In The End: Buttercups and Cockroaches

I was hiking a portion of the Long Trail the other day, Carlton Mountain, to be exact. It’s the penultimate segment of the Long Trail, just before Journey’s End, which is the final segment of the 272-mile footpath through Vermont. The Long Trail was built between 1910 and 1930 by The Green Mountain Club and was the model for The Appalachian Trail. In southern Vermont, the Long Trail and the Appalachian Trail overlap for about 100 miles. But for my hike of the day, I was up north, only a few miles from the Canadian border. Here are two scenes from the hike that I photographed:

Canada from Carleton Mountain, Vermont

Canada from Carleton Mountain, Vermont

Latitude - 45 degrees

Half way to the North Pole!

 

As I walked along in the peace of the northern woods, I was thinking about buttercups.

 

 

 

POEM:
In the End: Buttercups and Cockroaches

Buttercups are the cockroaches of flowers,
not because they are ugly. Buttercups
are beautiful. Look at a field left fallow
and you will see a million waving
droplets of the sun. In my garden
they creep in, one little blossom-burst
by one, and I begin to believe
in the beauty of their five petals,
tiny and perfect as though drawn
by a child. A maximum of wax permits
beads of dew to deepen their sheen.

Buttercups are like cockroaches, not
because they make group-based decisions,
deciding together where to live. As far
as I know, buttercups grow willy-nilly,
sprouting up without tap roots. Buttercups
are like cockroaches, not because you hold
a cockroach under someone’s chin
to see if she likes butter. Imagine –
holding a cockroach under a chin!
Buttercups are like cockroaches,
not due to the content of toxicity.
A cow that eats too many buttercups
will twitch its ears and lips, give bitter
milk, even convulse, and colic will erupt.
Buttercups are hardly the delicacy
that cockroaches can be.

Buttercups are the cockroaches of flowers:
they have survived for millennia, so hardy
so prolific, so potent in their reproduction.
When I see a buttercup, I yank it out
with the vigor I might use to kill
yet another cockroach in the kitchen.
But, usually, I only succeed in breaking
the long underground runner
of the buttercup. Its disappearance
a temporary deception of order,
as though I have control over anything.

ELEMENT:
Connotation

As I am sure you know, connotation is what a word implies and/or the emotional association that can accompany a word. It is what a word brings to a poem that is beyond the denotation found in the dictionary. Point of view, attitude, and significance are developed in a poem through connotation.

Thinking about the connotation of words gives deeper meaning to a poem, both while writing and while reading it. Why include certain words? What meanings do they convey? In the poem above, buttercup and cockroach both have strong connotations due to the cultural context in which we interact with each of them. Associated with buttercups are flowers, the sun, summer, and lushness, bucolic pastures even (but beware the cow, horse, sheep or pig that eats them!). With cockroaches, what comes to mind? Grime, filth, creepy, crawly, bugs. Reminders of additional meanings are included in the second stanza – the childhood practice of holding up the buttercup under a chin and the cockroach as being edible.

Connotation is why time must be taken in selecting which words to include in a poem, ensuring each word conveys not only the correct meaning of the word or image, but the tone and theme of the poem. Digging deeper into a word’s etymology can lead to even deeper meaning, double meaning, or additional meanings. This is why it is always important to write and read with a dictionary at your fingertips, and which lover of words doesn’t do this anyway?

Connotations change over time and can be personal as well. A word, such as farm, has different connotations for different people. For my father, it would be associated with a childhood filled with hours of hard labor; for my friend, while still filled with hard work, it is her home, where she raised her children, where she has chosen to live. For me, having grown up in the Midwest and now living in rural Vermont surrounded by farms, but never having to put in the years of grueling work (except for a couple of summers in high school), there is certainly a more romantic feeling associated with the word.

As mentioned at the website Pic-Lits, “Employing words with various denotations and connotations allows poets to:

1. Omit needless words
2. Build implicit ideas through multiple connotations
3. Be purposefully ambiguous in order to awaken the imagination of the reader.”

There is a good lesson plan about Connotation at this website.

In The Practice of Poetry, Writing Exercises by Poets Who Teach, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, there is another a very good writing exercise, “Cleave and Cleave” contributed by Carol Muske. The title is taken from Brenda Hillman’s poem of the same title, “which examines these words that sound and can be spelled the same, but have opposite meanings” (145). For the exercise that Muske explains, you think of two homonyms such as stone and stone or bear and bear and “think of an emotional situation in memory that these homonyms might speak to, then imagine yourself ‘encountering’ each of these words separately, in concrete examples…Then you bring both words together at the poem’s conclusion, like Hillman, who dramatized the words’ opposite meanings by ending with two strong sentences” (145).  This forces you to link the words at a more profound level.

