Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What Does Queen Anne’s Lace Look Like in the Fall?

This fall, I’ve been especially enjoying the dried, curling umbels of Queen Anne’s lace, and literature has helped.

You know Queen Anne’s lace—it’s a long-ago invader from Europe that’s now a common wildflower. Also called “wild carrot,” it is indeed in the carrot-parsnip-parsley-fennel-dill-anise-celery-caraway-coriander-cumin family, the Apiaceae, which used to be called the Umbelliferae (for its type of flower cluster, called an umbel, which has the same root as our word umbrella). I’ve written about the Apiaceae before—remember pretty little harbinger of spring?

Anyway, it should come as no surprise to you that I’ve already begun reading the third of Edwin Way Teale’s “American Seasons” volumes, Autumn across America. (Click here for my posts on Teale, including the spring and summer volumes.)

At the beginning of the third chapter, he quite poetically describes the look of Queen Anne’s lace in the fall: “Now along that road Queen Anne’s lace was going to seed, balling up like fingers closing into a fist.” Here, and in so many places in his writings, you can tell he had studied the great poets of our language—indeed, his bachelor’s degree was in English, and he had apparently taught that subject at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas.

“Balling up like fingers closing into a fist.” What a great metaphor! I think I would have characterized them as delicate little baskets full of sticktights!

At the end of chapter 8, Teale reveals a moment of “autumn sadness”; he has been quietly watching migrating plovers over a pond that he recalled from his youth:

Perhaps it was a plaintive recurring note in the killdeer’s call. . . . Perhaps it was the faraway, lonely, nostalgic sound of the train whistle. Perhaps it was the singing of the September insects, that dry orchestral music that carries like an overtone the thought of swiftly passing life. Perhaps it was compounded of all of them—this wave of autumn sadness that enveloped me.

In a day, a week, a month at most, the plovers would move on. . . . And nature—absorbed with species and averages, not with individuals—cares but little whether these birds return again. All the insects singing in the grass, all the leaves still spread to the sunshine, all the dusty annuals and the waning flowers—they were all living their last days and the end was moving swiftly toward them. Life would come again in the spring—but not this life, not to these flowers, not to these leaves, not to these crickets and grasshoppers.

(Fortunately, Teale soon witnesses something that, upon reflection, offered an antidote to his melancholy.)

. . . And then, ohh, I was recently feeling all artsy-fartsy while sitting at a fashionable Columbia coffee shop reading poetry from a book that I got for free. It was free because of a shipping accident. (When poetry comes to you like that, out of the blue, you’d better read it, because you were probably meant to have it.)

And so, because I got it for free, I’m going to share a poem out of it for free (at least, until someone tells me to get it the hell off my website, since I haven’t sought permission). (But maybe this counts as a review of sorts, and a glowing one at that, so perhaps my treachery will be forgiven.)

The book is called Inverted Fire, and the poet is Alice Friman. She was born in New York but is lucky enough to have lived in the Midwest! The volume was published in 1997 by BkMk Press of the University of Missouri–Kansas City, and I strongly recommend finding a copy for yourself. Alice Friman’s website is here. She is quite accomplished; her ninth poetry collection is being published this year. I love her poems.

More than a few poems in Inverted Fire are about autumn, and naturally that reminds me of a friend of mine who died last year, who was herself a gifted, accomplished poet, and she loved autumn the best.

This poem is on page 13 of Inverted Fire. It’s delicately unified in a circular pattern reminiscent of the flowering, seeding umbel itself, and the images are carefully interwoven, like the lacy patterns of the flower. When you read it, you’ll quickly understand why I’ve been thinking so much about Queen Anne’s lace this fall, for you see I, too, was born in the autumn, and I share the poet’s view that one’s season of birth influences one’s perspective . . .

Letter to the Children

In the new cold of late September
the prongs of Queen Anne’s lace that held
their doilies up like jewels
rise then stiffen, crushing toward center,
making wooden enclosures to die in
like the ones the Celts built to hold their enemies
then set aflame. The goldenrod leans,
licks at their cages. And all that’s left of daisies
are burnt-out eyes.

I walk these back fields
past the swish of cattails in their silver
grasses, the old ones
showing the woolly lining of their suede jackets
while the thistle, dried to gray,
bends her trembling head
and spills her seed.

It is the time—the great lying-in of Autumn—
and I am walking its wards.
And I remember it was now, late September
then on into the deep gully of fall—when the hackberry
groans and the black oak strains in its sockets, the winds
pushing in the long forest corridors—
that I too was born and gave birth.

And you are all Autumn’s children, all
given to sadness amid great stirrings
for you were rocked to sleep in the knowledge
of loss and saw in the reflection outside your window,
beyond the bars of your reach, your own face
beckoning from the burning promise
that little by little disappeared. What can I give you
for your birthdays this year, you who are the match
and the flaming jewel, whose birthright consumes itself
in the face of your desire?

(Copyright 1997 by Alice Friman)

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