Hymn to Edmond Albius

Too busy peddling my fire and trying to keep the mouths fed
and packing up belongings of the recent dead right now to access
your luxurious philosophy, though one looks forward to a time

when the universe permits, I said to my electric correspondent
who came at me puffed pink in thoughtfulness when what I needed
then as now was a quiet high enough to envision a half-gallon

brick of all-natural vanilla ice cream softening on the hot hood
of an idling cop car: the earliest rivulets, a slow loss of strict
rectangularity, then the wild gliding around on the beautiful bleak

enamel paint job as its sweet fragrance fills the air like a gift
from Madagascar I can breathe. Rapt Cortés transported cuttings
of vanilla across the Atlantic during his plunder of the Aztecs;

the Aztecs themselves fell captive to its magic after vanquishing
its first cultivators the Totonacs, who paid their conquerors tributes
of baskets stacked to heaven with cured vanilla pods like long

sentences of salutiferous essence. This is one of those instances
history likes to push your face into to try to stir your appetite
for cruelty a little, or at least make you covet the perks of it: I too

want vanilla in quantity. I want it all around me, like a fortress
of mellow dangles. It will move with me as I move and it will ward
hateful people off. For centuries Europeans tried to cultivate it

outside its native Mexico and failed. They could get the vine
to flower, but in the absence of ancestral pollinators, specifically
hummingbirds and a stingless bee, the flowers dropped off podless.

Meanwhile, Edmond Albius—born into slavery on an island
east of Madagascar known then as Bourbon, lush French colony
and home to roses, one active volcano, one dormant, and one

arena-like caldera that holds the record for most rainfall shed
in one location by a single tropical cyclone ever, namely Hyacinthe—
knew enough from orchids at age twelve in 1841 to think to lift

with a bamboo splint the flap of the rostellum dividing the pollen-
heavy male anther from the female stigma in order to rub the pollen
on the stigma’s eager wand. Within weeks the pods had begun

to form and lengthen into joyous beanlike squiggles laden with
tiny seeds like secrets of the universe as Albius at the shore and under
bright southern stars breathed out I hope in a kind of enlargement

akin to liberty from time, so that on that occasion he might feel
briefly as if his own, even as his method of vanilla pollination
belonged first to his master, then Madagascar, and then the world,

with nearly all vanilla produced today as Albius taught us, including
the kind in Breyers since 1866, fourteen years before Albius died
unrecognized, in poverty, in misery to be exact, while everyone white

around him grew rich with vanilla, adding it to candy, Coca-Cola,
Chanel No. 5, and even in effigy to the air freshener dangling
down in my Uber, its waves whispering Albius, Albius, but inaudibly.

More Poems by Timothy Donnelly