To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member or purchase at your local bookstore.
The selections that follow are pulled from a longer series of letters written between 2014 and 2018.
Let’s begin with poppies.
Eschscholzia californica is not a true poppy, though it shares with Ranunculales a frilly, parsley-like leafage, and with Papaveraceae an apparent fragility and love of roadsides.
Its genus is named for one German botanist, Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, by another German botanist, Adelbert von Chamisso. These two flower-friends traveled together to California, among other exotic locales, from Russia, sometime during 1815–1818, and published their results in 1822.
In California, as we both know, our poppy is prolific. It will grow through pavement, or around the feet of grazing cattle. Its shape is more triangular than those species with which it shares a common name. It twists shut at night, curling around itself into a beak-like cone. And it sits on a small reddish saucer, which is as stiff and circular as its petal ends are ragged and pliable. At its center, a small tuft of orange or yellow reproductive fluff. And it is itself yellow or orange, rarely white, or some gradation of these.
It is not a plant native to New England. And yet, we know that it was cultivated there with some regularity in the 19th century. By the 1830s, Eschscholzia californica is presented in New England periodicals as a common, though somewhat troublesome, cultivated plant. The plant appears under the heading “New Plants” in May 18, 1833, issue of The Genesee Farmer and Gardener’s Journal, and makes entries into three editions of the Horticultural Register and Gardener’s Magazine during 1835 and 1836.
In Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, assembled in the 1840s, our poppy appears at the bottom middle of a page including seven other specimens, two without names. The other plants are Nodding Trillium; a purplish Common Garden Tulip; Starflower; the downy false foxglove — which Dickinson labels Aureolaria pedicularia, common name fern-leaved foxglove — and the fern-leaved foxglove — which Dickinson labels Aureolaria flava, common name smooth false foxglove. Between these two erroneous foxgloves: our California poppy, whose four yellow petals are wrinkled like unsmoothed cotton, the top two dog-eared over on the center like pages of a tiny, unreadable book.
In the descriptions of Eschscholzia in New England in the 19th century, the plant is prized both for its ornamental showiness and its invocation of an otherwise inaccessible, sunnier, clime. “Scarcely any plant produces a greater degree of splendor than this,” one author writes; “when the full sun is upon it, it makes a complete blaze of color. It is a most suitable plant for producing a distant effect.” One of Emily Dickinson’s textbooks while she was at Mount Holyoke, Alphonso Wood’s A Class Book of Botany, describes Eschscholziaas “[a] very showy annual, common in our gardens.”
For a few decades, then, the California poppy serves an additive function in New England gardens: an approximation of a wild within an increasingly tame space. By the second half of the century, however, Eschscholzia ceases to appear primarily as a garden plant; indeed, it disappears from Eastern periodicals almost entirely. The inclusion of an “Embroidery Design” based on the poppy’s frills, triangles, and flame-like colors, ideal for “the end of a bureau scarf” in the New York based Harper’s Bazaar in 1894 signals the plant’s increasingly ornamental nature in the East.
Recently, Theo Davis has described an ornamental aesthetics in 19th-century literature that attends to the artifice of beauty as it animates, rather than describes or determines, history. This also accurately describes the presence of the California poppy in New England 19th-century gardens, where it projects the wild rather than being synonymous with wildness, and makes history happen — gives Emily Dickinson a page of flowers to press; later, gives lady-readers of Harper’s a design to embroider at the end of a scarf. Later still, the poppy becomes an emblem for the state from which it hails: our flower. All of this contributes to an aesthetic that gives a surprising agency to this plant.
Davis develops her notion of ornamental aesthetics from, among other examples, the lilies Henry David Thoreau describes during his river-paddle in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Thoreau looks at these flowers, but they also elude him, as does the ornamental itself, always glinting and growing. Davis describes this encounter as an “adjacency” that “does not reach communication or even recognition.”
