[from Ellen Bryant Voigt's Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006, 2007]
Everywhere, like grass, toadflax, yellow coils
a girl’s pincurls. Overhead,
the purely ornamental fruits, whites and pinks
thick on the bough. And straight ahead, along the path,
spice viburnum, exotic shrub
named for the smell its clustered flowers held — nutmeg —
that made St. Louis tropical. We walked a lush,
vast, groomed preserve — preserve in the sense
meant by self-indulgent kings, and in the sense
meant by science: every bloom and bine and bole,
each independent green was labeled,
that was what we loved. And at the center, bronzed:
Linnaeus, master of design, whose art it was
to shepherd any living thing
into its proper pasture. There, foamflower. There,
lungwort, vernacular “Spilled Milk,” leaf splashed with white,
a graceful pulmonaria
in the language of greatest clarity which classifies
lilies and roses, rows of lilac. And here, at our feet,
shade-drunk dark herb: wormwood, our word
for bitterness: an Artemesia, The Hunter,
goddess made incarnate on the ground, in whose name
the avid mortal watching her
was torn apart. Where was his name? Where was his flower?
A cloud paused in the spring sky, and there came to us then,
on the path, another blossoming.
Radiant in mauve, head to toe, back braced
as though to balance the weight of full breasts, one hand,
gloved, lifted, unthinking to pet
the back of the hair, the hair itself a lacquered helmet.
And what should we make of her height, her heft, the size of the
the gruff swagger in the gait:
we stared outright — it seemed all right to stare, like
Linnaeus, who’d ranked the stones, and sorted the plants by how
they propagate and colonized
whatever crawls and swims and flies and bears live young?
Light by which I’ve lived, the wish to name, to know,
the work of it, the cost of it —
if only I could be, or want to be, more like
that boy: ignorant, stunned, human.
“Acteon,” you said,
by his own hounds torn asunder. And so
the brief shadow flickered and dissolved: the world
was ours again, the world like this, made less confused.
And we strolled like kings back down the path,
past a redbud tree in plush white bloom.
Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006