By the end of the poem, “In The End. Buttercups and Cockroaches,” buttercups have transformed from “a million waving/droplets of the sun” to the source of twitching, convulsions, and colic. In the last stanza, words such as yank, breaking, disappearance, and deception all have negative connotations – and certainly reflect my feelings of lacking control.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):

Ok, so there is one more way that cockroaches and buttercups are the same: they both have songs about them, “Build Me Up Buttercup” and “La Cucaracha” (which, by the way, has hidden political meanings).  I used to think that they were pretty lame songs until I went searching for some videos to share and found these two great renditions.


Other related links:
Amazing Photos of Buttercups – keep scrolling down the page.
The Poison Plant Patch– Buttercups and Clematis – from Nova Scotia Museum. Side note: My dog ate my first two clematis, but then she also ate pieces of the wooden trellis each plant was supposed to be climbing. The plants are gone, the wood had to be replaced, the dog is fine.
Sections of the Long Trail

Follow-Up To Breathing

Lost in the responsibilities of teaching middle school, starting a new business, and my new duties as PSOV President, I didn’t realize four weeks have passed since my last post. I thought it had been two. That’s what happens when you don’t “show up” every day. Another lesson learned.  But in these four weeks I’ve been thinking…

In the beginning of February, I had the opportunity to snowshoe in the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado. After a couple hours of climbing at eleven thousand feet, a shift in perceptions occurs.

POEM:
Follow-Up To Breathing

Into Arapaho
I begin the ascension
on snowshoes:

James Peak
and the daily grind vie
for time. Tracks

lead under the water
pipe six feet around,
installed:

no efficiency in water
falls. Clambering
to a higher ground,

all the outside
leaches in through
porous skin:

sun, wind,
caribou scat, a bobcat’s
print, a mountain

chickadee’s flash
and dee-dee-dee
slice my thoughts.

With every step
closer to the crown,
blood pushes, pounds

to escape: my shirt
thumps, a panicked
heart shatters

this solitude,
this silence
that I sought.

My heartbeat echoes,
scatters clouds
from electric indigo.

Sweat seeps, visions
creep in then clear.
I lumber through

a tunnel of pines;
snow ghosts leap
from dancing boughs,

waft down, swirl
around my body.
Is it there? Trudging,

I appear in open
skies; pines’ shadows
blanket untouched snow.

Rainbow clouds ring
the cascading face.
A hawk scolds

in a sun of gold;
my breath:
wood smoke.

ELEMENT:
Eco-poetry

Eco-poetry is a relatively new term in literature that distinguishes itself from “nature poetry.” In eco-poetry, we take on a more sophisticated and complex view of nature, one in which we recognize that we are not above nature or separate from nature. In eco-poetry we don’t romanticize nature, but recognize that we are responsible for our role in it.  Here is a minute and 48 second introduction:

“Eco-poetry,” really, has been around as long as poetry itself. Songs, philosophizing, and story-telling – that is, relating to the world through words – are a deep part of who we are on this planet. Haven’t our interactions with the stars and oceans, blizzards and each other been recorded in poetry since we were capable of doing so?

One of the great “eco-poets” and by that I mean “poets,” is Joy Harjo. Read her book, How We Became Human. You’ll understand.

One of the shifts occurring with “eco-poetry” is the analysis of how we use language in our relationship to the natural world. Walt Whitman and and Emily Dickinson certainly wrote about their place in nature, and did so with very different methods. What impact did their styles have on their viewpoints of the world, and what impact did their viewpoints of the world have on their styles?

In the above poem, “Follow-Up To Breathing,” the short haiku-like stanzas found themselves on my page after much experimentation with the line break.  After getting down the basic descriptions of my experience in Arapahoe, I turned to the line. I tend to create lines of 6 to 10 syllables that are generally iambic. This wasn’t working so I lengthened them, almost doubling the length, making it twice as bad!

The lines were way too long and wordy for what happened up on that mountain – it wasn’t an experience that was so premeditated; it was an experience that came in spurts. As I climbed higher in elevation, little things were beginning to happen to me, and I worked at remembering the sensual experience of it, all those sights, sounds, smells, particular to those hours on that trail that day.  Short spurts of stanzas that mirrored the short spurts of sensual experiences were the natural selection for this poem.