That not quite communicative adjacency is evocative, also, of letter-writing, and of friendship. The letter is a sub-literary, supplemental genre. Its intimacies are indirect. Sometimes its vectors run straight through their mark and are more beautiful than the bull’s-eye and so detract from intention or attachment. An ornamental affection: attachment in motion.
I am back in California where it is hot, dry, and just a tad chilly when the wind blows. We spent the last days in Montreal and back to New Hampshire slogging through a warm summer rainstorm. Last summer there, we found black trumpets all along a back trail behind a ski mountain that had probably flooded with the rains and then receded, oysters sprouting from trees stumps in front yards, and chicken-of-the-woods.
No mushrooms here, and we have given up our arugula to turn into dry chaff.
For 19th-century New England gardeners to grow a poppy suited to dry, hot weather is a miracle; and yet they did. Perhaps Dickinson grew them, or a neighbor somewhere in Amherst. Celia Thaxter, another New England poet, grew them on Appledore Island of the Isles of Shoals off the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine. “Dear Feroline Fox,” she writes on June 16, 1874,
My little garden sprang into such life of a sudden; all the seeds I planted, and a million more beside, came rushing up out of the ground so fast that I hardly knew how to manage them, and have been obliged to throw away enough flowers to stock half a dozen gardens, in order to let the remaining plants have room to grow. Such mats of pansies! And that flaming California poppy has spread everywhere. It breaks my heart to have to pull up a single one! Ranks of sweet-peas I have, and mignonette by the bushel. If I can only keep the weeds away
Thaxter decorated her father’s hotel salon with the poppy’s golden flares and the blooms of all the other rampaging plants from her garden. In a little guide book on the isles, first published in 1873, John Scribner Jenness points to climate as the reason for its popularity as a summer resort, noting that “during the period from 1831 to 1843, it turns out, that while there are during the year, on the average, fifty-eight rainy days at Portland, and nearly fifty-eight at Boston, there are but twenty-five at the Piscataqua,” by which he means the Portsmouth harbor area out of which one would sail for the isles. Though it may have been occasional and brief, a spell of dry weather in the middle of June, along with the rocky and barren grounds of the island, may have been just enough to coax profusions of California poppies far from home.
If this poppy was on its way to becoming a domesticated ornament of New England, it still retains for Thaxter something of wildness — and weediness. Its “spread everywhere,” its bright orange petals warning of fire season in California, is in her New England garden similarly untamable. Along with “the million more beside,” Thaxter’s flowers are growing as wildly as the weeds she wants to keep away.
I have made a clearing here, sitting in a chair next to the door that opens out to the afternoon sunlight. It would be too easy to conclude that an enclosure such as this makes room for a letter to be written. In her 1894 Island Garden, Thaxter advises “of Poppies, Plant them in a rich sandy loam, all except the Californias (Eschscholtzia), which do best in a poor soil.” Pages later, of all the flowers she names, the California poppy is the one which Thaxter takes up as a prismatic emblem of the isles:
As I hold the flower in my hand and think of trying to describe it, I realize how poor a creature I am, how impotent are words in the presence of such perfection. It is held upright upon a straight and polished stem, its petals curving upward and outward into the cup of light, pure gold with lustrous satin sheen; a rich orange is painted on the gold, drawn in infinitely fine lines to a point in the centre of the edge of each petal, so that the effect is that of a diamond of flame in a cup of gold.
Like her friend “Feroline Fox,” whose alliterative name has a pixie ring to it, the flower is a fairy presence. Its elegance, however delicate, is too fine and too bejeweled in her description. Yet it is true that this diamond flame more brilliantly captures the California poppy than any other shade of orange, and if one must churn out words like cups of gold, it is better to be precise and piquant than staid and undistinguished.
