Peonies and Picnic Ants: Returning to Concrete Nouns
July 2, 2018 § 9 Comments
By Brittany R. Collins
Four years ago, I performed a poem in the back room of a bar for a patchwork audience drinking beer from plastic cups. At the end of the evening, an older man in a grey fedora pulled me aside to say: “There are some things in this world that only children, animals, and poets understand.”
“Children, animals, and poets.” I hear him in my mind when I read, even now. I reach a clause or the white space after a period—for it is never the period itself that catches me, that bobber in the water, but the placid, smooth stream of the in-between. It is there that he is waiting, wading, whispering this line about audience.
Today, I am reading Annie Dillard by the peony garden when thunder rumbles. Ants scurry into the folds of the flower petals, tucking themselves into each crevice (each crevice a magenta duvet, a tortoise shell, a home) and I imagine them screeching tiny screams, sensing the atmospheric shift in their bellies.
They are always there, these ants, and sometimes a nuisance. When I clip the flower stems with sharp orange scissors, intending to bring the outer in, their bodies—glistening and black—remind me that the outer will always evade. They cling and grasp, immovable.
Watching their determination, I remember my clean kitchen counters, the aroma of Lemon Pledge, and I drop my scissors. I lay the blades down in the depths of my picnic basket and recede. You’re right, I think, watching the ants rush, frantic and frenetic (with glee? with fear? how similar the two feel, embodied). You’re right. This is where you belong.
There will always be unity and schism between the earth and me.
Sometimes the ants are welcome company. I whisper hello to them as I tread the tender earth, and they scurry. I have never seen a still ant. An ant of stasis. I relate to their urgency, their exigency. “Busy” is a guise for brimming—with glee, with fear. With both.
The ant-filled peony in the flower garden stands in contrast to the curated, cinched bouquet on the shelf. Both are beautiful and necessary. There is a time and place for them. Just as the worn arrangement at the supermarket serves its neon purpose, so does the untouched flower bush embody a sense of intent.
The Dillard book is The Writing Life. The writing life is also brimming, is also a confluence of fear and glee, doubt and surprise. It is defined by imminence and felt in the belly. The heart, head, and viscera.
Intent centers Dillard’s text, and all creative endeavors. “You adapt yourself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of the paintbox,” she tells us. “Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.”
The contents of my paintbox are rumble, rain, and soil. Sitting in my verdant corner, reading these words, I am reawakened to the meditative side of writing: not deadlines, not comma splices, no. Just me and the page as a container; a mirror; a canvas for this fleeting world. How vivid words seem when I return to this frame of mind. Surely the transcendentalists zoomed in on matters of heart and soul—interiority and cyclicality—before they fretted over fragments, and it is this attunement to the particular, the real, that grounds me when I lose the meat and purpose of my work—when I prize the scintillating (if frayed) grocery store bouquet over the messy elegance of an unweeded garden.
“A week later,” Dillard writes, “I had a visit so instructive that when it was over, and I had fully absorbed its lesson, I considered never opening my door again. This was a visit from children.” I reach this line, and there again is my audience member, wearing his grey fedora and a wise and witty grin. Playing in the sandbox, its own expansive paintbox, where creation and erasure meet at such a fluid line, the child knows something of articulation and attention. I can’t help but feel that all creativity is a seeking for return—for the restoration of this perceptual attunement to the granularity of the everyday.
So how do we capture such specificity in our work? How do we “paint” the particulars of experience as if we still carry a toy magnifying glass? I look down at my foot, feeling a small tickle, to see the picnic ants from the peonies crawling across my skin. I am Birkenstocked and sticky with humidity, the sky clotted with clouds. I smell predictive petrichor; I taste alfalfa, freshly mown. And I realize, clutching Dillard, that it will always be concrete nouns that root me—first in the world, and then in my writing.
To paint a scene on canvas, one needs color, texture, and a subject. So it is with words.
For why tell you it was moving, when I can instead show you the mountains?
Brittany R. Collins has written for English Journal and Literacy & NCTE, of the National Council of Teachers of English; Insight, of Dana Farber Cancer Institute; and The Mighty, among others. She is a Reader for the Harvard Review and New England Review and enjoys coaching other writers as a Group Manager at Write the World LLC. Her anthology, Learning from Loss: How Teachers Tackle Mortality in the Classroom, is in preparation– author-educators interested in contributing should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.