Jan '03 [Home]


Photo:  Christopher Gruver
Red Zinnias
Alice Notley

          to George Schneeman

Red velvet zinnias, small ones, across the room
normal ones and that
so I don't even look at them I only think of them
Red velvet. As in a song I wrote about a soul "red velvet love".
are also a fly and a feather, a large fly a giant, a small brown and brushy
feather down
on the floor
What I need to explain is that like these things I am not human, part of
me is not human
Whatever I share with them, existence itself, is not human
And isn't that a most important part the non-human part
as in god
the non-human That—
That is so dark
And so anyway to be human, or to be a feather
And so constantly to counter darkness with red or softness
or flyingness or sitting here
Wondering why we humans are so obsessed with our humanness

I might touch my cheek to the zinnias
Would it be a cheek I used or would it be an existence
Would it do here to talk about crimson or about velvet
I've lost the book that tells about pigments crushed this or that
gemstone or mineral
ground insect husk
Am I or are you like cochineal or is god Is god red That isn't
what I mean
Or velvet, like a spaniel or a certain light after rain
Or fear-red like blood or not red but fearsome as blood-red is sometimes
if you are surprised
terrified by
human nature Human nature Is plain nature terrifying?
A thunderstorm or a mass murderer:
is there majesty in a murderer Of course not Is god there
The pre-storm sky is bruise purple It is so beautiful Is it beautiful
because it is bruise-like because it is purple because it is brutal
Brutal but not terribly harmful Purple and now so is the wind
I run in it making my knee swell
I don't care about my knee I don't have a knee inside the purple
bruise wind. My knee is bruised inside, I am exultant I am non-human
Who can bother to be bruised inside inside this timelessness
Poised before the rain So many are Before the rain
Who is like god then, or like a stone Who is like dark air or fire
As god must be As you must be or I
But not when bruised?
And I am not running

Crimson from the kermes insect
To see this color justifies being alive We all know that A friend of
mine knows a painter, blind from birth, who knows this
How does she see the crimson color? With a sense for that that guides her
painting hand. Her works are very
brightly colored very bold
What is "bold" if you are a stone or a scorpion Do I want to be "bold"?
A scorpion is exquisite Does it know this It is dangerous Does it
know this?
Does god know these things And if god doesn't know them are they things at all
Are they "human" things of the sort I can take or leave And, oh yes, you
don't think that a scorpion
armed and tailed and antennaed all arms like Shiva but walking
walking on them tail up,
the beautiful non-color of the scorched and pebbled gravelly browny ground,
Fragile Who is that fragile
A newborn baby Not really
Why does such fragility persist in its ways?
writing its poems for no one (or for its offspring, they say)
If a flower is cut from a plant, can you make a bouquet of human arms?
Is the flower the person or is the plant The plant
What fucks us
around so much
as we do our
non-human peers? The weather?
Is love human or non-human I'd say non-human Why say that? I think
anything loves
Or do I think anything is love

Why do I become so naked Who cares
Well so I can cease to be human so I can be non-human by emptying it
all out
writhing under your scrutiny of my mind my pathetic mind
when actually another part of me is as crimson, as velvet, or as darkness
Darkness splashed with stars?
darkness as in godhead Breathless naught Immortal naught The very immensity
Have you perceived it? I sense it with an intellectual sense that is more like a sense than like thought
I fear it I always have Why It might blind me with love It might rob me
of my humanity, my sweet days and sad days
What does the scorpion say
Hot with desert love so happily small to sting Stings its self?
We sting ourselves to stay small
And human

That crimson petals like cats' tongues perist behind my head
leaves wilting I bought them partly for the freshness of the
leaves as in a field, slave flowers
Have you read Suetonius, if you can believe him How depraved the
Caesars, next to a flower next to god?
God is perfectly naive say the mystics
and oneself is allowed in god
to be perfectly naive again
again as color or its lack is naive? by being essence If I could be red
or blue As ultramarine as one's own painting
Medieval people seemed to think
god values best colors As pure color approaches the
condition of the godhead?
And gold
as light
But it is the blue or red we love so well
Or the exalted sound of certain music without words But in poetry what is
like that?
To stammer love as only a human To make sliding music, between words,
that one is barely aware of?
In my words now I am in color
Or in a forest drunk with it the air now more valuable than rubies
than emeralds To breathe like an animal again
Is that to breathe like god? Can you pretend to be the ocean or the sky?
I can lose myself for a time
Sometimes like darkness Sometimes like light
Not exactly conscious as I and so equal oneself to the Holy Void and not like
rock animal or blossom except in that darkness or lightness
without braincase without hope
alive aswirl