When we visited you in Santa Barbara in May, you said you learned discipline from training in gymnastics, and it is with that same discipline you now approach your writing. But this discipline — and we all have own versions of it; mine is to wake up by seven every morning, walk the dog, breakfast, and write until lunchtime, no more — is like turning dirt without fertilizer — “feeding / A little life with dried tubers.” So far I have been lucky. The arugula and collards we planted last year sprang up again on their own after a thicket of spring rains in April. Perhaps the ones we leave to run to seed this year will turn the trick again. But somehow, I am less sure of it now that it isn’t a surprise. The bloom has worn off. Writing feels the same once one must write the same thing over and over again as one does for a dissertation.
I thought moving to Santa Barbara sounded like a lovely writing retreat, and your new home seemed a quaint treehouse filled with old enamel kitchenware, tea trays with floral patterns, and the leafy arms of your rubber plant and fiddleleaf fig. It reminded me of Pablo Neruda’s house in Santiago de Chile — all these little rooms winding around tree trunks, and every part of the house like a well-turned piece of driftwood strung with whimsical mobiles. But how can we write if all our will must go toward sweeping the floors and washing the dishes, and making a home of the place where we have come to? How can we write, even with all the discipline mustered, if the verdant enchantment of our lives is so much work to sustain? One could say the same thing of these texts that we turn over in our hands — there is a kind of dry academic paraphernalia of citations and critical trends that surrounds every word. Dutiful housekeeping of these hairy beasts that merely shed more every day — new facts, connections, and interpretations.
Something makes me want to throw it all away — though I fear that any new direction would yield the same vanity. I need little for inspiration — sometimes just a glass of water, a pencil, and paper — anything more would be distraction. Other times, it feels as though everything has gone dry, and even the novels I read to lead me astray are filled with familiar detours. When Charles Darwin marvels at how “the greatest amount of life diversity can be supported by great diversification of structure,” he cites the example that “[i]t has been experimentally proved, that if a plot of ground be sown with one species of grass, and a similar plot be sown with several distinct genera of grasses, a greater number of plants and a greater weight of dry herbage can thus be raised.” If we were to simply throw a greater diversity of things into our little plot of land, I suppose I am not sure if “a greater weight of dry herbage” is exactly the result I want. If we took Celia Thaxter’s garden and pressed all the different species of flowers in an herbarium, she wouldn’t have that certain heft of light that we know Dickinson by. But then, it is possible that neither would Dickinson. And what we are on the lookout for are these moments when a spark catches and burns, dangerously, vertiginously with wild growth.
What am I coaxing out of this letter? To Mrs. Horatio Lamb on March 13, 1893, Thaxter wrote:
I send you one of Farquhar’s catalogues, marked, as I promised, and I want to say about the marks that they stand against flowers that I know about intimately; and the more marks you find, the more charming and desirable is the flower! I dare say you know about them all, and I know there are many that are as beautiful, perhaps, which I have not marked, but these I have indicated are all old friends and dear, and I am sure of them.
I am sure you’ll have tulips and peonies (don’t forget the single pink and white varieties of these) and lilies of all kinds, and don’t forget the heavenly perennial larkspurs, — the divinest azure, rose, and saffron tints — and sunflowers and hollyhocks and single dahlias (superb), kings’ flowers, I call them, all colors; and the Oriental poppies, hardy and never failing and gorgeous beyond description. Perennial phloxes, especially the pure white and the rose color. Hydrangea grande flora — all these you know; and the tall Japanese anemones that are heavenly beautiful. Dear me! I get out of breath with the perennials before I think of reaching the dear flower seeds for annuals.
She has, in her exhaustive list (and this is not the end of it), produced a dog-eared seed catalog of her own; a kind of to-do list of a scrupulous gardener or accountant with the most conventional flourishes. “Charming,” “desirable,” “beautiful,” “dear,” “divine,” “heavenly,” “gorgeous” — these words add nothing even as they lengthen out the sentence. To Thaxter’s credit, her selection reflects an eye toward an impressionist color palette and her enthusiasm propels the circulation of botanical knowledge, botanical pressings, and seeds among lady correspondents. This American bourgeois continuation of what Theresa Kelley calls “the aesthetic pleasure and invitation to figure that move just beneath the surface of global botanizing as a commercial and imperial venture” retains its ulterior motives. Thaxter's interest in the California poppy is both eccentric and conventional by the time of the 1890s, when the poppy had become that embroidery pattern in the Harper’s Bazaar. Her garden list betrays the decorous quality of extraneous and typical pleasantries, ornamental exclamations, and breathy but well-paced sighs.
