The temp at Smith & Hawken
had lips the color of the orchid
she wanted to sell me. The store
had thousands. New beauties
opened every day. I stared
at her coral mouth and bought
a phalaenopsis from Peru.
The instruction book said:
"An orchid needs very little."
I settled it on my bedside table
and misted it at night, fed it
premium bags of 30-10-10.
On weekends, I laved it
in a warm solution
of soap and water.
Her cup and saucer mouth
opened in the ecstatic "O"
of a soprano's held note,
silent, yet more companionable
than the clock radio
tuned to the classical station
to provide white noise.
The orchid gave me
a month of song.
O, Camille, my purchased flower!
Consumption took you early,
leaving only a stub in the soil
and a spent leaf drooping
over the rim of the pot like an arm
flung back over a red velvet pillow.
No good to return it to the store.
I covered her mortal remnant
with the leaves of a spider
plant. Some nights, I brush my hand
over it, thinking of the hum of strings
as the violins come up at a death
scene: first, gentle and trembling;
then, loud and unbearably mad.
The Old Couple
After the expulsion, their diction slackened.
Adam had stayed sharp in his job,
brainstorming brand names for animals.
Now, in retirement, he generalized about
how people were, what others wanted.
Eve, who had debated free will with the Devil,
contented herself with homilies.
"It's all for the best," she told Adam, who wasn't listening.
The language they'd used in their former place,
when each invented word rolled as sweet and fresh
as ripened fruit over the sensitive tongue,
became as mushy as tater-tots.
The only blessing in this indefiniteness
was losing the means of describing what was gone.
Switching between seasonal chores,
you can lose a tool the way you might forget
the word that finishes a thought. Scale
is one problem. What you clip is bigger
than what you clip with. More room
means more variety, but expansiveness
causes difficulties if you try to locate
your place among the postures of work.
Were you face down in the sensible ivy,
or tending the empyrean rose blooms?
Sometimes among the babble of plants
you encourage and restrict, you reach
for what you expected, yet grasp nothing.
The garden goes on blooming without you.
Scrub marked the out-of-bounds
in my development. Balls fouled
into snake country were counted lost.
Older kids told tales of serpents,
muscular as sailors' tattooed arms,
secret and fatal under the palmetto.
One strike could break your leg.
In the paralysis of a nightmare,
I watched as the diamondback
slid across my slackened limbs,
his slit eyes possessing mine,
his mouth gaping to show stiff fangs.
Only the grind of the bulldozers
crushing the wetlands into fairway
roused me from that poisoned sleep.
Dad paid greenbacks for our house.
I dressed in wingtips and carried irons.
One night at the club's curbed exit,
a rattler slid across my beams,
his belly rubbing the asphalt heat.
The long god had waited for me
at the edge of the trimmed lawn,
sharp head full of familiar venom.
When I rode my sedan across his back
he thumped like a ripe melon split
to its red pulp by a cleaver's stroke.
Yet - his destruction unmanned me.
I dream as both snake and sleeper.
Hands fixed to ribs, legs braided,
tongue tasting the night heat, I coil
at the side of the child who listened
for any rustling in the bed clothes.
I rise before him in my last strength.
He wakes to what he must murder.
The plant my predecessor left
has swollen to a distraction
as annoying as an out-of-place
comma. It has occupied
the sunnier areas of the room
and leafed out so enormously
my mahogany credenza,
constructed by prisoners
for cigarette money,
seems no more formidable
than a ruin in the jungle.
of my assigned space
among the hierarchy of offices
has shrunk my social stature
to a head-hunter's prize,
an effect paralleling my loss
of height - a natural process
for one my age the doctor
assures me - allowing
the plant to take liberties
with its branches, stroking
my bald spot like a wild
mothering animal ready
to nestle me beside her
in that disorderly forest
as I decrease to the size of a seed.
When the gardener
every effort at growth
and the crown inclines
to the repose of pampered age,
a tree needs less.
steadies the groomed
branch and roots clasp
the familiar soil. The season
that inspired disquiet
slips off like a bathrobe.
But the air
in the conservatory
carries the memory of seed.
Filaments probe unceasingly
for the crack
in the terracotta pot.
The tree in exile
unable to change form,
it knows form,
changes what form means.