Beauty and Despair
It seems impossible to think about beauty without also thinking about despair. But maybe we shouldn’t talk about despair without thinking about beauty.
Take a look at this poem by Lia Purpura:
is ruthless, nothing
as simple as
loss being ruinous,
those undeniable rainbows
of oil, shock of bright
(in goldfinch, in lemon)
and now what,
if that beauty's
makes you keep looking
and disturbs your despair.
So here is beauty’s terrible plumage, as plucked from my garden one afternoon this week. I’m not saying these are extraordinary images, but I did have an extraordinary time photographing them. I don’t know, something just clicked. I really felt these flowers. And I think they felt me. Maybe it’s because I had a week of lesser and greater nights of insomnia, but it was a really emotional experience. When I was done I just set the camera down and felt like crying for a while. That feeling. Sort of beyond being able to weep even. I was just sitting with the beauty of the flowers and the news of the world and it was all too much and at the same time, this other thing: the aesthetic experience. And that’s how it is these days, everything all at once all the time.
Whenever I read a book and there is the mention of flowers, of course I dog-ear it. I recently read Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima translated by Geraldine Harcourt. It’s a short book, and I admire short books. It’s about a single mother who starts a new life in a new light-filled apartment after leaving her husband. But there’s so much quirkiness and darkness and poetry in the novel. There is a passage where she describes her daughter “tirelessly gathering flowers.”
“The roadsides on the way home from daycare alone yielded dandelions, sweet rocket, daisy fleabane, wood sorrel, wayside speedwell, nippleworts, white clover, shepherd’s purse – more flowers than two hands could carry.”
Her daughter pulls up the flowers so that soil and stones and litter are also pulled up along with them and they all go into a plastic bag together. There was the “ring pull of a juice can, a sweet wrapper. I would pick out the least wilted flowers and arrange them in a glass.”
“Thus flowers proliferated in the apartment also. To my daughter, flowers were a beautiful and strange life-form that, with each plucking, sprang up in greater abundance. She ran about like mad inside this life-form, and on walks with her I too found their profusion overwhelming.”
One day the mother and daughter get off the bus after daycare, and they spy some flowers down a slope. The child wants to go to them, but the mother doesn’t want her to go because it’s near water, down a slope, and dangerous. The child is persistent and the mother has to warn her:
“But look, there’s nobody down there. It’s off limits. And even if we could, it’s slippery among the flowers, and we’d go splash! The water is full of weeds, like snakes, they’ll grab us and hold us under till we’re dead. And even then we wouldn’t float back up, we’d turn to skeletons down among the slimy weeds. I bet the bottom is covered in people’s bones.”
Still the girl, is not deterred. Perhaps there is a monster that looks up from the bottom admiring the flowers. That works. Later, her daughter sees a view of flowers “overflowing.” She yells at them:
““Hey! You! Flowwwers!”
When she’d finished, I asked, “Did they answer?”
She nodded confidently.”
There’s a lot to “unpack” in this passage as the literary types might say. But that child’s eye view of the flowers, of beauty is interesting. She just wants to shove as much as she can into that plastic bag, even if it comes with bottle tops and dirt and other litter. Her mother makes sense of what she gathers, saving the least wilted ones in a jar.
And the child just knows that if you yell at the flowers, let’s say, at beauty, it will answer.
And this week I was too, and I wasn’t, but yes, I was.
So here’s to taking the wilted plumage and salvaging what we can, regardless of monsters and maybe because of them, and here’s to yelling at flowers, flowwwers! Here’s to disturbing despair and just yelling out for beauty, with confidence.