Flowers are “dear old friends” that may be marked up on catalogs and bought, economical, profuse, and portable. Pick them by the dozen; throw them out by the dozen. With these things we adorn our lives. On occasion I have felt so, measuring friendship by flowers, sorely used and accessorized.
I often wonder how many times Hawthorne read Melville’s letters (that we have read so recursively for over a century). Did he jam them into a drawer and draw back his hand from the shock? Or did he sit around in the evening by the fire, Sophia painting, or reading, turning their pages over one another, savoring. I think of all genres, the epistle’s dishonesties are the most upsetting. It’s all very well for an outsider, a hundred years in the distance, but how terrible for the persons caught in these convoluted discretions. Some letters feel like pins in pretty dresses, mocked up for an unrealized body; whether the pins are there for pricking or for keeping the folded cambric in place, what does the body know? Generally, when I am the body I don’t read well, wincing and dancing too much to keep still. This restlessness feels appropriate to poppies. It is spring now, and I have been amiss and inattentive. It has taken me months to respond. The green of California’s winter hills is drying away into barren gold again. And orange transfusions have returned to the slopes.
In her first letter to Abiah Root, the late girlhood friend toward whom Dickinson would compose 22 letters between 1845 and 1854, Dickinson brags: “My plants look beautifully. Old King Frost has not had the pleasure of snatching any of them in his cold embrace as yet, and I hope will not.” Later in the letter she writes: “We’ll finish an education sometime, won’t we?” February 23, 1845. What plants was Dickinson preserving from the frost? What were these girls learning?
I have an image of you from our first year in school together. Standing among the fruit at the Berkeley Bowl, taking a piece and smelling it, touching it, how deliberately you moved through the aisles, and how I had to swallow half of every step in order to keep pace. I don’t remember the fruit. Your fingers and face compose much of the frame. We had plans for dinner. And afterward we sat at that black table in the rough center of my mostly empty studio apartment and talked. Deliberately, too, I imagine. The details are occluded, but I remember the rhythm of our exchanges because they unfurled differently from my regular patterns and surges. I bluster, Jules, when you linger. I shatter Sèvres (recalling another of Dickinson’s poems, about sharing a life). And perhaps, for that reason, a tea tray has begun to seem like a stay against chaos, much as Robert Frost thought a poem was. An evidently elaborate notion. A sentence pulled from Woolf. When I read Rhoda or Lily Briscoe I remember you. But perhaps friends should not remember one another, or find one another in works of art. “Dear Remembered,” Dickinson addresses Abiah in May 1850 after their intimacy has slowed. Perhaps friends should not write letters at all.
At times, Dickinson speaks of her flowers as friends, and of her friends as flowers. Writing to Abiah, among other things, of the death of her friend Sophia Holland, Dickinson explains: “She was too lovely for earth & she was transplanted from earth to heaven.” Sophia’s death is figured in flower terms, death as the gardener and loveliness the boon. Of this friendship, before one half of it roots fast in heavenly soil, Dickinson writes: “I have never lost but one friend near my age & with whom my thoughts & her own were the same.” Sophia was one flower and Abiah, now, another. “It was before you came to Amherst,” Dickinson reassures her young friend, Root. May their thoughts be ever the same and the gardener and frost aloof.
