Contributor’s Marginalia: Traci Brimhall on “Corpse Flower, Brooklyn Botanic Garden” by Brandon Courtney
Like most readers, I love a good seduction, and Brandon Courtney’s poem seduced me on several levels.
This poem incites my logophilia from the first line: “It’s not the spadix’s perfect candling, lepered/with pollen.” I admit to a poor working knowledge of floral anatomy, so I looked up spadix to see what was lepered with pollen. (Everyone should do this. I could describe the phallic spike rising out of a flower but wouldn’t you rather see it for yourself?) Although candling has several definitions, I like to think this is a reference to the practice of shining a light behind an egg to see the growth of the embryo. And lepered! My mother grew up near a leprosarium, and I recently discovered that leper colonies once had their own monetary system. That doesn’t have anything to do with Courtney’s poem, but it’s what his first sentence summons in me. My curiosity. My history. My pleasure. That fertile, upright spadix is lepered with pollen? That lush spike is flecked with festering sores? Who’s not seduced by that?
Courtney’s verbs are straight up sexy, if I may say such a thing about a poem that describes a flower that smells like a corpse. After all, Wallace Stevens said “Death is the mother of beauty.” I may try and stretch it further to say there’s something arousing about decay. But to return to the verbs—pistils are shrapneled, inflorescence bandages its spathe, stinkhorns blister the compost, sand fleas feather a dead man’s eyes. See what I mean? Sexy.
If this poem tantalizes my love of language first and second, it finishes me off by referencing one of my favorite myths—Samson slaying the lion. In the Biblical story, Samson slays a lion on his way to ask for a woman’s hand in marriage. On his way to the wedding, Samson notices that bees have made a hive of the dead lion’s body, and he eats some of the honey. In Courtney’s poem, flies take the place of the bees, and a soldier stands in for the lion. I may not have thought of Samson at all if it hadn’t been for Courtney’s use of “honeycomb” to describe the actions of the flies. Delicious. I mean, awful, but it’s so particular, so horrifyingly alive that I can’t help but look.
Although his reference may not have been deliberate, I was glad that myth came buzzing to the surface of the poem. Samson offered a riddle to his groomsmen: “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.” The answer, of course, is honey from a lion, which only Samson knows. It’s a beautiful impossibility, and he wasn’t sharing his answer. Courtney offers what he knows but not as a riddle or a trick. He gives us a linguistically rich poem full of beauty, death, and humanity, a poem where heaven gathers on the flint’s tip. Out of a thousand days of waiting comes the flower made flesh, lepered beauty, lovely rot.
Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), winner the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (SIU Press, 2010), winner of the Crab Orchard Series First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Slate, VQR, New England Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She’s received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the King/Chávez/Parks Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her poem, “After All the Lullabies Vanish From the Library,” appears with Brandon Courtney’s “Corpse Flower, Brooklyn Botanic Garden” in 32 Poems 10.2.