Poetry Sunday: ‘They Come the Way Flowers Do,’ by Jennifer Grotz


They Come the Way Flowers Do


……………………………………………………..—late spring, on schedule,
and when they do for fifteen days
the mountains are littered with a beauty
humans hardly deserve, littered I say
because they perch right on the ground,
on the mountain face, and there is one so beautiful
I hope never to learn its name because
it always appears as an unnameable marvel,
intricately tattooed upon a gray-blue wing,
the exact color of the slate rock that camouflages it.
When it spreads its wings its back reveals
ecstatic blue, and when a dozen that waited like pebbles
for your approach alight, it is the opposite of snowfall,
butterflies hardly conjures how the world is snowing sky.


Jennifer Grotz_Book Cover_WINDOW LEFT OPEN_4-30-16

First published in Window Left Open (Graywolf Press 2016) by Jennifer Grotz. Published with permission of the press. All rights reserved.


Jennifer Grotz_author photo_4-30-16Jennifer Grotz is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Window Left Open (Graywolf, 2016). The Needle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) was named as one of the best five books of poetry published in 2011 by NPR; it was also named the 2012 Best Book of Poetry by the Texas Institute of Letters. Cusp (Houghton Mifflin Mariner, 2003) was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the Bakeless Prize. Also a translator from the French and Polish, her most recent publication is Rochester Knockings, a novel by Tunisian-born writer Hubert Haddad. Her poems, reviews, and translations have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, Ploughshares, New England Review, and in four volumes of the Best American Poetry anthology. Director of the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference and assistant director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, she teaches at the University of Rochester. Author Photo Credit: Marion Ettlinger. For more information visit here.

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Poet’s Note:

Many of the poems in Window Left Open were written while staying in a former Franciscan monastery in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France. This landscape teems with unusually large numbers and kinds of insects, including moths and butterflies (and it was a region loved and frequented by Vladimir Nabokov, who hunted butterflies there in the summers).  After repeating several summers there myself, I began to learn the cyclical reappearances of the butterflies, one of many things about nature I’d somehow never observed in the United States. They really do come as flowers do, according to nature’s surprisingly precise clockwork.


Notes on “They Come the Way Flowers Do”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Last month I featured a poem called “Anti-Pastoral” that was, well, anti-pastoral in its approach, rejecting the canonical nature poem for something more inclusive, contemporary, and frankly political. This week’s poem about an incident in nature—an encounter with butterflies—is more in line with the traditional nature poem, but a close reading shows that it is, in its own way, also subversive. The classic pastoral presents a poet (often a white, male, and English) who encounters something in the outer landscape that sparks a response in his inner landscape, sometimes a meditation. Following a similar trajectory, the contemporary nature poem typically begins with an experience in nature that then inspires the idea the poem hopes to capture and explore.

This poem gives us the encounter with nature—the poet perceiving the butterflies—and initially seems to intend to use nature as a springboard to describe the poet’s inner self: “the mountains are littered with a beauty / humans hardly deserve” (lines 3-4). But by the end of the poem, the focus is decidedly outward and directly on the thing being perceived, not presented as a symbol for anything else. And believe me, I looked, because just about everything I know about the “Pathetic Fallacy” (briefly, a writing technique that attributes human qualities to things in nature), I learned from a wonderful lecture Jennifer Grotz gave on the topic during one of my residences at Warren Wilson. Inverting the trajectory of the traditional nature poem, this one begins with the idea that humans are unworthy of the beauty nature bestows, but it ends with the thing encountered in nature, presented as pure image.

The focus on the butterflies qua butterflies in this poem’s last six lines reminds me of Ezra Pound’s adage, “no words but the thing,” and William Carlos Williams’ phrase, “no ideas but in things.” The imagist idea was to present objects rather than concepts, actual things in the world rather than human abstractions about them. If an abstraction arises, imagists say, it should be in the mind of the reader as a consequence of having encountered a thing in a poem, just like what happened when the poet originally encountered the thing in the world. Imagism was a poetic movement in the early 20th century that was, in part, a reaction against verbosity and abstraction in Romantic and Victorian poetry. In an article published in Poetry in 1913, Pound defined an image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” and lists three characteristics:

  1. direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective;
  2. use of absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation;
  3. as regarding rhythm, to compose in the sequence of the metrical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome. (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, eds. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, University of Princeton Press 1993, p. 574]

A common restatement of the first tenet is Henry James’ exhortation, Show, don’t tell. In the second tenet you may recognize the contemporary preference for maximum compression in poems. The third advises against imposition of artificial meters in favor of phrasing related to natural patterns of speech, and it sounds an awful lot like free verse.

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  • Deborah Harkins June 28, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    I love this poem, and was glad to get Rebecca’s explanation, which enriched the reading experience.