Flowers are friends Dickinson can directly tend, misting and tucking them, bearing away their yellow leaves, coaxing perfumes. Frequently, she tells Abiah of the health of her charges and asks after the being and well-being of Abiah’s own flower friends. In August 1845, Dickinson reports with pride: “My House plants look very finely now.” A month later, “Have you any flowers now?” And, “I have had a beautiful flower-garden this summer; but they are nearly gone now.”
The recurrence of now, now, now, echoes through the distance of epistles. When is the now that flowers were, and that letters left behind? In September of the next year, she asks Abiah, “Have you any flowers in Norwich?” And crows, “My garden looked finely when I left home.”
This efflorescent context is the foundation of their friendship, at least so far as Dickinson is concerned. In an early letter, from January 1846, she writes, “I can hardly wait for spring to come, for I so long to see you,” as if the very shift in season would usher along her friend, pulling crocuses from the bulb along with Abiah. In her penultimate letter in May 1852, Dickinson declares a long association:
Oh, Abiah, you and the early flower are forever linked to me; as soon as the first green grass comes, up from a chink in the stones peeps the little flower, precious “leontodon,” and my heart fills toward you with a warm and childlike fullness! Nor do I laugh now; far from it, I rather bless the flower which sweetly, slyly too, makes me come nearer you.
Dickinson and Abiah had not met for years; their correspondence has had room for entire years of quiet and apartness. Dickinson approaches her friend through the little leontodon along the garden walk. She does not leave her father’s house. The flowers are all the more real and personable to her.
In November 1851, Melville asks his friend, his “fellow human,” “Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life?” In May 1850, Dickinson asks, “Where are you now Abiah, where are your thoughts, and aspirings, where are your young affections?” Melville says he and his friend have become tangled: “And when I put it to my lips,” he writes, “lo, they are yours and not mine.” It is the only letter written to Hawthorne that Melville signs, simply, Herman. One of the last. In Dickinson’s letter to Abiah, two thirds of the way into their correspondence and after a major turning point in which Dickinson seems sure of the end of the friendship, she asks for remembrance, and for flowers: “Remember, and care for me sometimes, and scatter a fragrant flower in this wilderness life of mine by writing me, and by not forgetting.” Forget-me-not was one of the flowers Dickinson earlier offered to send her friend: tiny blue things with black and orange eyes. “Have you got any Forget me not in your garden this summer,” she inquired five years earlier. “I am going to send you as a present in my letter next time. I am pressing some for all the girls and it is not dry yet.” By 1850, Dickinson’s herbarium is finished. Her garden is still in good health. But her mother is ailing and her formal education is finished and her wilderness requires words to wound it and keep it sufficiently imaginatively stoked.
Melville performs in his letters to Hawthorne. Dickinson performs in her letters, too, teasing and fierce by turns. These are flashy documents. They stand on the edge of literary history and glitter and blink. But Dickinson’s letters to Abiah are less ornamental; she is still working out the role of imagination when it comes to friends. In August 1845, she writes,
I have now sit down to write you a long, long letter. My writing apparatus is upon a stand before me, and all things are ready. I have no flowers before me as you had to inspire you. But then you know I can imagine myself inspired by them and perhaps that will do as well. You cannot imagine how delighted I was to receive your letter.
The real flowers that accompany Abiah as she writes — or so Dickinson imagines — are replaced by imaginary ones. And Abiah “cannot imagine” Dickinson’s delight in the letter that arrived from this friend. “I can imagine just how you look now,” Dickinson writes. These declarations of a powerful imagination are offered as terms of endearment, but they also draw a wedge between this budding poetess and her flowery friend.
