- 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
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.
Image: "Lucid Iris" by S Rasheed via Art.com