Soon after I arrived in Maine, I was given a small green bag of dahlia roots by then-state-poet-laureate Baron Wormser.  Absorbed in all the work of settling in, I let the bag sit for months and months before I finally got them into the ground.  No matter, he told me, just soak them for 24 hours.  I did, and scrabbled holes in the soil and tucked the little withered scroti in, and harvested savagely sturdy and exuberant pink blossoms into October.

This spring I do it again with my own dahlia tubers, which I have now learned routinely to pull up and wrap in newspaper every winter, and which I am ready to split in half with a newer newcomer.  One of my favorite parts of planting them every year is that without fail, one of those "sticky" phrases of poetry comes into my head:  "with dahlia tubers dripping from their hands."  That's all, that and a few other fragments from Millay's sonnet, "I thought how oft Matinicus the tide," "and children whimpered and the doors blew shut," and the image of the "island women," faces into the wind.

And this year, because I am blogging on Harriet, I think a little more about sticky phrases, and I think about "feeding a little life with dried tubers," and I wonder if Eliot, too, was thinking of dahlias.

And then I think that I must have been somewhat hasty last fall, in the middle of all my travelling then, because I find two batches I overlooked when I took them all in for the winter.  These two have been in the frozen ground six months, and instead of being dessicated and shrivelled, they are sodden and rotting, with no life in them.

So there is more life, sometimes, in the shrivelled than in the sodden, and this makes me think about poetry again, and how I haven't finished a poem in a while, and I think about Eileen's post on silence.  And then I realize I've been procrastinating and go back to the final changes for A Poet's Ear and tell myself that when that's over, next week,  I'll bring stored scribbled poems out of their newspaper wrappings and give them a good watering and put them in the earth.


Hearing your words, and not a word among them
Tuned to my liking, on a salty day
When inland woods were pushed by winds that flung them
Hissing to leeward like a ton of spray,
I thought how off Matinicus the tide
Came pounding in, came running through the Gut
While from the Rock the warning whistle cried,
And children whimpered, and the doors blew shut;
There in the autumn when the men go forth,
With slapping skirts the island women stand
In gardens stripped and scattered, peering north,
With dahlia tubers dripping from the hand:
The wind of their endurance, driving south,
Flattened your words against your speaking mouth.

Originally Published: May 8th, 2009

Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...

  1. May 8, 2009
     Don Share

    Edna St. Vincent Millay! (What do I win?)\r

    Another dahlia pome:\r

    Song for the Last Act\r
    by Louise Bogan\r

    Now that I have your face by heart, I look\r
    Less at its features than its darkening frame\r
    Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,\r
    Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd’s crook.\r
    Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease\r
    The lead and marble figures watch the show\r
    Of yet another summer loath to go\r
    Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.\r

    Now that I have your face by heart, I look.\r

    Now that I have your voice by heart, I read\r
    In the black chords upon a dulling page\r
    Music that is not meant for music’s cage,\r
    Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.\r
    The staves are shuttled over with a stark\r
    Unprinted silence. In a double dream\r
    I must spell out the storm, the running stream.\r
    The beat’s too swift. The notes shift in the dark.\r

    Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.\r

    Now that I have your heart by heart, I see\r
    The wharves with their great ships and architraves;\r
    The rigging and the cargo and the slaves\r
    On a strange beach under a broken sky.\r
    O not departure, but a voyage done!\r
    The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps\r
    Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps\r
    Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.\r

    Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

  2. May 8, 2009
     james stotts

    or clampitt's 'the dahlia gardens.'\r

    it's too long to post, but is on the internet already:\r\r

    i've long been an advocate of tuber thought:\r

    "Dormant thought can sustain us even in the dark–like the tulip bulb, patient and stinking of garlic, locked away in a cupboard for the winter–if we can wait for the light and then give forth a flower. Rhizomatic thought, tuber thought–errant, disorganized, self-referential, decentralized, allusive–can produce spontaneous order from its deep underground bunkers. If we want to be hardy philosophers, we should learn the processes of slow reading, of thinking underground.\r
    With the worst books, it is impossible to slow down; the words reveal less upon further reflection. Most days I cannot read the newspaper fast enough. The genius that makes me slow down is the one that makes a credible challenge to my own genius. Books, if we allow them, will reshape our conscience, our intelligence, our reality. They usually require a certain amount of humility or else they will humiliate us. We have to be willing to surrender in the Socratic style to the subversion of our systematic thought, to the striking rather than the stroking of our ego, to the undermining of our assumptions. It is a book capable of sustaining a slow reading that will repay this humiliation by making us like children again–a hundred little deaths accompanied by a hundred little births, pruning the self back. But if we read in presto or prestissimo what deserves reading in lento, we might as well read Atlas Shrugged as Moby Dick, for neither will change us or sustain us. Bad readers are slaves to the fickle rain and plastic waterbucket, like garish overcrowded perennials in shock. A hardy philosopher can suckle a few lines of Hardy through a long, dry season, and still attract the birds and bees with his spontaneous pollen and star-rust."

  3. May 8, 2009
     Colin Ward


    Tubers, flowers and poetry. Hmm. Well, I doubt this is the association you had in mind so I'll begin with an apology for the tangent. This is a loose translation from the original Czech:\r

    "Children" by Vilem Pollak (1928?-1945)\r

    As when one trods beneath these icy skies,\r
    the long queue leaned in tight anticipation.\r
    Could my eyes, my disbelieving eyes,\r
    be seeing ghosts? Be seeing apparitions?\r

    Like tubers buried deep beneath the earth\r
    that sprouted prematurely, tiny blips,\r
    they came, then went, as one denying birth--\r
    gone from our lips, yes, even from our lips.\r

    The darkness blanches into memory,\r
    recalling the light traces of that day,\r
    each child's crusade, though in no hurry,\r
    is under way, already under way.\r

    The roots of that disordered walk have strayed\r
    beyond the flowered path and rooted pack.\r
    I ache for blossoms, petals bright and splayed,\r
    their exodus and promised journey back.\r


    Poet Martin Rocek explains:\r

    "Pollak was a friend of my father; they were\r
    in Terezin together, survived the selection\r
    in Auschwitz, were in a slave labor camp\r
    afterwards, and then on a hunger march\r
    at the end. My father was one of the few\r
    who survived the march (just barely).\r

    "The poem is called 'Deti' (Children) and\r
    presumably refers to what are known\r
    as the Bialystok children--if I have the\r
    details correct, there was an agreement\r
    to ransom some children from Bialystok,\r
    but they were in such bad shape that\r
    they were transferred to Terezin and\r
    put into a special isolated area with better\r
    conditions. The deal fell through\r
    and they were gassed in Auschwitz.\r
    Pollak of course did not know this--he just\r
    knew that a strange group of children was\r
    brought to an isolated part of Terezin, and\r
    that they suddenly disappeared."

  4. May 9, 2009


    I have no tuber poems, but plenty of tubers. I just leave then in the ground and they come back to life all by themselves. Maybe it’s because the ground doesn’t freeze here in Coimbra. \r

    Careful readers of your posts will always find secrets for life, as though you were writing a kind of Nicomachean Ethics for our times, for poets especially. And miserable creatures that we often are, you do us a great service. For Aristotle, well-being is our highest goal and this book is all about identifying what it is that will make us happy. Your posts, I’ve begun to notice, always deal with equilibrium and balance, and the relatedness between sundry activities. That’s the poet’s job, in part, in the making of the poem. \r

    The way you describe your gardening, the “sticky phrases” coming into your head, your reading, the cycle of the seasons and how the cycle of poem-making rises out of all of this, and the way you do it, without ever insisting, shows us how much you live the ethical life. For Aristotle, ethics was a practical science. \r

    And then there are the feisty truths you seem to draw from the very soil.\r

    “So there is more life, sometimes, in the shriveled than in the sodden, and this makes me think about poetry again…\r

    Thanks for that one.\r


  5. May 9, 2009
     Annie Finch

    That's just the right connecting poem, Don. And as for your Millay ID---you win a real handful of tubers from the laureate lineage, of course--and if you have no place to plant those, then a virtual bouquet, as large and florid as you wish . ..

