Nothing in Hand
Entirely Green

The Wake



- by David St. John -

  Vivian St. John (1981-1974)

There is a train inside this iris:

You think I'm crazy, & like to say boyish
& outrageous things. No, there is

A train inside this iris.

It's a child's finger bearded in black banners.
A single window like a child's nail,

A darkened porthole lit by the white, angular face

Of an old woman, or perhaps the boy beside her in the stuffy,
Hot compartment. Her hair is silver, & sweeps

Back off her forehead, onto her cold and bruised shoulders.

The prairies fail along Chicago. Past the five
Lakes. Into the black woods of her New York; & as I bend

Close above the iris, I see the train

Drive deep into the damp heart of its stem, & the gravel
Of the garden path

Cracks under my feet as I walk this long corridor

Of elms, arched
Like the ceiling of a French railway pier where a boy

With pale curls holding

A fresh iris is waving goodbye to a grandmother, gazing
A long time

Into the flower, as if he were looking some great

Distance, or down an empty garden path & he believes a man
Is walking toward him, working

Dull shears in one hand; & now believe me: The train

Is gone. The old woman is dead, & the boy. The iris curls,
On its stalk, in the shade

Of those elms: Where something like the icy & bitter fragrance

In the wake of a woman who's just swept past you on her way

& you remain

From Study for the World's Body, published by HarperCollins, 1994. Electronic text via

David St. John's poem "Iris" has been haunting me.  I first read it several months ago when searching for poems about irises, read it again when I was searching for poems about metro trains, and it came up a third mysterious time while I was in New York.  Now, two weeks later, I can hardly read other poetry without a mild pinch of guilt.  "Iris" seems to want her moment here, and today I will not delay her any longer.

David St. John's poem touches on some of the emotions that are also present in Louis MacNiece's "Soap Suds," in which the author realizes that the soap he's washing his hands with is the same soap he used as a child.  For him, the soap is the train that travels backwards into the house of his childhood.  There are some interesting similarities between the poems, including a sort of momentary transfiguration of adult into child, but David St. John makes the link to fragrance far more explicitly than MacNeice.   The device of the train can also be sensed as sillage, a trail of scent: "the wake of the woman who's just swept past you on her way / Home."

Much could be said about this poem and the artful way it shows several images superimposed upon one another.  I have been thinking of this poem almost steadily for two weeks and can't get to the bottom of it.  What about that woman's cold and bruised shoulders?  The trees, the dull shears, shade and bitterness, the repetition and permutations of the boy and the woman, the curls, the corridors, distance, and ice?   Will this poem allow me to reconcile myself with it?  I'm paying close attention to the images and locations transparently overlapping one another, and I think I'm getting closer.  These are the moments in which my love of poetry takes the form of true passion--the poems that have their greatest impact on me do so over time.  Certainly, they frequently make a big first impression, but it is only later, when I realize they'e infected my mental landscape with their own viral energy that I realize how much my existence is changed through the experience of poetry. 

I doubt we will ever see a fragrance launched with the name "Loss" or "Bitterness" or "Death" and this is one major difference between poetry and perfume.  Perfume goes there, but it usually goes in a veil of ambiguity.  I think one could easily argue that Christopher Brosius took us straight to the grave with "Black March" but unlike Mr. Brosius, the poet here leaves no doubt that we're facing death.  The narrator is left alone in the overwhelming absence of others, with only an iris and the train inside it.  And when you wear the perfume that a beloved one once wore many years ago, you hold that iris too; your fingers resting inside its curls.



Poem: "Iris" by David St. John, from Study for the World's Body, published by HarperCollins, 1994. Electronic text via

Image: "Lucid Iris" by S Rasheed via

Posts prior to 2015 first appeared on my previous website, memory & desire (


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Flowers Philippines

Nice post! I really enjoyed reading your post and I like the way you write. Anyway, I'm been looking for topics as interesting as this. Looking forward to your next post. Keep posting!



Helg: I never quite "got" Nietzsche till I had the opportunity to read him in German (and attempt to translate him into English). In German, his humor and irony really come across so much better than in most of the translations I have read. You never can tell what someone means when they say they enjoy Nietzsche, but knowing the depth of your reading, I imagine you "get" his gift of humor quite well.

I agree with your view of the poem. Perhaps part of the reason this poem frightens me is my mother's own love of irises, and the inevitability of the day when one of us will pass and the other will be left to contemplate the passing.


It is a beautiful poem and one I hadn't come across before, so thank you.

I think the theme is separation, not only by death (but death does come into it sooner or later), separation from life too, a kind of life at least: the elms, the goodbyes, the trains that leave and leave things and people behind ~a life of hardship perhaps being one of them (why else are the grandmother's shoulders cold and bruised?). Trains are especially melancholic and lovely, more than ships even.
And the strange nostalgia that iris provokes with the memories it conjures of all those poignant instances.
At least this is how I interpret it :-)

(btw, I am great Nietzsche fan and I am overjoyed to see him mentioned: such vast depth of thought there)


Minette: As old Nietzsche once said, when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you. Sometimes being looked at by the abyss is better than being ignored completely. So I made friends with poetry early, and throttle it for all its secrets at every chance. I'm not nearly as violent with my perfumes, though I like them dark and mysterious, too!

Chaya: I felt the same way - bruised! It probably goes without saying that I kept running various perfume facts through my head; the chilliness of many iris fragrances, for instance. But that doesn't account for the whole power of the poem. Ain't no sunshine when she's gone, so another poet has said.


Lord, girl.
I'm stunned- and a little bruised.
Wondrous- no wonder it called to you like Die Lorelei.


girl, how DO you go so deeply so very often?! i love this poem, and the way it "mysteriously" showed up for you in a trinity.

i was taught that the way to live life most fully is in the remembrance of death. i think this poem does the reminding beautifully.

although i have to say that i'm one who finds the promise of spring in black march, not just the earth of the grave.

xxx, minette

(is it 1881?)

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