And Also Sunflowers
—after the election, 2016
Distracting myself, I discover the year 1510,
an interesting one, recall the old Chinese curse:
May you live in interesting times. The election
turned, and it was only you I wanted
to talk to, but you’d changed the way you’d voted
about our marriage. My grown son called;
white and with guns, he said, “The revolution
is coming, and I’ll protect you,” but knowing
the different triggers we’d each pulled that day
only made me feel lost in the maze of our loves’ histories.
My private civilization seemed
twisted, every passage a dead end, and the morning
after, people walked looking down as if distrusting
even their own feet, and I felt strange community
in our grief. No wonder I am looking back
at other times. That week, the unearthed skeletons
of a mother and baby lain precisely
on a spread swan’s wing made me weep
because you aren’t here. I can only describe
the feathered gesture in the six thousand year old grave
as majestic though the word for elegance
wouldn’t be invented until 1510. Also that year,
England’s Henry VIII was 18, a boy-man with a world
of violence yet to manifest in his future,
the Portuguese General Albuquerque,
Christian empire builder, would conquer part of India
for the spices—black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom—
calling it trade, and the 10th emperor of the Ming Dynasty
would defeat a rebellion involving a prince, a eunuch,
and the perennial issue of tax reform. Oh,
in that year, a random one, so much occurred, and this, too:
the first pocket watch was built in Germany.
I am trying hard to think about time, how it grows,
collapses in moments of loss or betrayal, our fascination
with the gears of humanity, how one person’s future
is another’s past, one culture’s colonization is another’s “settling.”
Yesterday, in a public space, a woman admired my ring,
then crossed the borders of our bodies to touch my bare arm
with such tenderness of invasion that my throat
loosened and the hairs on my neck
shivered like feathers riffling. I almost felt
unafraid. Later, at twilight, my neighbor once
again shooing deer from his untended shrubs,
arms overhead, looked as if he were being
chased by something terrible and dangerous.
My son may have wanted to make me feel safe.
My husband may feel shame and guilt alone
in his rented hut. I take everything in so personally.
My life is interesting, and I feel cursed,
though there is no such thing as that “Chinese curse”.
The phrase was popularized when Robert Kennedy
used it in his “Day of Affirmation Speech” in 1966
at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
It came first from the English ambassador to China
in his 1949 memoir.
It may have come from this expression:
(nìng wéi tàipíng quǎn, mò zuò luàn lí rén)
which I read is translated as
Better to be a dog in a peaceful time,
than a human in a warring one,
but when I tried to verify this myself
in Google Translate I got: For the Pacific dog,
do not leave people from chaos,
so surreal, it feels right right now. Turning back
to 1510, it turns out sunflowers are American,
cultivated by the First People’s of New Mexico
and Arizona. Spanish explorers brought them
to Europe, and then they were cultivated in Russia,
and in 1887, late in a Paris summer, Van Gogh
painted four canvases with rings of yellow
feathery leaves around seed-heart discs, seeds
that, ground or pounded into flour, make
cakes and bread, and I’ve read the pulped
roots can even draw poison from a snakebite.
It was the Italians who patented, in 1716, squeezing
the seeds for oil, and today, the biggest fields
are found in Tuscany and described as endless. Closer
to home, in the New Jersey farmlands most people
don’t know exist, one can get lost in a sunflower maze
at Liberty Farm for just $10 per adult, $6 for kids,
though a recent sign—No Drones Please—
seems so complicatedly American. Bobby Kennedy’s speech
in South Africa is also called
“The Ripple of Hope” and he spoke against apartheid,
and for the effect of individual efforts:
A young monk began the Protestant Reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and 32 year old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.
All males, yes, and the unexamined issues of classism, racism, sexism,
were only beginning to be seen as poisons
and I was just eight
when a young Palestinian man shot and killed him,
the train with his body going from Boston to DC,
my family and me standing in a string of knots,
our community of Irish and Italians and Poles lined
along the tracks in Merrill Park, the women crying,
and whispering “Not another one.”
Was it the year
I became politically conscious? Began to wonder
about the ways we are connected? I had not
heard nor read:
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a [person] stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice. [S/h]e sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.
Nor had I seen Van Gogh’s sunflowers, all those blind eyes,
nor understood the seed head pattern
is Fibonacci, named after the Italian who used
the discovery by the poet Virahanka living in India
in the 6th century.
I don’t understand
math, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling
as I look at the whirled flowers, paint strokes for seeds
a pattern discovered and then explained
by people on different continents,
but I can see
the fallen petals of family, community, and country
as exposing patterns so complex and embedded in time—
the many futures of so many people’s pasts—that I am both
awed by the elegance and terrified of what will come
to pass, feeling alone and hopeless but trying to believe
in one thing: time, both endless and terminal.
Laura McCullough is the author of The Wild Night Dress (University of Arkansas Press, 2017) selected by Billy Collins in the Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series. Her other books of poems include Jersey Mercy, Rigger Death & Hoist Another, and Speech Acts (Black Lawrence Press), Panic (Alice James Books), What Men Want (XOXOX Press), and The Dancing Bear (Open Book Press). She curated two anthologies of essays on poetry, A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race (University of Georgia Press) and The Room and the World: Essays on the Poet Stephen Dunn (University of Syracuse Press). Her prose and poetry have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The American Poetry Review, Guernica, Pank, Gulf Coast, The Writer’s Chronicle, Best American Poetry, and others. She teaches full time at Brookdale Community College in NJ, is on the faculty of the Sierra Nevada low-res MFA, and has taught for Ramapo College and Stockton University. She is the founding editor of Mead: the Magazine of Literature and Libations. Visit lauramccullough.org.
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