On Melissa Stein’s “Lily of the Valley”

From Melissa Stein, Terrible Blooms

Lily of the Valley

In the lake bodies shift
with the currents. Waterskaters
traverse their tapestries. On the bank
grow plants that no longer have names.
Some have tongues to catch the feet
of flying things. Two shoes lie
on the bank as well. A child’s shoes.
A girl’s. Can you see her, dirty dress,
dirty soles? The arms that held her?
In a convulsion of tenderness
that wasn’t tenderness. In a fever
that wasn’t fever. In this heat
the lily of the valley exudes
such sweetness a man can’t think.
All you want to do is stop up
those pealing mouths. Those white
white skirts, unutterably clean.

“Lily of the Valley” disrupts romanticized views of nature. Linnaean classifications cannot describe the plants in the landscape that this poem imagines. The nameless plants lie beyond reach of human order or control. Readers immediately know that something horrible has happened: bodies shift with whatever current they encounter, unnamed plants prevent escape, the suggested tenderness is only feigned, and fever means not illness but more agitation. Something terrible has happened to a child. Can you see her, dirty dress, / dirty soles? The arms that held her? After asking the reader to imagine the child, the poem merges the image of the child with the image of a lily of the valley. The poem also merges the reader’s mind with a mind that wants to stop those pealingmouths, pealing which might mean the bell-like flowers of a lily of the valley or the peal of a child’s voice: her shriek, shouts, or screams. A mind that also cannot tolerate a child’s white dress. The innocence of childhood torments the man who cannot control his fever. He’s overwhelmed by the images that reach him through his own senses: the sight of a child’s dress, the shaped petals of a lily of the valley, or maybe merely by an odor of sweetness—goodness, purity—that makes it impossible for him to think, and therefore makes him capable—perhaps—of doing anything.

Melissa Stein, Terrible Blooms, Copper Canyon Press, 2018

JNH