Western Elegies IV: The Loves of the Plants

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Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam …

You who walk in hot winds that blow from the Indian Ocean
Three thousand miles from the snows that crown my delectable mountains,
Parched palm to my fir, the icebound dreamer of Heine,
Let us produce variation on a theme that Heine created;
(For why should poets not use the licence allowed to composers?)
Let us be bold, my heart, on the theme of the palm and the fir-tree,
Of two trees rooted apart who long from afar for each other.

First variation: There grows a china pear in my garden;
Every springtime before the last of the frosts have departed,
I watch it falling in love by the ancient custom of pear-trees.
Naked it stood all winter, holding its breath and extending
The gun-metal gloss of its limbs in the gesture of prayer towards heaven;
Now it grows green at each tip, along every twig till one morning,
Sudden, the ecstasy breaks from every bud of its being,
The whole tree aspiring breathless in the bridal white of its blossom,
Waiting for consummation which only the bees can bring it.
Only the bees, my heart, in love with its nectar and pollen,
Though they are neuters themselves, unable to feel that fruition,
Can bring to blind, rooted plants love’s fulfilment by proxy.
Although, like them, we are parted by implacable orders of distance,
Think how lucky we are not to need go-between from the insects!

Next variation: Consider the sacred bo-tree, the gingko,
Gingko biloba, the maiden hair-tree as we foolishly call it
Since no hairdresser has yet achieved the fanfares of its foliage
Nor any maiden can match the pubic splay of its leafage.
Gingko biloba, my heart, an older venture of Nature,
Belongs to an archaic world where love was a random excursion,
Pollen let loose on the wind with anyone’s guess where it landed.
How far away from the human it seems, that sexual lottery!
And yet there is just one trait that links this plant with the human:
Unlike all higher plant species, it has motile spermatazoa,
Which swim through a duct, like ours, to fulfil what love had intended.

Third variation: (and let us make this enough for the moment)
The lowliest plants of all, although like us they are mobile,
Sometimes unite with each other, though why they merge is a riddle.
Love, for this order of life, is a process of binary fission,
And, when its lightning strikes, they divide one half from the other
And each goes its solitary way unaware they were ever united.
Let us rejoice at least in the miracle of meiosis
By which we escape their bacterial love-as-divorcement;
Be glad, too, not to inherit the opposite paradox, unions
Like the hermaphroditic gynandrous love of the orchids
And all other loves of the plants as sung by Erasmus Darwin.
Though we pride ourselves on our feet and boast of our power of movement,
We are just as earthbound as trees; though we scuttle about on our planet,
We are rooted in custom as deep as they in their soils and their climates;
With as little hope of uniting as Heine’s fir and his palm-tree;
For the bees that visit my pear-tree cannot carry my love to your garden
And the wind from your west will not bless your pistillate gingko with pollen
Since it blows towards the Pacific to our dioecious frustration
And the metaphor of those lowliest forms of the vegetable kingdom
Lead us only, alas, to the loneliness of their limbo.

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