Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The persistence of poppies

In which our Diva follows a flower through a labyrinth of meaning

This week marks Armistice Day, more commonly referred to as Veteran's Day here in the US, and Remembrance Day in the UK, where its specific reference to World War I tends to be more noted than here. Digital poppies have been scattered through my Twitter feed for a week or more, adorning the userpics of Brits and Canadians, many of whom are presumably also wearing fabric ones in real life.

I didn't know until I was an adult that the tradition originates with John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Field," and it wasn't until a couple years ago that I learned of the alternate tradition of wearing a white poppy, signifying hope (specifically for peace) rather than sacrifice.

All I knew when I was a kid, living in England from ages 7-10 when the Air Force stationed my dad at RAF Lakenheath, was that the British poppies came out around my birthday and were manufactured completely differently from the wire-and-crepe-paper ones I was familiar with thanks to the American Legion.

Legion and VFW poppies come out for Memorial Day (end of May, for those not in the US), which originated with the Civil War, but which in my lifetime has tended to emphasize WWII. Perhaps especially in my experience, which included, at age 5, riding in the Memorial Day parade, on the back of a red convertible generously decorated with those crepe-paper poppies, as Poppy Queen for my WWII-vet grandfather's Legion post. It was quite the day for a little girl already inclined to show off, and I still have the red pageant-style sash, long white dress, and little white gloves. (Tangential factoid: I was quite small for my age until age 13, at which point some weird biochemical switch flipped and I shot up a whole foot over the next five years. Both dress and gloves -- which I clearly remember wearing for Easter and Memorial Day that year -- look impossibly tiny now.)

The American Legion figures prominently in many of my memories of Grandpa W. I even have my original membership card for the Legion Auxiliary, issued shortly after my birth, when I was among the first granddaughters admitted to the organization when the eligibility rules changed.  The point was rendered moot within months, when my dad's number came up and he became a Vietnam-era veteran, eligible for Legion membership himself.

The poppy-wearing tradition, at least in my adult lifetime (probably earlier, but I have next to no frame of reference for the civilian world during my childhood), isn't as ubiquitious in the US as in Britain and Canada, a fact that surprises me over and over again. (It shouldn't by now. It gets harder every year to find a Legionnaire to buy one from.) It happened again this morning, in a Twitter exchange with film writer Neal Romanek, an American living in London who was mystified by the poppies all around him this week until it was explained to him today.  And, though almost exactly two years older than I and the child of a Vietnam vet himself, he wasn't aware of the American poppy tradition at all.

As a small child, I was perennially puzzled by the Wicked Witch of the West using a field of poppies as a weapon to stop Dorothy and her friends from reaching the Emerald City. "Something with poison in it," she crooned to the captain of her flying monkeys. I'd never seen a real poppy before we lived in England, but I knew they existed, and I knew some plants were poisonous if you ate them, so that potentially made sense. But just walking across a field putting everyone to sleep? I have a vague recollection of asking my mom about it, around the same age as my pretend-royalty-for-a-day experience. I don't remember what her explanation was, only that I didn't really understand it. In retrospect, I suspect she was at a bit of a loss for something that would make sense without recourse to L. Frank Baum's turn-of-the-century vantage point, when opiate-based medications were still freely available but their hazards widely known. Fifteen years passed between the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and John McCrae's battlefield composition, and it's the latter that invokes the common European wildflower rather than its potent cultivated cousin.

None of which I knew when we moved into our housing unit at Lakenheath, with a lawn that was covered with tiny daisies in spring and early summer, and with wild poppies in late summer and fall, so thick that friends and I would run through them over and over again toward an imaginary Emerald City.  That profusion is the image invoked by Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine in his account of the famous opening of Lizzie's grave to recover the poems DGR had buried with her seven years before: "fresh poetry and new poets arose, even as they now arise, with all the abundance and timeliness of poppies in autumn." Even so, as Stephanie Pina notes in today's blog post on LizzieSiddal.com, the choice of metaphor is striking in reference to Lizzie, for whom the cultivated opium poppy, processed into laudanum, brought relief, addiction, and finally death.

DGR painted three oil versions of Beata Beatrix. In the first, housed at the Tate Gallery in London, and the second, which I visited this summer at the Art Institute of Chicago, a red dove delivers a white poppy into Beatrice's open hands. In the third, completed by Ford Madox Brown after Gabriel's death and now in the collection of the Birmingham Museum, the colors of bird and flower are reversed.

It would be half a century later, on the other side of the war whose technology irrevocably changed what war meant in Western culture, that those colors would come to denote the hope and sacrifice I mentioned at the top of this post.  What they meant to DGR when he conceived the painting(s) is open to interpretation and debate. Beata Beatrix is often referred to as his tribute or memorial to Lizzie, but the more I think about his repeated execution of the design, the more it feels like an attempt to make peace with her spirit. Metaphorically speaking. (Or mostly; there are those seances with the Brownings to consider.)

But it's the inside of Lizzie's head I'm trying to explore these days. There's only so far I can or should try to puzzle out Gabriel's too!  (It was a pretty scary place for a while there. I don't envy him inhabiting it.)

Song for Today: When I bought Sting's Dream of the Blue Turtles, my teenage mind was completely blown by the lyrical continuum from WWI's "lost generation" to the modern lives destroyed by the drug trade. Today, 25 years later, war and the drug trade occupy the same space, where opium cultivation appeases the Taliban and puts food on the family table.

Poppies for young lives. Bitter trade indeed.


J.A. Cummings said...

This was a very eloquent and almost elegiac post. I have much I could say about war and its miseries, but nothing that would be new to you. Suffice it to say that this post moved me, and the inclusion of Sting's saddest song only amplified the ache. Thanks for a thoughtful contribution to the blogosphere.

Unknown said...

Thank you for reading! I know this touches on areas important to you, about which you know far more than I.