Walking around Gambier last Thursday, I noticed that our irises had put out their fat purple buds. (There are irises--and peonies!--near where the dragon lives, too. Many more people are now watching out for the dragon, because it has become known that I am watching the dragon in this space. And so the watching has become complicated, and all the more intriguing. I suspect that I myself am being watched, or watched for, or something, and I know that I have acquired some new readers (hello!) because of my dragon-watching. And I make this digression because the dragon has vanished yet again, but this time, I can't help but suspect that there's an even more deliberate art to his disappearance than there might have been before. And what is a semester's end without intrigue? I am now more titillated by than downcast about his absence. We shall all wait in no small suspense.)
So. The irises.
By Saturday, the first blooms were appearing, but I was too busy couch-sleeping to document them for you. But today, I went to town--literally--and found you some flowers. My favorite of all the images:
Irises are my favorite flower, except for gerbera daisies, which are my favorite except for zinnias, which are my favorite except for snapdragons, which are my favorite except for coneflowers. What these all have in common is their big bizarreness: every one of them has something extravagant about it, even for flowers. You'll see all the others from me, in due time, because they're all going to start turning up here, particularly if I actually get my non-green thumb into action sometime early this summer and get some zinnias in the ground; they behave like weeds, so that three little plants will keep me in over-the-top bright blooms for the entire summer and half the fall semester. I'll stick with irises for now.
I'd never seen an iris before we moved to Indiana. We moved from suburban Buffalo to rural southern Indiana late one November. Somehow, my mother was able to get my great-grandmother's daffodils, which she'd uprooted from her beds in East Amherst and brought with us, into the ground promptly after we arrived, so that they could start coming up that spring in the back of the backyard, alongside our low stone wall. We knew what would come up where she'd planted, then. But we didn't know what else might appear; perennials in new properties are fun that way, as my Kentuckian friend is discovering to her delight these days, while her roses and irises bloom their magentas and indigos.
The secrets awaiting us were irises and lilies of the valley, of which we had a whole bed right behind our house. Lilies of the valley have a heady, heavenly scent. Irises, on the other hand, have no scent at all. But they have a particular profusion of petals like nothing else I know: curls up, curls down, furry polleny tongues, multiplicities of veiny colors and soft textures. They seem relatively unassuming when you first see their buds. And then, all of a sudden.
And I do mean all of a sudden. Ten years ago, near the end of my year in England, I was exclaiming over the irises we were about to have lining a long section of my walk home from the library. I had been in exile from irises for some eight years, since our departure from our first Indiana home. (We moved into a new construction, at the newest edge of a subdivision built on an old farm. There were no perennials in our vanguard, no surprises in the spring of 1989.) Kenyon always had a profusion of iris buds when I left campus at the end of spring finals, but I never saw them bloom until the year I graduated. I can trace the warming of our climate by the two-week creep that has happened in the past decade: the flowers that I could count on only at the very end of April were in full force by mid-month this year, and the irises I never saw as a student I am getting to relish well before commencement. And so seeing all of these iris buds in Exeter was terrifically exciting: they were obviously going to bloom within days, and I would get to walk past them and around them and beside them multiple times every day, simply in the course of getting to and from my studying for exams.
One Saturday night, as I walked home with the person to whom I had devoted my eager heart months earlier (he was starting to get the hint) (I have such a history this way--tenacious and single-minded in all things that matter to me), I came upon an iris stem that had snapped (or, more likely, had somehow been snapped). I took this opportunity to snag the tight-budded stalk for myself, feeling deeply transgressive as I rationalized my way back to my flat.
One more bit of backstory: during my first year at Kenyon, I strolled out one April evening with my then-somebody and came back with three daffodils we had picked outside a college building. "Oh my God!" someone exclaimed when we walked into my dorm. "Didn't you know they'll fine you like $50 apiece for cutting the flowers?" I had no idea. I looked at my $150 bouquet of daffodils and hoped that my dormmate was exaggerating in the usual freshman way.
I was fairly certain that a similar fine would be threatened at me by someone (who? someone. just someone.) if I was caught bearing this single iris stem, even in the deep blue late-May English dusk. I hurried the stem into my room and put it in a glass and watched it lovingly for the next twenty-four hours, when I could take breaks from making index cards and rereading nineteenth-century texts, in preparation for the upcoming week's exams. And then, Sunday evening, while I was out of my room for just a few minutes--checking my e-mail down the road, I think, or asking a friend a question about something exam-related--the iris bloomed. It had been on the brink of blooming for so many hours, and then suddenly it went, opened, unfurled, transformed, became itself, became the self it had been all along, packed together so tightly and carefully and simply. It was so lovely that I took pictures. And now I have taken a picture of my picture, because it's in my album from that year and scanning would be too much of a project. It's a bizarrely cropped image because I took it at an angle, in order to keep the flash from reflecting right into the image, and because I didn't want to cut out all the things that are so telling to me about this picture. Look, and then I'll tell:
Here's what's funny to me: in this picture are many things about which you've already heard from me, or about which you're going to hear in the near future. At the left is the edge of my photograph of the tree with the lights in it, about which I told you back in December. And just underneath it is one of the wallsful of quotes I had hanging all around me throughout college; that one is from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and it's entirely probable that it's the passage about the tree with the lights in it. The index cards behind the flower are all things that I had hung up to help me think about my nineteenth-century examination. The one whose writing I can most clearly make out is the bottom left: "SEXUAL DISTINCTION IS...ARBITRARY," a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman to which I draw my students' attention every fall.
At the top center of the image is my favorite end-of-roll knock-off photo of all time, a flashless picture I had taken of Auguste Rodin's "La Cathédrale," one of my favorite sculptures of all time, at the Rodin Museum in Paris that March. (I should perhaps clarify that I hadn't known "The Cathedral" before I went to the Rodin Museum. It was one of those breath-catching encounters, and I was plainly and simply thrilled when my camera turned out to have caught what I saw and loved.) That picture still hangs in my house, though now in an enlarged and framed version. I'm giving you someone else's rendition of the sculpture here, though, so that you can actually see it properly--no photograph of a photograph will do this one justice.
To the left of that photograph is a sheet of paper bearing the lyrics to my favorite song by Over the Rhine, a Cincinnati-based band that had just come back onto my radar, after a couple of years away, because of this person with whom I was smitten. (For the song whose lyrics are on the wall, go here and listen to the sample of "Eyes Wide Open.") And guess whom I've just booked a ticket to see in concert--I'm talking, just booked the ticket three hours ago. Over the Rhine, opening for none other than... Hem. Yes. I have wanted to see Over the Rhine in concert ever since I missed the show they played at Kenyon in fall 1993; I missed it because of a combination of stress-related digestive mess and overwork, the two things that I have spent much of the past thirteen years trying to militate against (particularly in combination with one another). And you all know how I've been wanting to see Hem. To have them just have announced dates when they'll appear together, within reach of me? A small gift from somewhere.
My point this evening, if point there is: it would seem to be the case that I am now who I always was, right down to the things with which I surround myself. Where I once had just the bulletin board in my English flat for tacking up my favorite passages and pictures, the raw material of ramblings and musings to come, I now have this Cabinet. I can't help but turn to the analogy that's begging its cheesy heart out to be made here. It would seem to be the case that I, not unlike these irises I watch for every year, had all these things curled up in myself in impossibly neat order and compact relation, all waiting for the moment when I turned my back for just a split-second. And in that moment--you know, the split-second in which I went to graduate school, wrote a dissertation, started a job, and finally started settling in to my life--in that blink of an eye, what was packed tight seems to have unfurled, dropped, started shaping itself into just what I hoped it would all be. And now that I've turned back, I continue to stand and stare, eyes wide open, smiling all to myself and savoring signs of what's in store.
source for tonight's Rodin image: Vasco Guerra's tribute to Rodin. Also: usually I figure on your getting my allusions, but Over the Rhine has never had the national audience it should have had, and it's nearly impossible to get their debut album Till We Have Faces, and so I'll tell you--lest anyone should discover this on his/her own and think I'm just trying to rip them off--that my last line here is a composite of my favorite OTR lyrics, from my two favorite songs of theirs--"Eyes Wide Open" and "I've Been Slipping," a song from their second album. "I've Been Slipping" also features the lines "I've been climbing branches and vines / Gathering leaves for long festoons," which I've always loved. Also "I've been busy gathering wood / Hoping our fire will burn all the more." You all know I'm a sap. You've known this for months, if not much longer. And as sappy songs go, this one's terrific. In fact, I'm going to go listen to it right now.