for Natalia Belén Guadarrama Nicosia (August 29, 2009)
In English its name is the hidden jewel. Found
in 1947 by a poor woodsman in a forest near Nagasaki,
not so far from where the bomb fell
and not so long after, it is the only wild japonica
that is red, edged in white. Adding to its beauty,
its growth is vigorous, though its habit is weeping.
To see it, imagine a flower of red fire giving off white smoke.
Or a duster of cerise feathers edged in chalk,
meant only for small hands. Imagine a cloisonné cup
of red enamel and mother of pearl—something given
by someone believed to be lost, something precious,
if only to you, now returned. Imagine a beautiful bell
Jitsu-getsu-sei (the sun, the moon, and the stars)
camellia japonica var. ‘Higo’
Favored by Samurai who believed
as much in the cultivation of beauty
as in the art of war,
the Higo has never caught on in America.
The center of its flower is a sunburst
of hundreds of golden stamens, perfectly formed.
But the single petals are small and misshapen.
Rather than shun the flowers for their flaw,
the Samurai saw the distorted petals as a reinforcement
of the perfection in the flower’s heart.
Hundreds of years before I planted Jitsu-getsu-sei
in my garden, they wrote poems to its ancestors,
and planted rootings of these Higos
by the graves of friends and lovers.
It is one of the few camellias that drops its aging flowers
cleanly from the branch onto the earth,
each fallen blossom a spirit’s face looking back
at its body, but without any unsightly clinging
to what is already lost.
Punica granatum ‘Wonderful’
In freak cold snaps, gusts of arctic air
brown the white japonicas, ruining them
like fine white linen used thoughtlessly
to wipe up a spill of tea. On those days,
even the southern gardener must look to the dormant
plants that promise, rather than display, beauty.
Look at the pomegranate tree—naked,
leafless—a bouquet of long gray twigs fanning
up from the mulch. Look closer. See
those pale green nubs every few inches
swelling from the smooth bark? Look inside
them, and believe—in a way you would never allow
yourself when it comes to your own promise—
that come Spring, a fringe of green leaves will grace
these limbs, and then more than a hundred
flame-orange flowers, as if there is no end.
And come Fall, when the japonica buds are swelling
with new blooms, this pomegranate will be heavy
with fruit that the first cold night will split, offering
their deep sweetness to your hands like casks
filled with garnets, their flesh to your lips like a wineskin.
Daniel Nathan Terry is the author of four books of poetry: City of Starlings (forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015); Waxwings (Lethe Press, 2012); Capturing the Dead (NFSPS Press, 2008), which won The 2007 Stevens Prize; and a chapbook, Days of Dark Miracles (Seven Kitchens Press, 2011), which was a finalist for the Robin Becker Prize. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in many journals, including Cimarron Review, The Greensboro Review, and New South. He lives in Wilmington, NC, with his husband, artist Benjamin Billingsley. Daniel is currently completing two novels: The Guardian (a YA Queer version of the myth of Eden) and Never Go (a Southern Gothic set in a plantation very like Drayton Hall in South Carolina, near the town Daniel was raised in).
Q: Japan has gifted Carolina gardens with lovely camellias, as you’ve written. What native plant is your favorite, and why?
A: And I have about 80 camellia cultivars in our garden here. Native plant? There are so very many that I love and look for. I suppose if I had to choose, it would have to be the Live Oak. I think of them as a higher life–they are certainly longer lived than any human, and I mean by many centuries. The ones at Drayton Hall (where my new novel, Never Go, is set) are my favorites. They struck me mute the first time I encountered them. They also feature prominently in my poetry–in fact, in my third full-length collection of poetry, City of Starlings (forthcoming from the wonderful Sibling Rivalry Press), they are in so many of the poems. I think it’s their age, what they’ve been witness to, the way they reach out rather than up, as if they love the earth more than the sky. I love them. True story–when we moved from Greensboro to the Cape Fear River basin and looked for a house, Benjamin gave the realtor two requirements for our new home: it had to be under $80,000, and it had to have an extra room that he could use as his painting and printmaking studio. My two requirements? The lot the house was on needed enough room for a camellia “forest,” and it had to have a Live Oak that was at least 100 years old. The realtor thought I was kidding, He said no one buys a house because of a tree. He soon found out that he was mistaken. And so we share our lives with a grand Live Oak at the foot of our garden.
Q: What do you hear on first waking at your house?
A: The dogs. They are still on my old landscaping schedule, and they like to get rolling by 5 a.m. My husband and I don’t mind, as we like to get to work on our art (he is a wonderful painter and printmaker) before the hood wakes. Over the summer, as I was dealing with my second of what will be three spinal fusions, I barely slept due to the pain. Then, I rose before the house and went into the garden in the pre-dawn to get some peace through beauty. It was like clockwork, the songs of others from 2 a.m. until after sunrise: first the Whippoorwill, then the Mockingbirds, then the rooster down the road, then the Cardinals, the Robins, the Wrens, and the Cicadas. Wonderful cacophony of need and desire. I miss it now that fall’s come.
Q: The pomegranate as the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge – what argues for that fruit in place of the apple?
A: Well, Val, I think you know I was a working horticulturist for many years, until I had to give it up, due to a lumbar spinal fusion, nine years ago. You may not know that I was also raised by a Missionary Baptist minister and his wife, my mother who is, like her mother before her a bit of a pagan-Christian. Also, my first novel, The Guardian, (as yet un-submitted, but only in need of a bit of rewriting to get it out there, which I am doing now) dealt with that. The novel is a re-imagined, gay version of the story of the First Family in The Garden, Eve’s heroic actions to defy God for the good of man, and Cain and Abel’s (who is gay and is the object of unrequited love from his Guardian Angel, Ashurel) war. So, I do have a take on the “fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.” I think it was meant to be the pomegranate. Think about how complex, hidden, difficult it is to truly understand and accept the knowledge of good and evil. The pomegranate could not be a more beautiful and difficult fruit: Its juice is like blood-wine. Its flesh is a maze of capsules and seeds. You have to work to eat it, to gain its sweetness and nutrition. And the flowers are as red-orange and bright as a fire is. I think the confusion, the reason so many argue for the apple, is really just the influence of Greek and Roman mythology upon Biblical mythology, but it is also a simple error in language–people confuse the botanical name for apple (Malus) with the word for evil or bad–Malice (or in Latin Malum). This confusion stems from the belief that Eve’s Fall from Grace was a bad thing for man. I don’t see it that way. What good is innocence and ignorance? How do either do or give anything worthwhile to our species?