Outside my window on this rainy, cold day — bare branches and a few scattered evergreens against a gray sky. I have one of those lamps with the energy light that’s supposed to make sunny weather people feel better on dreary winter days. I’m waiting for it to work. Meanwhile, I have starfish on my window sill, a painting of a favorite hillside on St. Thomas perched above a perfectly blue sea, and a treasure trove of photos from warm places. Today, I’ve been looking at flowers of the Caribbean and reading poetry from around the world. Here are a few favorites:
“Each white blossom/on a dangle of white flowers holds one green seed –/a new life. Also each blossom on a dangle of flowers/holds a flask/of fragrance called Heaven, which is never sealed.” ~Mary Oliver, from “Honey Locust”
The poet refers to the blossoms of the honey locust tree. I think of frangipani. Frangipani is most familiar in white and yellow, but the closer you get to the equator, the more colors you find. The Virgins, at just 18 degrees north of the equator, have flowers in a variety of colors. There’s nothing quite like their early-morning, heavenly scent after the night rains.
Haiku, in a handful of words, can give the reader something to think about all day.
“Villages may lack
Sea bream or flowers
but they all have tonight’s moon.”
~ Ibara Saikaku (A haiku master in Japan in the 1600s, he was also a pioneer of popular fiction and detective stories.) Sea bream refers to red snapper; the fish is a good-luck symbol.
“The ant climbs up a trunk/carrying a petal on its back,/and if you look closely/that petal is as big as a house…compared to the ant…/Why couldn’t I carry/a petal twice as big as my body and my head?
Ah, but you can…”boxes full of thoughts/and loads of magic hours, and/a wagon of clear dreams…”
~ David Escobar Galindo (El Salvador), from the poem “A Short Story,” translated by Jorge D. Piche
The Royal Poinciana or flamboyant (flame) tree is my favorite flowering tree in the world! It’s worth a trip to the Virgins, especially in late spring and early summer, to see these fiery trees in full bloom.
“I want every instant/to be lovely as crayons./I’d like to draw — on chaste white paper…/eyes that never wept,/a piece of sky, a feather…/I want each breathless moment to beget a flower.”
~Gu Cheng (China), “A Headstrong Boy”
Hummingbirds, bees, and other insects are attracted to this plant, though the spiky flowers have no obvious scent. Critters must see, smell, or know some secret that is hidden from humans. Powderpuff is a fun name for the Calliandra, but so is the name it goes by in the tropics — fairy duster.
“…their golden bodies –/I could not help but touch them–/and dashed forth their sleek pods,/oh, life flew around us, everywhere.”
~ Mary Oliver, from “Touch-me-nots”
The poet here is talking about touch-me-nots, but the image for me is the golden shower or golden chain trees of the tropics. I used to love riding a bike along a trail on St. John and dashing beneath a cluster of golden chain trees, reaching up to touch the petals, and watching each day as they covered the ground like yellow snow.
“Today let’s take the laundry basket down/to a clear summer stream where we’ll bleach/our memories clean./Sweetly surround me with fragrant shrubbery,/Little white flowers sprinkled on a tree./Like the soapsuds made while washing clothes,/Reflected in a bubble, my laughing face/a song.”
~ Chang Shian-hua (Taiwan), from “An Appointment”
There are a number of species of spider lilies, but this one is native to only a few countries in the Caribbean, including the US Virgin Islands. It is believed to be indigenous to Peru as one of the most common names for the plant is Sacred Lily of the Incas. In Mexico it’s called the Lily of Life.
“When it is night in New York,/the sun shines in Dhaka,/but that doesn’t matter./Flowers that blossom here in spring/are unknown in meadows of distant Bengal–/that too doesn’t matter./There’s an enormous comfort knowing/we all live under this same sky.”
~ Zia Hyder (Bangladesh), from “Under This Sky”
Bougainvillea trivia: It is believed that the first European to discover bougainvillea plants was Jeanne Baret, an expert in botany. She disguised herself as a man in order to board the ship of French navy admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville on his voyage of circumnavigation of the globe. Though women were not allowed on ship, she became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
“Between the sunset and the eucalyptus tree/Paint peeling walls. The windows gleaming red,/Lights in the bedrooms. Hibiscus, quisquailis,/and dry earth moistened…/Hushed brushed wings of sleepy birds,/A stillness rising to the stars./Between the dark night and the eucalyptus tree.”
~ Nasima Aziz (India), from “Home”
I’ve been taking pictures of hibiscus flowers for more than forty years — blooms on perfectly manicured hedges, blooms on bushes in big clay pots, blooms in tropical gardens. But this one is special — not because it’s the prettiest of the lot; it’s not. It’s special because it’s wild. It was taken on an early morning hike after the night rains on a trail in the British Virgin Islands. The flowers were a little droopy and covered in raindrops (see if you zoom), but the sun was coming out and the morning was headed toward perfection.
“He said every morning found him here,/before the water boiled on the flame/he came out to this garden,/dug hands into earth saying, I know you.”
~ Naomi Shihab Nye, from “The Garden of Abu Mahmoud”
(If you enjoy gardening, you know the feeling of first digging your hands into the spring soil.)
At a distance the flowers of the Ixora bushes look like balls of red and orange; up close they reveal themselves to be thousands of little stars. How often do we define something by the way we see it from a distance and don’t take the time to have a closer look?
“A spring breeze makes everyone laugh…/Rose and thorn pair up…/The orchard king from his secret center/says, Welcome to your hidden life./They move together,/the cypress and the bud of the lily,/the willow and the flowering judas./Ladders have been set up/around the garden,/so that everyone’s eyes lift.”
~ Rumi, from “The Dance of Your Hidden Life”
Just like each US state has its own state flower, the Virgin Islands also has this custom. The territorial flower is the Ginger Thomas. The photo above was taken out the back door of my friend’s house in St. Thomas. It sits on a steep hillside with the front porch perched above the sea and the back tucked below the neighbor’s yard. Mango trees drop fruit on both sides of the fence. Ladders are handy for gardening here as one must look up at the flowers.
Looking up is good. Lifting eyes. Poems and flowers have the power to lift spirits. What is YOUR secret to bringing sunshine to gray winter days?