Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Peonies

Branch of White Peonies, with Pruning Shears (1864)
by Edouard Manet.

I have always loved (and written) poetry, but on those days following September 11, 2001, I first read a poem by Mary Oliver, who immediately became one of my two favorite living poets.

I was in Seattle Center on several of the most silent autumn days that I have ever experienced, watching thin sunlight struggle through the cool mist. In front of me stood a mountain of flowers that reached eight feet high, creating a riot of color that contrasted with soft grey skies. In fact, every flower in the entire city and surrounding areas could be found in that fountain located near the heart of the city, a giant bowl-shaped structure that had been transformed into a memorial that was overflowing with our collective shock and grief. Surrounding this sweetly scented mound were thousands of candles, cards, stuffed animals, drawings and poems written on scraps of paper. That was where I first read this poem that I have never forgotten, a unattributed poem whose author’s identity I discovered several months later while browsing through a stack of books at the University Bookstore.

A poem that, when I read it again, brought those days back in a flood of nearly overwhelming emotions that seemed so out-of-place in that tidy, bright bookstore.


Peonies
by Mary Oliver

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open —
pools of lace,
white and pink —
and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away

to their dark, underground cities —
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise,
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again —
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

From New And Selected Poems by Mary Oliver (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)