William Carlos Williams



            Asphodel, That Greeny Flower


Book I

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
            like a buttercup
                        upon its branching stem–
save that it's green and wooden–
            I come, my sweet,
                        to sing to you.
We lived long together
            a life filled,
                        if you will,
with flowers. So that
            I was cheered
                        when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
            in hell.
                        Today
I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers
            that we both loved,
                        even to this poor
colorless thing–
            I saw it
                        when I was a child–
little prized among the living
            but the dead see,
                        asking among themselves:
What do I remember
            that was shaped
                        as this thing is shaped?
while our eyes fill
            with tears.
                        Of love, abiding love
it will be telling
            though too weak a wash of crimson
                        colors it
to make it wholly credible.
            There is something
                        something urgent
I have to say to you
            and you alone
                        but it must wait
while I drink in
            the joy of your approach,
                        perhaps for the last time.
And so
            with fear in my heart
                        drag it out
and keep on talking
            for I dare not stop.
                        Listen while I talk on
against time.
            It will not be
                        for long.
I have forgot
            and yet I see clearly enough
                        something
central to the sky
            which ranges round it.
                        An odor
springs from it!
            A sweetest odor!
                        Honeysuckle! And now
there comes the buzzing of a bee!
            and a whole flood
                        of sister memories!
Only give me time,
            time to recall them
                        before I shall speak out.
Give me time,
            time.
When I was a boy
            I kept a book
                        to which, from time
to time,
            I added pressed flowers
                        until, after a time,
I had a good collection.
            The asphodel,
                        forebodingly,
among them.
            I bring you,
                        reawakened,
a memory of those flowers.
            They were sweet
                        when I pressed them
and retained
            something of their sweetness
                        a long time.
It is a curious odor,
            a moral odor,
                        that brings me
near to you.
            The color
                        was the first to go.
There had come to me
            a challenge,
                        your dear self,
mortal as I was,
            the lily's throat
                        to the hummingbird!
Endless wealth,
            I thought,
                        held out its arms to me.
A thousand tropics
            in an apple blossom.
                        The generous earth itself
gave us lief.
            The whole world
                        became my garden!
But the sea
            which no one tends
                        is also a garden
when the sun strikes it
            and the waves
                        are wakened.
I have seen it
            and so have you
                        when it puts all flowers
to shame.
            Too, there are the starfish
                        stiffened by the sun
and other sea wrack
            and weeds. We knew that
                        along with the rest of it
for we were born by the sea
            knew its rose hedges
                        to the very water's brink.
There the pink mallow grows
            and in their season
                        strawberries
and there, later,
            we went to gather
                        the wild plum.
I cannot say
            that I have gone to hell
                        for your love
but often
            found myself there
                        in your pursuit.
I do not like it
            and wanted to be
                        in heaven. Hear me out.
Do not turn away.
I have learned much in my life
            from books
                        and out of them
about love.
            Death
                        is not the end of it.
There is a hierarchy
            which can be attained,
                        I think,
in its service.
            Its guerdon
                        is a fairy flower;
a cat of twenty lives.
            If no one came to try it
                        the world
would be the loser.
            It has been
                        for you and me
as one who watches a storm
            come in over the water.
                        We have stood
from year to year
            before the spectacle of our lives
                        with joined hands.
The storm unfolds.
            Lightning
                        plays about the edges of the clouds.
The sky to the north
            is placid,
                        blue in the afterglow
as the storm piles up.
            It is a flower
                        that will soon reach
the apex of its bloom.
            We danced,
                        in our minds,
and read a book together.
            You remember?
                        It was a serious book.
And so books
            entered our lives.
The sea! The sea!
            Always
                        when I think of the sea
there comes to mind
            the Iliad
                        and Helen's public fault
that bred it.
            Were it not for that
                        there would have been
no poem but the world
            if we had remembered,
                        those crimson petals
spilled among the stones,
            would have called it simply
                        murder.
The sexual orchid that bloomed then
            sending so many
                        disinterested
men to their graves
            has left its memory
                        to a race of fools
or heroes
            if silence is a virtue.
                        The sea alone
with its multiplicity
            holds any hope.
                        The storm
has proven abortive
            but we remain
                        after the thoughts it roused
to
            re-cement our lives.
                        It is the mind
the mind
            that must be cured
                        short of death's
intervention,
            and the will becomes again
                        a garden. The poem
is complex and the place made
            in our lives
                        for the poem.
Silence can be complex too,
            but you do not get far
                        with silence.
Begin again.
            It is like Homer's
                        catalogue of ships:
it fills up the time.
            I speak in figures,
                        well enough, the dresses
you wear are figures also,
            we could not meet
                        otherwise. When I speak
of flowers
            it is to recall
                        that at one time
we were young.
            All women are not Helen,
                        I know that,
but have Helen in their hearts.
            My sweet,
                        you have it also, therefore
I love you
            and could not love you otherwise.
                        Imagine you saw
a field made up of women
            all silver-white.
                        What should you do
but love them?
            The storm bursts
                        or fades! it is not
the end of the world.
            Love is something else,
                        or so I thought it,
a garden which expands,
            though I knew you as a woman
                        and never thought otherwise,
until the whole sea
            has been taken up
                        and all its gardens.
It was the love of love,
            the love that swallows up all else,
                        a grateful love,
a love of nature, of people,
            animals,
                        a love engendering
gentleness and goodness
            that moved me
                        and that I saw in you.
I should have known,
            though I did not,
                        that the lily-of-the-valley
is a flower makes many ill
            who whiff it.
                        We had our children,
rivals in the general onslaught.
            I put them aside
                        though I cared for them
as well as any man
            could care for his children
                        according to my lights.
You understand
            I had to meet you
                        after the event
and have still to meet you.
            Love
                        to which you too shall bow
along with me–
            a flower
                        a weakest flower
shall be our trust
            and not because
                        we are too feeble
to do otherwise
            but because
                        at the height of my power
I risked what I had to do,
            therefore to prove
                        that we love each other
while my very bones sweated
            that I could not cry to you
                        in the act.
Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
            I come, my sweet,
                        to sing to you!
My heart rouses
            thinking to bring you news
                        of something
that concerns you
            and concerns many men. Look at
                        what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
            despised poems.
                        It is difficult
to get the news from poems
            yet men die miserably every day
                        for lack
of what is found there.
            Hear me out
                        for I too am concerned
and every man
            who wants to die at peace in his bed
                        besides.


William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems of William
Carlos Williams, New Directions Publishing, 1938.