  6. May 9, 2009
     Annie Finch

    James, I appreciate that quote! Colin, there is definitely something astringent, braced/bracing, and sobering about the tuber image and I am glad to see this powerful poem which brings it out. One thing about the tuber is how it shows the deep-earth side of flowers.

  7. May 9, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Every writer should be blessed with a reader as appreciative and observant as you are. Thank you for the privilege of your readership.

  8. May 9, 2009
     thomas brady

    When did Millay's sonnets become available? I'm wondering if her "tubers" preceded Eliot's. Not that Eliot stole the notion, but every ambitious poet must have been reading Millay, then, even the Eliot/Pound modernist clique--who cast aspersions on Millay.\r

    It's really time for a major revival of Millay. First, she's just as good, if not better, than any 20th century poet, including those in the Modernist Men's Club who attacked her unfairly. It was a sport, practically. One wag is quoted as saying she was resented more for her anti-fascist position than Pound was for his fascist one, as her reputation was battered towards the end of her life.\r

    Annie Finch and I have already noted Allen Tate's explicit attack; also, there's Hugh Kenner, the Pound champion, who was very abusive to Millay, and I've just seen that John Ciardi slammed her poetry as being from "pose and not experience" and claimed it was "too youthful."\r

    The story, then, is not just her marvelous poetry, and her interesting romances, but the question: why was she so threatening to the Pound/Eliot/Tate Imagist/Modernist/New Critic coterie? Try and split this up if you wish: the imagists, the modernists, the new critics. But they were together; they were a club; clubby, ambitious, and quite reactionary.\r

    Go, Edna, go!\r


  9. May 11, 2009
     Annie Finch

    why was she so threatening to the Pound/Eliot/Tate Imagist/Modernist/New Critic coterie? \r

    A very interesting question. thoughts, anyone?

  10. May 14, 2009

    I love this but have no idea where it's from. Help?

  11. May 14, 2009
     thomas brady


    Thanks a lot for paying attention to this.\r

    Sadly, few poets and intellectuals today are equipped or trained to handle an inquiry like this.\r

    Here's the question again:\r

    "Why was Millay so threatening to the Pound/Eliot/Tate Imagist/Modernist/New Critic coterie? \r

    A very interesting question. thoughts, anyone?"\r

    I'll see if I can get the ball rolling. Three things:\r

    First, People outside the academy actually read her books. That’s a huge threat right there. Imagine someone with Ezra Pound’s ego comparing the sales of his poetry to hers. Imagine Pound and his Modernist clique comparing their Dial Magazine Prizes to her Pulitzer. \r
    Second, Pound pursued Mussolini and crackpot literary opinions (see 1929’s “How To Read” for instance) in the wake of Millay’s popularity. John Crowe Ransom and his Fugitive/future New Critics put together a reactionary Agrarian political tract, “I’ll Take My Stand” in 1930. Eliot made those speeches at Virginia. Millay's politics were a bit different.\r

    And finally, Millay was a victim of what became a ubiquitous myth described below by Cary Nelson in “Repression and Recovery:” (a book I'm dying to read; I just stumbled upon this wonderful quote)\r

    "The dominant model tends to see modern poetry as making a decisive break with the past. Thus one is led to imagine that writers and readers of the first decade of the [20th] century spent their time in a kind of cultural limbo: waiting for modernism to begin."\r

    "Alternatives to this version of early 20th century poetry–in which the birth of formally experimental modernist poetry is considered the only story worth telling–-often take a still more dangerous route: constructing a contest between an aesthetically ambitious but distinctly elitist and apolitical modernism and a tired, sentimental tradition of genteel romanticism. Once our image of the period is contained and structured this way–once our sense of the discourses at work is limited to these choices–-it is easy to feel that experimental modernism deserved to win this battle, for it is difficult to recapture the knowledge that these were not the only forces at play. But in fact they were not."\r