Side note: Two of the best books regarding nature and “eco-poetry,” in my opinion, are John Elder’s Reading the Mountains of Home and Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth.  It took me a few starts to get through Elder’s book; in it he analyzes Frost’s “Directive” while traveling and exploring Vermont and reflecting on the link between past and present, nature and person, poetry and place. Only after attending a lecture by Paul Muldoon on Frost’s “Directive” was I able to go back and understand Reading the Mountains of Home. I have to admit though, I need all the help I can get when I comes to the analysis of anything.  As for The Song of the Earth, it is a book that I could read many times and get something more from it each time. Full of historical, cultural, and literary connections to ecology, the environment, and nature, the book provides a detailed overview of why poetry IS the song of the earth.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
What is Eco Poetry – a blog post from The Poetry Foundation
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry – an excellent anthology recommended by Tim Seibles
One of my go-to poems that tells me what a poem should/could be, from the above anthology: Down From the House of Magic, by Cyrus Cassells
Walt Whitman and the earth – A study of eco poetics
Conference on Ecopoetics, Berkeley – This just ended on Feb. 24, but is an annual conference held every February.
An Ecopoetry Anthology

Fib

Last night I saw Lincoln. This morning I cannot help but think of the horrors this country has wrought upon so many men, women, and children.  Lincoln had so much to overcome. And we have so much more to do.

POEM:
Fib

We,
one
nation
under gourd,
I mean ground, I mean
over, over the rainbow, o-

Pen the door and write the windows, sing the sky and play

the clouds up and down and in and out between the sheets and souls of all before, after,

intertwined as wisps of memory that snake in and curl like spirals of smoke we can never quite get rid of no matter how much we want

to pretend things didn’t happen; it’s all there, pungent and yellow under our fingernails, black lines of dirt settled in to the cracks of our palms, blood red in the whites of our eyes as we tie a ribbon around the old oak tree.

ELEMENT:
Fibonacci Sequence

Leonardo of Pisa, or Fibonacci as he came to be known, wrote a book in 1202 entitled Liber abaci (The Book of the Abacus). In it he discussed the breeding patterns of rabbits. From this discussion and the pattern that he explained, we have what is known as the Fibonacci sequence of numbers that describes a certain pattern of growth, a sequence found in nature.

Fibonacci pattern shown in a sunflower

The first two digits of the pattern are 0 and 1. The following digit is always the sum of the previous two. Therefore, the third number would be 1 (0+1), the fourth 2 (1+1), the fifth number 3 (2+1), the sixth number in the sequence is 5 (3 + 2) so that the pattern appears as 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, and so on and so on.

To me, what is amazing about the sequence isn’t its mathematics  (although that is pretty amazing as it is connected with, among other things I don’t understand, Pascal’s triangle, Euclid’s algorithm, and the golden ratio or ϕ). To me, what is amazing about the Fibonacci sequence is the visual expression of it in nature, including in the human body. As Lori Bailey Cunningham explains in her book, The Mandala, “to see an example of the ratio right now, just look at your hands. The lengths of the bones in your hands relate to the ratios in the first four numbers of the Fibonacci sequence” (178).  And that’s just the start of it. We’ve all seen Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing “Vitruvian Man” that he made over 500 years ago.

Proportions according to Fibonacci sequence

The proportions of this ideal man are based on geometry involving the Fibonacci sequence. In addition to examples from the proportions of our bodies, the Fibonacci sequence appears in many flowers such as sunflowers, dahlias, and chamomile as well as many fruits such as artichoke, pineapple and pinecones, and in other instances as diverse as the stems of trees, seashells, and hurricanes.

Fibonacci pattern shown in Hurricane Sandy

So what does this have to do with poetry? Believe it or not, the Fibonacci poem, or “Fib” is now an actual style of poem with a significant following. Websites, including the one below in “Related Links” have been created for the sole purpose of sharing Fibs. In these poems, the first six numbers in the sequence, less the starting point of zero (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8), are each given a syllable count in a line. This results in a compressed haiku-like poem of six lines with a total of 20 syllables.  Explore Muse Pie Press and you’ll see some spectacular little poems.

Fibonacci pattern in a seashell

But it’s also fun to push it a little further. Where does the poem lead when another line of 13 syllables is added, and then an additional sequence of 24 syllables, and then 55 syllables? Suddenly there are connections everywhere.

Related Links (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Fibonacci poems (Muse Pie Press)
The Mandala Book by Lori Bailey Cunningham – a great book about patterns in nature, all connected to the mandala, “an integrated structure organized around a unifying structure.”
Lincoln Movie: