Poppies

27 April 2009

In the olive-filled country outside of Jaén, the empty riverbeds are full now from spring rain & snowmelt in the Sierra Máginas. Between the rows of trees, & amidst the other wildflowers – lavender, pale yellow (1) – that cover the sides of the hills, & in the weedfilled ditches on the side of the narrow highway, poppies are growing singly or in little groups, their big blossoms a shock of red, as though somebody had taken a brush & daubed the landscape with the pigment.

In Spain, poppies are amapolas. My American counterpart at the primary school next to the instituto in Bedmar told me in the bus the other day that back home in Puerto Rico amapolas are a different flower entirely – red, still, but with the petals splayed out around a tall, bright yellow stamen. She’d gotten into an argument with a Spanish friend about it.

Conquistadores – this is what I’ve supposed – saw flowers that looked close enough to those they knew, called them by the same name. I’d read this somewhere (a practice in English, too, I believe. Someone more learned than I will have to confirm other examples). Surrounded by a world new in entirety, bird & bush, you try to find likenesses, maybe especially at first – surely God in his wisdom only created so many plants, only so many animals survived the Flood.

Two contradictory, yet complementary linguistic practices: You give old names to new things.  (There are many Jaéns in South America, in the Eastern U.S. many English villages.) But at the same time, you find yourself unable to name everything, there aren’t old words enough, & you have to beg & borrow words from the people you are displacing or enslaving or ammalgamating (2), create a new language entire (3).

I’m thinking about this on the bus, falling asleep between the pueblos with my head against the window. Poppies – amapolas – on the roadside, slipping by.

1. (For as much as I write about plants, seasonal fruits, the countryside, I’d be a much better & more specific writer if I had a background in botany or farming – as it is, I’m reduced to vague descriptions of colors – no names, no details. The empty aesthetic of the gaze.)

2. (Who is the “you” in the sentence above? I found it slipping as I wrote, trying to account not just for death & depopulation but for mestizo & creole, appropriation, assimilation, mutual recognizance. The “you” itself changes – not just the language, but the people speaking it.)

3. (Isn’t this notion of a new language necessary to confront the endless American landscape a constant feature of American [both Americas] & letters? Whitman, say.)

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