As the red petals are for me I must be for them
How can I? I just am As for the scorpion too (How is it for me?)
The exquisiteness itself stings me like a star Beauty full of
tiny wounds Where human-ness and god-ness collide
And leak into each other Golden-dark acids Contrasting sweetnesses
Coffee brown burning Crick in the neck
When they say we exist to praise are they right, or just human,
saying something fleeting
Air becoming existence on time every day There is the scorpion
materialized, mini-instant to mini-instant
But it seems to me I am not always here My consciousness wanders and
through a hole in air
into a coincident world Or void Where I am free Freely naught?
On the wind
Which is not breath
Deeper red
Darker red

Not being here I am speaking Tongue of crimson
A shower of coins might kill you but not red air Say it clear
Are you boastful, boastful human? No I am not here
To glimpse for a moment
such immensity
as all we know
materializes from Who has the courage Leave your house of self
It hasn't to do with a telescope
It has to do with, not existing, to see
Not existing
In order to see it
See it
It isn't the stars It is more
As you are nothing you are home
As you are human you have a house of course A strange house
Hermit crab? Or sea slime Any slime I am any slime
I have an intellect It is
gone I am now great as
slime riding emptiness Vast blackness
Are not the smaller older creatures greater than we are
See how there is no barrier between them and god
We have evolved to be distant from happiness?
Have we evolved? I haven't ever I am not ever now
Am bit of I-slime of happiness

You must come back now and be human Why
That is where color is Kindness and small loves No one else leaves for
long while they live
The zinnias' heads bend down drying today the one yellow one is
like straw
But time isn't daunting Our minds
so much faster than our bodies can carry us to
again, if we want that Is flesh fascinating Is human history, that
sick dream that's too slow? Yes, it's fascinating Admit it
compression of
an infinitude of immensities
Another way in which the universe is so large I can't find it
But I can't be lost
inside anyone else
How many red flowers are there Which one is myself, tall or short
red or redder That is history Sickness of comparison
That is human not floral or scorpionic
So much more to watch and escape from Where can one go now
And not abandon it
Comfortable and not abandon it
Nowhere you are here at X
Anguish of an insect Immobility of a boulder
Universe locked up inside one Locked up inside everyone Oh say it back
to me
Let me see it in your eyes and on your flesh The stars' reflections
minor pinpoints in your darknesses
As you carry bouquets of drying spice your own selves to each other
I am the worst The worst flower locked
The answer must be leaking back out
Of what we know
Until it's here

God is not special Nor are you Nor is darkness
Is something A momentary
confirmation in time perhaps? The zinnias just so Ten drying heads the
crimson deepening deepening in what is taken to be a death
two still upright the rest are bowed-headed The green wilted with a
grey sheen on the undersides showing twisted
To make too much of
a certain kind of telling
I can still get lost in their color Though they are dying
A rich female voice downstairs is singing something as fulsome
as that red not of rubies but of rich cloths
They still don't smell like
the city
This isn't that moment already

Time I am it Each nuance of crimson
corruption of what was once
fresh and ignorant
Nothing but oneself
not a stranger, time And dark timelessness, too
Mourn the zinnias now from
the ancientest place of all
And also from
the second ancientest
Mourn from timelessness From being time
But they're just flowers And one of you cut them
Tribal parochial human
You own a scorpion in a paperweight Mounted starkly in a bubble
Airless as timelessness itself
Trying to make things last?
Each time as if the last That must endure If you can find it Endure in
memory? Endure from
realization? 'I saw it So it is, really?'
If I am time, aren't I its master?
To be
is to submit to it
to being
In the center of time is not a paperweight containing a
preserved specimen gold against onyx black
In the center of time is not a human, making, mind? But a love a
scorpion's a flower's a rock's
for configuring and then not
I love you form for it I love you form
I don't know I know this And I must not know
One zinnia alive to sear as if a blackness in my chest
The fallen leaves are fantastic shapes ungeometrical Curled up and greyed
Unpredicted shapes Unpredictable 'I don't know
what will happen to me'
Does it matter It must One zinnia
A dead star hung from a thread-thin
curved stem
Expired red burst star head
What is a moment? Each 'just once'
The Non-human holds it Releases it
Are all the ways we are for each other Flower and scorpion Rock and fire
Air and any,
the holding and releasing
hand, the non-human love?
So that to press deep into one's darkness, one's god-ness
to find the world, by which I also mean
the universe?
The zinnias are gone I burst with crimson
Stand up and do something human
What is human Hardly anything Say something red

[From Selected Poems (Talisman House, 1993). Reprinted with permission.]

(Alice Notley is the author of twenty-five books of poetry, including, Disobedience
(Penguin, 2001), awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Award. A long-time
resident of Manhattan, she lives in Paris.)

Woman with a Red Zinnia, Mary Cassatt (1891)