Nameless Flowers

/ /

I want now – now that it’s too late –
to learn the name of everything.
………………………Elizabeth Bishop

This is the placehere in the field, in the year,
the sequence, the page?that calls for the virgin’s rape.
You know the basics of this story (O writes),
but some of the details will be new to you.
The film might open with the opening
of an antique book of maps, turned to “Trinacris”
three cliffs jutting out into the ocean.
Let the camera pan out over Henna’s many cities,
her fertile fields of faithfully tilled soil;
then slowly zero in on the chilly spring
of Arethusa. Let us hear, as we move closer
the inviting waters, calling the goddess, Ceres;
her daughter, with her usual companions,
wanders barefoot through the meadow-grasses.
A shady valley, damp with clouds of spray
from water cascading down. All of the rainbow
colors in nature flourish there, the ground
radiantly dappled with myriad flowers.
Moving close-up on blossoms, voice-over:
the daughter, exclaiming to her friends, “Come on!
Come with me! Let’s fill our skirts with flowers!”
Medium long-shot: beautiful silly activity,
the patterns of girls absorbed in work in the fields
not work, an absorbing game, filling their baskets
woven out of willow, or heaping blossoms
into their tucked-up skirts, their loosened robes.
Multiple moving close-ups here on marigolds,
violets in the violet beds, a stalk of poppy
plucked between the fingertip and thumb.
Let the camera linger on you, Hyacinth, you,
Amaranth. Some love wild thyme, some clover.
Reaching for heaps of roses. Nameless flowers.
Look at their leader, gathering delicate saffron,
white lilies, lost in what she’s reaching for,
desire leading her away. Gradual crossfade;
girlfriends’ voices hush. Slow dolly back
reveals the girl alone in the lush field.

He sees her, and seeing, takes her. Wipe the screen
with darkness: her uncle carries her away
down to his kingdom with his blue-black horses.
Her cries rip through the air, “Mother! Quick! Help me!
I’m being taken away!” dress torn half-open,
earth itself torn open, a path for Dis, his horses,
bucking and veering away from the alien daylight.

Meanwhile, her friends with their heaps of flowers are calling
to her, unaware, “Persephone,
come see what we have for you!” Then register
their slowly registering her silence, her absence
and then their howling fills the hills; her name
echoes in the air above their howls.
This is what Ceres finds when she arrives.
Stunned by their lamentation, then instantly
crying out in misery, “Daughter, where are you?”
Let the camera wheel in distress; she is swept away,
out of her mind, like a Maenad (exactly
as the saying goes) with wildly streaming hair.
Like a bellowing cow, calf ripped from her udder,
ransacking the landscape for her child,
she roars in pain and rushes through Henna’s fields.
A girl’s footprint, then anotherCeres knows
the weight that pressed those tracks into the dirt
That day might have seen the end of her wandering,
but pigs had trampled back and forth over the trail.


And here the pages of my book threaten to fall
out and away, to lose themselves. Of four
translations, it’s the oldest and most criss-crossed
with markings, in three different colors of ink,
underlinings, commentary, digressions,
post-its, three odd placeholders: a program
from I Tatti, “Reflections on Narcissus:
Art and Nature in Early Modern Europe,”
and “Measuring Hell: A Florentine Debate”;
a close-up photo of the moony lichen
growing on the temple stones at Sardis;
and a cardboard paint sample from Benjamin Moore—
Persian Violet, Violeta Persa
but doesn’t that sound like violet lost?

On the cover of the book, “Detail from Spring,”
1st century Roman Fresco from Stabiae,
now in the Archaeological Museum in Naples
where I recognized it: golden-haired
girl in yellow and white robes, turning away
to pluck a flower between fingers and thumb.
Hadn’t we seen the walls at Stabiae
riddled with holes, their frescoes torn away?


Tear out the pages, cast them all away
into the outer darkness; there is no place
Ceres goes that does not fill with wailing,
as when the bird mourned Itys, her lost son.
Cries in the dark: “Persephone!” and “Daughter!”—
each name in turn, the alternating cries—
but Persephone can’t hear Ceres, daughter can’t
hear mother; name after name fades out and dies away.
The camera searches the faces of those she sees:
shepherd, ploughman, whoever. We hear
Ceres asking her one question: “Did a girl,
any girl, pass by this way?” All colors
die down to one shade, now shadows cover
the world, and now the watchdogs all fall silent.


Here is something obscured by the translations:
we never hear her name till she is gone.


Note: This poem responds to (and is partly adapted from) the story of Ceres and Persephone as told in Ovid’s Fasti, an account that differs from the one he offers in Metamorphoses.