To eat flowers

Unknown

 

 

 

 

 

 

voices to voices, lip to lip
i swear (to noone everyone) constitutes
undying; or whatever this and that petal confutes . . .
to exist being a peculiar form of sleep

what’s beyond logic happens beneath will;
nor can these moments be translated: i say
that even after April
by God there is no excuse for May

bring forth your flowers and machinery: sculpture and prose
flowers guess and miss
machinery is the more accurate, yes
it delivers the goods, Heaven knows

(yet are we mindful, though not as yet awake,
of ourselves which shout and cling, being
for a little while and which easily break
in spite of the best overseeing)

i mean that the blond absence of any program
except last and always and first to live
makes unimportant what i and you believe;
not for philosophy does this rose give a damn . . .

bring on your fireworks, which are a mixed
splendor of piston and pistil; very well
provided an instant may be fixed
so that it will not rub, like any other pastel.

(While you and i have lips and voices which
are for kissing and to sing with
who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch
invents an instrument to measure Spring with?

each dream nascitur, is not made . . .)
why then to Hell with that: the other; this,
since the thing perhaps is
to eat flowers and not to be afraid.
e.e. cummings or Edward Estlin Cummings

Prescript: Since posting the first part of this work, In a Minute There is Time, I have had many discussions on memory. The theories of Heidegger, Popper, Wittgenstein have been invoked. But I will not be drawn into the pomp and ceremony of philosophy. All these memories, whether borrowed or invented, stolen or remembered, are mine.

What is your first memory? How far back can you remember? Is it a memory or construction created from family stories, photographs or even wishful thinking? When asked my first memory, here is the story that I tell.

I am perhaps five, very young. I am in my pyjamas, and supposed to be in bed. But the noise in our little apartment (we used to call them flats) in Elizabeth Bay has woken me and I have tiptoed to the door of the little living room. My parents are holding a party. The small space is jammed with people. There is loud music playing and the air is, no doubt – it is not part of my memory, I’m filling in the gaps ¬– heavy with cigarette smoke. I am wide-eyed at my glimpse into the adult world. And then I see him. An American sailor, capless, white uniform, blue neck scarf, on the floor, eating flowers, I think lilies, from a vase. Some back story is needed.

This is 1950/51. My mother, Gloria, is a city slicker, a journalist and as I gathered was then something of a bohemian. She became a journalist during the war when so many of the men were fighting. She worked on the Daily Telegraph at that time, but had also, at some stage in her early life, been a model. She was a very attractive woman. Her friends include the poet Kenneth Slessor, the actor Chips Rafferty and others I can only vaguely recall. My father, on the other hand, was from the bush. Born in the tiny town of Natimuk in Western Victoria, graduated from Dookie Agricultural College in Victoria, then worked as a station manager around the country and then, was only just back from the war. He was in the RAAF, a Spitfire pilot, Flight Lieutenant in 457 Squadron, saw action over France and then Darwin. The dashing pilot and the glamorous journo. My mother had lived in and around Kings Cross and Elizabeth Bay since coming to Sydney from Springwood in the Blue Mountains where she had grown up with her mother and stepfather.

So the party was probably real. The smoky room. The bottles of beer. The cheap gin. The scratchy radio. The loud voices. But the sailor eating flowers? As clearly as my adult self can see this, I am sure it was a story told often, to friends, to illustrate the wild youth of my parents. More interestingly why did I retain this story and take it for my own. What does ‘eating flowers’ mean’? Now, at the risk of being accused of gilding the lily – or the lotus ¬– I’m going to examine this image closely.

The most famous of flower eaters were the sailors on Odysseus’/ Ulysses’ ship. This is how Homer tells the tale:

I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of 9 days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.

Of the flowers themselves, there are several candidates with Ziziphus lotus, a relative of the jujube being the most accepted. But when I looked at those candidates, I wondered why Nymphaea caerulea, also known as the blue lotus (already known under this name to the Greeks), is not the preferred candidate. It can be processed to be used as a soporific and, in some formulations, has psychotropic properties. One site, Nuerosoup says that:

Recent studies have shown Nymphaea caerulea to have psychoactive properties, and may have been used as a sacrament in ancient Egypt and certain ancient South American cultures. Dosages of 5 to 10 grams of the flowers induces slight stimulation, a shift in thought processes, enhanced visual perception, and mild closed-eye visuals.

So why Ziziphus lotus, which is a medicinal plants which modulates antioxidant activity and human T-cell proliferation rather than gives a high is the most favoured candidate, I have no idea.

If I am right, then, lotus-eating signifies the lure of indulgence, a preference for pleasure and drugged escapism. The same motif is to be seen in Joyce’s Lotus-Eaters, Episode 5 in Ulysses.

My first memory, then, is a warning or an admonition or a prediction that I will be tempted by pleasure, narcotics and self-indulgence. Guilty as charged. I have taken drugs, have indulged in lotus-eating both at home and for some years in the village of Deià on the island of Mallorca, one of the planet’s flower munching capitals. But something always saved me from succumbing entirely. Very briefly I will re-tell the story of an important drug episode on the island.

With a friend I set off one morning to do some work on another friend’s small house on the coast. We were going to plaster his walls, a boring job. So before we left, to alleviate the dreariness of the task, we each took a half tablet of lysergic acid, believing it to meek and mild. It was not, and we soon found ourselves reeling with the effect of a very heavy dose of the drug. In such a state we traversed the narrow paths along the cliffs of the coast with some difficulty, owing to the fact that rock faces which we had to lean against in order to stop from crashing to the sea below had, on that day, a tendency to pulsate, to writhe, to kaleidoscope alarmingly, pink and green and living rocks, filled at times with arms and legs, serpents and songbirds; the sea a crazy sparkling amorphous presence, swelling, racing towards a point between itself and the sky, the very path under our feet wobbling, more like rubber than the solid stuff it really was. For me it was necessary to poke at the ground with a walking stick, itself somewhat rubbery, to reassure me of the firmness of the land beneath my feet.

And it was in that way that I re-assured myself that this was just a drug, and its effects would go away, and that I was not mad. I have always been able to find a such a walking stick to get me back to reality and to keep me on the straight and narrow, no matter how appealing the bent and wide.

So Cummings tells us that:

since the thing perhaps is
to eat flowers and not to be afraid

Along the way he assures us that ‘what’s beyond logic happens beneath will’ and that:

(While you and i have lips and voices which
are for kissing and to sing with
who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch
invents an instrument to measure Spring with?

 

So Mr Cummings is pleading the case for romance, for eating the lotus in the open. For not fearing indulgence, pleasure, the soma for using our lips and voices for the right purpose and for feeling rather than measuring. Which is fine and well and good. But we must always take a sturdy walking stick to make contact with the earth. Otherwise we may well lose our bearings and our moorings.

bring forth your flowers and machinery: sculpture and prose
flowers guess and miss
machinery is the more accurate, yes
it delivers the goods, Heaven knows

s

All this from a memory, perhaps my first, or perhaps one implanted by an oft-told family story. Even so I like what memory researcher Martin Conway says: ‘ memories are psychological representations and not like photographs, videos or other types of recordings.’ I have not been afraid to eat flowers. Although these days, I stick to forget-me-nots.

Nymphaea caerulea, my preferred candidate for the lotus eaters lotus

Nymphaea caerulea, my preferred candidate for the lotus eaters lotus

 

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