In these effusive early letters, Dickinson’s assertions of her imaginary powers feel playful, like winking sleights of hand. But by October 1848 something has damaged this friendly ease. “My own Abiah,” this October letter begins before its author sets to fretting: “For so I will still call you, though while I do it, even now I tremble at my strange audacity, and almost wish I had been a little more humble not quite so presuming.” Dickinson recounts a dream in which she searches for her friend in a crowd. “Slowly, very slowly,” she writes, “I came to the conclusion that you had forgotten me, & I tried hard to forget you, but your image still haunts me, and tantalizes me with fond recollections.” Their friendship has begun to turn on memory rather than imagination, and so the danger of being forgotten, or the necessity of forgetting, a willful erasure that the positive nature of imagination endlessly fills in, arrives: “if you don’t want to be my friend any longer,” Dickinson writes, “say so, & I’ll try once more to blot you from my memory.” The now, now, now of first letters resolves into a then.
In the next letter to Abiah — two years later! — Dickinson writes while under the influence of a fever. The document is wild and fictionally drenched. She talks of taking a stroll with “a little creature” who rides and wearies her, an illness come all the way from Switzerland. But the little monster, unlike Abiah, is demonstrative; it kisses her “immoderately, and express[es] so much love, it completely bewildered me.” It lives with her and in the town. The letter is plumped with literary reference —Macbeth, Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” and Dickens’s Christmas book of 1848, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. Its author flexes: not so much a friend here, but a voice that can deflect far beyond the bounds of bodies or actual loves.
“Now my dear friend,” she writes,
let me tell you that these last thoughts are fictions — vain imaginations to lead astray foolish young women. They are flowers of speech, they both make and tell deliberate falsehoods; avoid them as the snake, and turn aside as from the Bottle snake, and I don’t think you will be harmed.
Neither Dickinson’s warnings nor her affections seem fully sincere. Perhaps it is the fever talking, or perhaps exaggeration itself has grown a kind of seductive sheen:
Wont you read some work upon snakes — I have a real anxiety for you! I love those little green ones that slide around by your shoes in the grass — and make it rustle with their elbows — they are rather my favorites on the whole, but I wouldn’t influence you for the world! There is an air of misanthropy about the striped snake that will commend itself at once to your taste […] Something besides severe colds, and serpents, and we will try to find that something. It cant be a garden, can it, or a strawberry bed, which rather belongs to a garden — nor it cant be a school-house, nor an Attorney at Law. Oh dear I don’t know what it is! Love for the absent don’t sound like it, but try it, and see how it goes.
I miss you very much indeed, think of you at night when the world’s nodding, ‘nidnid nodding — think of you in the daytime when the cares of the world, and it’s toils, and it’s continual vexations choke up the love for friends in some of our hearts; remember your warnings sometimes — try to do as you told me sometimes — and sometimes conclude it’s no use to try; then my heart says it is, and new trial is followed by disappointment again. I wondered when you had gone why we didn’t talk more […] You astounded me in the outset — perplexed me in the continuance — and wound up in a grand snarl — I shall be all my pilgrimage unravelling.
What are we to make of this shift in tone? Dickinson writes to Abiah six more times across the course of four more years. References to rupture, demands for remembrance subside. After Abiah’s marriage, they write no more. Is Dickinson fighting heartbreak with splendor? The fact of being forgotten by an amplification of indirection? She signs this letter: “Your very sincere, and wicked friend.”
A few months ago, my copy of Thoreau’s Journal volume one was recalled to the library, so I began instead with volume two, or the “Long Book [Fall 1842] - March 1846,” with the river trip with his brother and the sighting of a rare hibiscus of which they send news to a friend: “[B]y the monday at least while we shall be floating over the bosom of the Merrimack the flower’s friend will be reaching to pluck the blossom on the water of the Concord.” The friend is not Thoreau’s and his brother’s friend, but the flower’s friend; we know our friends well enough to know their truer affinities.
I have never been so vain as to imagine any friend to remember me before their own troubles and their own loves; I refuse birthday celebrations because they too strongly tempt disappointment if no one comes and prefer the surer embrace of the one person twined fast to me as the grasses that we wound and braided into bracelets by the edges of the Hetch Hetchy. If Thoreau never married, it was because he had already given himself over to his brother and to his passing. We are, today, at my sister-in-law’s wedding. I am like one of those plants that loves the sun closing and opening its petals to the light. I go to bed early and rise early. The summer makes me tired. Summer is the season of weddings.
