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Ripples in the Stillness: Reading “Refuge”

April 8, 2012

 (“Refuge” can be found on p.  24 of heart speech this, ISBN 0982530943)

Sometimes the simplest, smallest poems have the most impact. “Refuge” is the poem the French poet and filmmaker Pierre Alferi read silently on a balcony in the Swiss Alps, then shook himself slightly, looked up, and said with some astonishment, “That’s good.” Why did this poem catch his attention?

A vase filled with lilies in water: a pretty, somewhat conventional still life for an artist, or a decorative touch adding grace and beauty but not much twisting of the mind or senses when viewed. Why make this the subject of a poem? There’s a good challenge in making experiences blur and yet seem real. The pathetic fallacy (acting as if an inanimate object has human emotions) has a place in poetry and magic realism if the writer can persuade her audience to share the illusion.

“Refuge” is the title of this poem. What seeks or has safety here, and what causes the need for protection? The “ruby-throated lilies” and the “supplication of green” suggest pain in speaking and the surrender of youth and vibrancy. Speech and silence are threaded throughout “Refuge,” and the flowers that cannot speak (think of the mute “tongue” the lily’s anther-laden stamen resembles). The vase, in its “containment” paired with the tranquil “depth of blue” suggest a stillness at odds with the “murmur…wave…spill” and finally “mutter” that crack its “porcelain” surface, which is both steady (“stone”) and fragile (easily broken pottery).

The lilies themselves reflect the image of the vase, rising upward with open mouths, colored differently internally than externally, just as the body is red and moist inside, variously hued by genes and sun on its outer surfaces. Just as the vase and the body contain water to nourish and detoxify their contents, the lilies also hold water within their stems, exchanging fluids for food even when rootless, even when wilting towards death.

Once cut, flowers lose their potency. Bees and hummingbirds will find no fertile pollen to cling to their legs or nectar to drink for its sugar. Yet in the minutes and hours before their stems split and curl and their petals brown and drop, lilies release an intense desire of color, shape, and texture. Vases have a subtler sensuality. Perhaps the refuge lies somewhere between these expressions, one seeking a longer and more protected beauty, the other borrowing the possibility of change and greater allure.

Does the poem suggest all or any of these things on first reading? Perhaps not. There is a sensuality and despair here, a recalling of the lush sorrows of Li Qingzhao (1084-c.1151) waiting for her husband to return, describing her hairpins and cosmetics with the same intensity as her tears. And a modernity in the confusion of intentions and emotions with objects rather than simple description.

For me, this is a poem of permission to feel more than one emotion at a time, to be complicated and yet simple, and to dream of restfulness in the midst of dangers. It allows me to think about the beauty and uncertainty of the small and ordinary and their placement, their movement, in a beautiful, uncertain, and violent world.