Saturday, March 17, 2012

Early Magnolia

We returned to Kansas City after dark on Monday. After a brief sojourn to the Florida panhandle I was shocked to discover that spring had arrived. In the dim glow of street lights I discerned--flowers in the trees. The Bradford Pear. And the magnolias.
Magnolias are perhaps my favorite trees. Magnolias of all kinds, though different strains of appeal to different parts of my soul. My summer soul loves the dark, rich rooms of the southern evergreen magnolia, with their heavy atmosphere and the regal stillness of their white petals.
But my spring soul, my joyful-after-midwest-winter soul loves the tulip magnolia.
When I was an undergraduate in Chicago there were two venerable specimens outside of the English department windows. They always seemed to be in full, exuberant bloom during finals week when I was surviving (or not) off ramen noodles and no sleep. As I wandered around campus with my Norton Anthology of Whatnot, mumbling Shakespeare or Spenser or Milton and trying to wrap my dim mind around Courtly Love or Incarnational language--there were the magnolias: quiet, lovely, untroubled by term papers or post-structural theory.
The magnolias--so brief. They hardly last a week in the best years. This year, so hot, was not the best year. The magnolias opened early and are dropping early. I saw them open for the first time in the darkness three days ago, and already the petals pool under the branches, turn brown when crushed.
The magnolias--so brief. I almost didn't want to look at them. Surely it would be easier to ignore their beauty, then I wouldn't suffer the loss of the beauty. I feel this way about so many things: babies, rain storms. Too difficult to stop and watch the beautiful thing. To difficult to see it.
"Humankind cannot bear too much reality," said T.S. Elliot. But what people don't understand, is that he wasn't talking about the suffering of children, natural disasters. He was talking about beauty. We cannot bear it.

Or George Eliot: "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence." We cannot bear it.
Watching the magnolias this spring reminded me of a poem I wrote a few years ago. It's really about the southern magnolia, but perhaps appropriate here as well.

My Magnolia

White within the shadow tree,

you open whole into a cool room,

your windows widen from the bud.

Magnolia, you never break—

no shards. Your pane will melt

like rain upon the autumn yard.

Magnolia, you never cry, your eyes open dry.

Your mouth is mute without a tongue

while choirs of mockingbirds lament.

Magnolia, you never sing,

your music is the odor,

oil between the branches.

Magnolia, you never stain, your pain

is only shadow turning blue.

Your skin will never tear.

My magnolia, the lips that hold you

only loosen

and let go.

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