How can we deny that our lives are drawn in tighter and tighter orbits like a zoetrope flashing its few images that suffice to create motion, and that is all we need. Our thoughts turn round and round and every time we turn it is to those same loves over and over, the moon, the sea, the pine, the dog, and my love, my love, my love.
I am your friend because you are the flower’s friend and not mine. In the glow your eyes cast upon me when I came to your apartment on Alcatraz Ave — you introduced me to fennel in salad — and you had those two paintings, the large black and marigold vase with flowers and the disheveled puppet with Japanese characters scrolling down in columns upside down, that you still have now — that glow was light rubbed off from Whitman or Dickinson. And when you told me that you were reading Villette or Shirley it was because you were reading what Dickinson had read, absorbing the gold she had imbibed as fresh as seeds placed in water. You never told me why you loved the boy you brought to my apartment seven blocks down from yours, I forget what I made, but you made brussels sprouts with nuts or seeds sprinkled on top, he had steely eyes and had bought you a gallon jar of capers or some extravagant volume that left you wordless. After he died, you told me about dreams of him moving rocks by a river, a methodical displacement, one after the other, that left you chilled cold waking into the night alone.
It was not for me that you spoke of dreams, of poems, or of poppies. You felt instead your own displacement, like the river rocks shifting suddenly, the filling in of black water into the absented space. An upstate New York, somewhat Quaker girl-poet who went to Paris, Manhattan, and Japan, and then moved to California. What was she thinking about? He found her writing a poem when he climbed up the wall to her window. Where was he going?
Marriage and a river, two Thoreau boys rafting, provisions of melons and potatoes, and hibiscus woven into the dwarf willows with the grapevines. We are friends because our love is reserved for another, because the words out of our mouths are eaten up by the air, not for our ears, but for our dreams in which we write letters and send messages by way of a farmer in the adjacent meadow to someone who will care more — into our own caring — a self-circular message. Or I am the weaker planet drawn into the ellipse of your thoughts; the adoration of planets and green things growing. Still we grow. What is a California poppy doing in New England? Growing, growing.
I write this to you, the 21st of June in the year two thousand and fourteen, from Brattleboro, Vermont, in a little attic room with a stained glass window of a lotus and cattails on water. It is past midnight, they are playing lawn games in the dark and eating pizza, talking about how the ceremony went. We are surrounded by green hills of trees and shadows, and a sky mottled with silvery clouds — not visible now, but I see it there as I saw it this afternoon, the grass brightening and darkening with movement of the clouds over the sun, and in the distance a red barn in a clearing. Brightness shifting into shadows, shifting into light, into dark, into light, into dark, into night.
The truth is I have never known how to read or respond to your letters. With other friends, I’ve walked in circles, up and down hills, in city streets, or at a kitchen table, and our language fell on air and disappeared. With you, there was a postcard once, or several. An old photograph of two girls with the corner torn. And you are right that this is not a letter. We went on walks, bent over stoves, but didn’t say what we were thinking. Perhaps none of the earlier ones — the envelope filled with poppy seeds — were appropriately epistolary either. Of what is our friendship composed? Words, words, words. That we stand on opposite banks of some river and see the same glinting things drifting past. A feeling of and, and a feeling of but, of if, of blue, of William James. That we have loved those languages under similar conditions, and have offered them, once upon a time, to one another. A sentence, an image, a word. Someone else’s letter written for someone else. I miss those easy exchanges that inaugurated this era of our education. But not the half empty apartments. Turning to a book as to a friend.
If it’s only in written exchanges, or only through the writing of others, that we constellate our affection — but I do not think, finally, that it is only that — then we are both typical letter writers and miscreants of the genre. Then we demand to be read but not to be heard.
Juliana Chow writes from St. Louis, Missouri.
Gillian Osborne writes from California (again).