Tulips: First Drafts, 2009

That Ricky Ian Gordon was a songwriter should not have surprised me. I found this poem in my morning e-mail yesterday and loved it somehow, in part, I’m sure because wonderful poems that perform such delicate rhythm and rhyme games are not so easy to find, even though Frost used to say–I think!–that writing poems without rhyme was like playing tennis without a net. Most poets, or so it seems to someone who isn’t one, don’t imprison themselves with such formalistic silliness.

Anyway, Ricky Ian Gordon, who’s a gifted songwriter, I’m told, sticks delightfully with both standard rythym and rhyme through this wonderful little saga.

The Tulips by Ricky Ian Gordon

The tulips at that perfect place
crane their necks with liquid grace
like swans who circling, collide
within the lake this vase provides.

They stood like soldiers, stiff, before
as if they had been called to war.
In two days more, when petals fall,
I will entomb them in the hall

with trash; the morning’s coffee grinds,
old newspapers, and lemon rinds.
It’s bitter that such loveliness
should come to this,could come to this.

The first two lines make it clear that this piece of writing is quite self-consciously traditional. What follows immediately suggests that Mr. Gordon is conscious not only of rhyming rules but of fooling around with those rules as well: collide and provides are no perfect match, but as entertained as I am by the first four lines, I really don’t care if he chooses to fudge a little. I’m in.

I don’t quite see collide, however, as if a flock of swans–or is it a gaggle–run into each other mysteriously? Yet, where they are is a "perfect place?" Takes a better interpreter than I am to create the image. No matter. Like I said, I’m in.

What’s clear is that he’s toying with ye olde trope of ubi sunt–"where have all the flowers gone?"–because they are dying, sadly enough, those passionate purple tulips, as all tulips do, and flowers, and, well, all things.

And it is, to him, just as sad as it was to poets forever–that beauty’s stay is so momentary–bitter, he calls it. And it is.

And he hammers that bitterness home with the last two lines: "should come to this/ could come to this," two lines which deliberately alter the rhythm and then, as if that weren’t enough, jam the rhyme into our sadness by pointed repititition.

Okay, I admit it: I’m loving the music. On we go.

But now their purpleness ignites
the room with incandescent lights.
Their stamens reach their yellow tongues
to lick the air into their lungs
through stems attached to whitish manes.
The pistil stains.

But they’re not dying yet–there’s relief in that fact for all of us; so let’s gather the tulips while we may and make some hay while the sun shines. Good night, they’re bright, he claims, as tulips are, and hearty too. Maybe I’m wrong or shouldn’t say it, but there’s a little Georgia O’Keefe here. He’s messing around just like she did, suggesting some swelling human passion with all those stamens and stems, all of which means he can’t bring himself to quit this passionate madness in just four lines–this one has five. Maybe I’m just a dirty old man–old for sure.

And even though there are no bees
about the room for them to please,
I take them in like honey dew-and buzzing now,
I think of you…

The honey dew escapes me, but the playful suggestion that he’s a honey bee is sweet and comical, and in line with just about everything anybody knows about love poetry’s traditional overstatement. In love, most of us are downright fools. Why not bees? Sure.

And with the last line–"I think of you"–we know exactly where we’re at–this is plain old heart-melting love poetry. Sure, now bring it on home, Mr. Gordon, I’m saying.

And then this:

I think of you who bought me these,
at least,
I wish you had,
as that might ease the ache
of passing hours.
A love is dying, like these flowers.

Aw, rats. He’s woven a world that’s blessedly cartoonish, only to blow it away in a single line–"I wish you had."

Just like that we’re helplessly back in real time, the incandescene of those passionate purple tulips dimming by the minute, the lover somewhere gone out the door, the world in seething, solitary silence.

And yet he can’t help himself, so he ends with these flowers, dying though they may be, which is to say, I think, at least we had ’em, didn’t we? At least they were here for awhile. At least we got a glimpse, however fleeting, of what joy is.

There isn’t a darn thing new about this poem. Some undergrad could put together a collection of great poems of all time with an identical theme. Identical.

But it is dear, as are all of its ancestors. Willa Cather used to say that there’s only a couple of stories around; we just keep telling them over and over and over.

We’re like children that way, I guess. And that’s not all bad. And there’s something to the music, too.

– J.C. Schaap, First Drafts, December 15, 2009