Autobiographical: Another Draft by Jacqueline Osherow
It looked like a fifties-movie version
of a mutant life form on a distant planet—
but I adored it with a needy passion,
called it my botanical Halley’s Comet
since it would only bloom one day a year
or so the owner claimed when I sublet.
I’d prayed the bloom would come while I was there.
I’d work in New York—double shifts four days—
and then, for the next ten, would disappear
to write myself out of my malaise.
(Then, I’d have told you a long narrative,
but really it was just a basic case
of more or less unrequited love.)
My friends thought I was crazy, just to go
where I knew no one, to try to live;
I’d seen it in the Voice: sublet in Brattleboro—
two hundred dollars a month, walk to train…
a hillside and a river out the window.
I’d probably make the same choice again.
In any case, the blossom didn’t come
which to me seemed perfectly in tune
with my own inanimate momentum.
Every passing minute was out of whack;
Where would a flower find the space to bloom?
Don’t misunderstand me. I wasn’t sick;
I tried to write, would distract myself with a novel
(Willa Cather, I remember, The Song of the Lark)
but I lived for the mail’s pointless arrival,
not that I didn’t know the thing was hopeless
but I just couldn’t make my hope unravel
or move myself to want anything else.
I’d drag myself to the library for more Cather:
O Pioneers! My Ántonia, The Professor’s House,
one novel and then another and then another.
I think, once, I read three in one day—
nothing worked out for those people either—
and for quite a while I just went on that way:
proofreading graveyard every two weeks
after copyediting (a biweekly) during the day.
I tried out bits of poems, read more books;
The Raj Quartet (I’d finished all of Cather),
checked eight, nine times a morning in my mailbox
and then one evening it was simply there,
had been there, probably all day,
so subtle and pervasive I was unaware
of its idiosyncratic company.
I half-thought it rose up off the page
from the hills of India—at least as likely
as my having just missed the entourage
of a furtive giantess, whose parting gift—
a gargantuan, over-the-top corsage—
had lured its whitish purples off a snowdrift
just before (or was it after?) sun had set.
I was beside myself, utterly bereft
when, racing to the back room, I caught sight of it
(by then, the scent had literally exploded
and I finally understood the bloom was out)
my squandered blossom…I’d been defrauded…
surely there were warning signs I’d missed…
why had I left it so long unattended?
Those sweet tentative phases gone unwitnessed.
When had the bud shed its green disguise?
More than half its day probably passed.
For as long as I could I wouldn’t blink my eyes
but then it seemed absurd just to stand there.
What could I do but go about my business?
I went and brought my book, my reading chair
and sat down reading, I and the blossom
a mismatched but companionable pair,
my breath a medium for its perfume.
Maybe—I’m not sure—I even took a look
at an on-again, off-again poem;
I put one from those days in my first book.
We could say I began it that same night
but that would obscure the flower’s more basic magic.
It wasn’t what I did or didn’t write
but rather that, albeit trumped-up or random,
I did have business to go about
or maybe that I, too, didn’t have much time,
my one day a year was partly over.
I also ought to wear it as a diadem,
to cut myself away from what could never
right itself or make a start;
I took on faith what I would soon discover:
that it’s a spacious place, a person’s heart
and with that, gold was instantaneous:
a single branch at first, brazen, a flirt,
leaving telltale jewelry in the grass,
then deeper golds, gold-oranges, orange-reds
until it seemed as if some senile cosmos
had purged itself of all its perseids—
hillsides of vermillion fallen stars.
I saw them all as my blossom’s hybrids
and their obliging gold stayed on for years.
I don’t think I was sad for an entire decade.
Who had time? I had three daughters.
Besides, I was working on a method
to say just what I meant and make it rhyme.
I knew for a fact that life is good,
and started a celebratory poem
that would make this knowledge wholly clear—
but it turns out that, beneath it, all this time
(I’ve written drafts and drafts, year after year)
each line was bracing (what did I know
and who, I’m wondering, did I think would hear?)
to ask the question: where’s that flower now?
When will it bloom again and get me out of this?
All this time, I was racing toward a sorrow
(it turns out, there are troubles worse than numbness,
than escaping to novels in a quiet room)
that would prove entirely impervious
to even the most vehement perfume.
Please don’t, reader, press me for details.
Let’s just say I’ve lost my equilibrium,
and am trying to maneuver through the shambles
to find solace for my three bewildered girls.
Those sad Vermont months spent reading novels
now seem to me like vanished pastorals.
There’s bitterness in learning how to live
and my elaborate series of deferrals
has proved itself supremely ineffective.
I could make excuses; I have lost my way,
but there’s no fixed route when you’re a fugitive;
besides, I’ve got three girls. I have to stay
at least within striking distance of where I am,
wherever exactly that is. Things give way
and we’re left to a long, uncertain interim.
Still, it wouldn’t be accurate to say
I’ve been unlucky. I’ve had lots of time.
Some things blossom only for a day.
This poem comes from Jacqueline Osherow’s book Whitethorn.
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