbin would define it, it must call to us and we must respond. It must persuade us to follow, like the bee or fly, down its corridors into our own centers. It must not reveal everything; it must leave something for us to find. As Mallarmè writes, it must employ “evocation, allusion, suggestion.”
I think you are among the flowers
— Christopher Howell
The image takes root in us perhaps because it finds not its allegory, but its home in our being, our inner earth, in centers and colors that resonate with it, or in the meadows and streambeds that constitute what Corbin calls the “mystic geography”of the soul. In the lines above, excerpted from Howell’s “Another Letter to the Soul,” the flower/soul addressed is a climbing one, perhaps a clematis, and it is precisely drawn from all the others who are growing into the “blue / foyer of the sun.” In the act of distinguishing it, “in this way” of seeing it alone, separate, the speaker is able to understand his own flowering as a “shadow” or parallel process. Or the “way” is perhaps that of belief, by which I think he means creative imagination, of first believing the flower is his soul, and then practicing that belief each day until he sees it as such. Howell suggests, in his image of the luxuriant vine, that, though we cannot see our souls, we might act as though we saw them. “The poet therefore does not explain or make clear but rather, as al’Buhtari says, only provides a flash, whose indication is enough,” writes Adonis. Enough for what? Enough to confirm that there is in absence a promise of presence, that “an interior world exists, which is invisible, unknown and inaccessible by logical or rational means.”
This interior world varies person to person, moment by moment, because it is a process, not a product. In other words, it is creative. The mystery of any true image, regardless of whether it is flower or not, is that its meaning is not stable, but fluctuates. “Unchanging knowledge is unchanging ignorance,” Adonis says, quoting the Sufi master al-Niffari. The transitory and fugitive beauty of a flower is particularly suited as symbol of this fluctuation. What makes an image capable of engaging our active, not passive, imagination, Corbin says, is that a symbol “is never ‘explained’ once and for all, but must be deciphered over and over again.” We never tire of flowers. We never tire of great poems or paintings because they bring something new to us each time we encounter them, news which is created in the act of perception itself. The knowledge we glean from this act is new because it is created anew, in the moment of interchange between perceived and preceptor. Unlike allegory, wherein the image is interpreted within an agreed upon frame, this way of seeing posits an expanding not limiting view of perception, a chemical or, should we say, alchemical exchange.
“When a plant receives this kind of communication, it begins altering the wavelengths its chemicals reflect in order to offer itself to your imaginal sight, for you to gather it,” we remember reading in Berssenbrugge’s poem. She finishes her poem with these two stanzas:
Through this method of your perception of its color, its fragrance, an infusion of its petals,
So, there is meaning in a chemical compound.
Color, fragrance, “an infusion of its petals” travel from one body into another body, via the senses, and chemically alter that body, changing it from within, what we might describe as the physics of perception. The flower image centers us, and, if we are practicing a particular kind of creative imagination, centers inside us. We can feel that kind of center inside our own bodies, perhaps in our own minds, the way focus begins and then grows exponentially out. Growth as a kind of petalling. Consciousness as a flower act. A dahlia. A spider mum. A rose. The movement back and forth between exterior image and interior one is what constitutes the visionary experience. Our “imaginal” or interior awareness of an image directly stimulates our psyche and we, in turn, urge more of the image to reveal itself, a perpetual movement toward shared meaning, what we might call the metaphysics of perception.
To see with one’s eyes closed is to see oneself as a place of apparition, to inhabit the geography of the imagination. The flower serves as a mandala, offering endless passageways into this geography…
The language of flowers, which is said to have originated in ancient Persia, and which devolved in Victorian England and Europe into a sentimental system of associations between specific plants and specific human feelings such as fidelity, sympathy, friendship, is, according to Corbin, a system of symbols that offered “unlimited possibilities to liturgical imagination as well as for rituals of meditation.” The flowers “evoke psychic reactions, which transmute the forms contemplated into energies corresponding to them,” he writes in his book Celestial Body, Spiritual Earth. The flower, in being seen, lights up or wakes up or enables us to see the flower in us, to see our own beauty, as it were, something we instinctively love. The form of the flower leads us to the experience of beauty, not the appreciation of it. It lures us, as it does the bee, into pollinating or quickening ourselves.
