The Smaller Orchid
Love is a climate
small things find safe
to grow in- not
(though I once supposed so)
the demanding cattleya
du cote de chez Swann,
glamor among the faubourgs,
hothouse overpowerings, blisses
and cruelties at teatime, but this
hardly more than a
sprout, I've found
flourishing in the hollows
of a granite seashore --
a cheerful tousle, little,
white, down-to-earth orchid
declaring its authenticity,
if you hug the ground
close enough, in a powerful
whiff of vanilla.
-- Amy Clampitt
Hap Notes: Amy Clampitt (1920-1994) is both an inspiring story of sticking with it when you want to be a writer and an anomaly since not many poets get their start after the age of 40.
Another Midwesterner, Clampitt was born in New Providence, Iowa. Don't know where that is? It's pretty close to Eldora- does that help? (I'm teasing you. You sorta gotta be from Iowa to know where places are there, even Des Moines. I've driven the length of the state dozens of times and I have farming relatives in Eldora and I still had to look it up.) She high-tailed it out to New York after going to Grinnell College.
Without getting published for so long, Clampitt was tantalizingly close to the publishing world in New York where she worked in various "secretarial" jobs at the Oxford University Press and the Audubon Society. She also did some free lance editing. She originally wanted to write fiction although she had a bent for poetry. She published a small volume of poetry in 1974 and got a few poems published in the New Yorker. When her book, The Kingfisher, came out she got the kind of critical attention that a poet needs to establish a reputation. She was 63.
Clampitt has the most extraordinary vocabulary (with both literature and nomenclature) this side of David Foster Wallace. One should never be ashamed of reading with the help of a dictionary but in Clampitt's case it's necessary. (You'll never go wrong having a dictionary close at hand when you read poetry, ever.) She's well-read and well-versed in terms from the natural and biological world. This poem is a good example.
The poem reads beautifully regardless of whether or not you know that "du cote de chez Swann" is one of the volumes of Remembrance of Things Past by Proust. If you know this, then, it also doesn't hurt if you know that in the book "to do a cattleya [orchid]" is a euphemism with some of the characters in the book for lovemaking. And knowing these things certainly helps figure out the "overpowerings" and "blisses and cruelties" in the poem. You need to "hug" the ground to get a whiff of that delightful vanilla scent. There's something orgasmic about finding a wild orchid, too, if you enjoy looking around at the natural world and don't mind a few granite pebbles in your shoe.
I believe when she is talking about the faubourgs she means the suburbs of Paris that Proust was talking about- like the famous Rue de St. Germaine. I could be wrong, though. She might be referring to a seedier section (no pun intended.) Contrast this "glamor" of fine houses to the "out-doorsy domestic whiff of vanilla."
But, if you didn't know all those things you can still get delight from the poem, for example the "cheerful tousle" in the granite seashore. Surprisingly the little orchid does not need a hothouse in which to grow. And what does this say about love- the "climate small things find safe" and how that orchid shows up? It's a "down-to-earth orchid." I've always pictured this happening in Maine, where she used to vacation.
When a poem packs this kind of dense rich deliciousness and yet, is highly readable no matter your background, it's a little slice of sweet genius. Finding this poem is like finding that orchid.
Clampitt, by the way, was a spirited, often child-like, wise woman who never tired of looking at the sky, the trees, the birds, the ground. She was a charmingly sweet heart. You can see how she sparkles in her picture, can't you?
Here's a good Amy Clampitt quote: " I think the most precious thing I brought away with me from four years at Grinnell was the beginning of a sense of—how shall I put it?—the livingness of the past. Only the beginning of that sense—but you have to begin somewhere, otherwise it’s hard to see how the world we live in can have any meaning, and if one cannot find meaning in the world, it seems to me that living in it at all is no more than just bearable."
And part of another: "...because what I see from my own peculiar perspective, as a writer of poetry, is a conspiracy all around to stamp out the sense of living continuity, to stamp out singularity, to do away with everything that’s not a recognizable commodity, and in the process to make ordinary day-to-day living as boring as possible. That’s only my opinion, but if I didn’t hold it, I wouldn’t be a writer."
You can find more of her poetry here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/amy-clampitt