And where does this alchemy take place? If it is possible to speak of place when describing the processes of the imagination, it must be inside us. The Sufis located it in the heart, as Jalaluddin Rumi writes, in this translation by Corbin:
Before the apparition of a superhuman beauty,
The image, which attracts us with its intimation of something more than us, flowers from the earth, like a rose but not a rose, something that takes form in order for us to see it. Like the penumbra of light around a tree at dusk, it is both tree and not tree. At the same time, it is “like” something rising inside us. Char says of the double roses, “I see them from the heart, for my eyes are closed.” Berssenbrugge writes, “Even with eyes closed, I see flowers in the center of my sight.” To see with one’s eyes closed is to see oneself as a place of apparition, to inhabit the geography of the imagination. The flower serves as a mandala, offering endless passageways into this geography, a land that cannot be mapped because it is endless, though we can be sure that there are meadows in the vast realms established there.
It is this geography that Robert Duncan refers to in one of his most celebrated poems. Though the scene appears to him at first as if it were imaginary, he makes clear that it is rather an imaginal one, one that is created inside the body, located “near the heart,” and thus real. The poem’s lines begin with the title “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow”:
as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
that is a made place, created by light
The “eternal pasture folded in all thought” of which Duncan speaks has its twin in the real meadows and gardens we walk through and the bouquets we hold in our hands. Mid-summer, the flowers, large as soup bowls, small as thimbles of blown glass, their stamens chalky with purple-black pollen caking onto the petals, are the dominant species in the world. “The notion that spirit might turn out in some sense to be matter (and plant matter, no less!) is a threat to our sense of separateness and godliness. Spiritual knowledge comes from above or within, but surely not from plants. Christians have a name for someone who believes otherwise — pagan,” writes Michael Pollan in his book The Botany of Desire. The forms of flowers are perhaps the most perfect forms because we recognize in them forces that are already inherent in us. Perhaps this is the knowledge that drew Morris Graves, after his many attempts to depict the inner world through abstractions, to paint his winter still lives and summer bouquets, and why we, in turn, are drawn to them.
- Wolff, Theodore F. Morris Graves: Flower Paintings. with an introduction by John Yau. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994, n.p.
- Gordon, Robert and Andrew Forge. The Last Flowers of Manet. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Abradale Press/Abrams, 1999. 14.
- Marshak, Alexander. The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation. New York: McGraw Hill, 1972.
- Rilke, Rainer Maria. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage, 1984. 75.
- Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Trans. Jonathan Mayne. New York: Da Capo, 1984. 13.
- Mallarmé, Stéphane. “Crisis in Poetry.” Mallarmé: Selected Prose Poems, Essays, & Letters. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1956. 41.
- Blake, William. “The Sick Rose.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Fourth Edition. Eds. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, Jon Stallworthy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996. 680.
- Corbin, Henry. Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Princeton: Bollingen Series XC, Princeton University Press, 1969. 14.
- Novalis. Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia: Das Allgemeine Brouillon. Trans. David W. Wood. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2007. 13.
- Goldman, Judith and Leslie Scalapino, eds. “Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Leslie Scalapino.” War and Peace: Vision and Text. Oakland: O Books, 2009. 58.
- Goldman and Scalapino, eds. “Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Leslie Scalapino.” War and Peace: Vision and Text. Oakland: O Books, 2009. 63.
- Ko Un. Flowers of the Moment. Trans. Brother Anthony, Young-moo Kim and Gary Gach. Rochester, New York: BOA Editions, 2006. 11.
- Howell, Christopher. Dreamless and Possible: Poems New and Selected. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010. 6.
- Corbin, Henry. Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Princeton: Bollingen Series XC, Princeton University Press, 1969. 218.
- Corbin, Henry. Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Princeton: Bollingen Series XC, Princeton University Press, 1969. 14.
- Goldman and Scalapino, eds. “Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Leslie Scalapino.” War and Peace: Vision and Text. Oakland: O Books, 2009. 63.
- Corbin, Henry. Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Princeton: Bollingen Series XC, Princeton University Press, 1969. 171.
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