Welwitschia mirabilis, Namib Desert

 
The heart is a caldera of ash encircled
by two wind-whipped leaves: what begins

banner-broad as Miss Landmine’s sash ends
in a pageant of feather-fray spiraling the stem’s

terminal groove, tar-gray lips
spongy as hot asphalt crowning what bore

and bears it, a wind field’s drift
of sand. With distance, they’re great hulking spiders

hunching a limbless horizon, wind-raked debris, stacks
of tattered carcasses, not what felled Welwitsch

awestruck to his knees: mirabilis,
miracle, this circle of siblings born

five hundred years ago of a single freakish
week of rain. Not bushes, but trees

driven underground, five, ten, twenty
sentient centuries they thrive

off collision—morning’s fog belt an alchemy
divined of desiccation and a current’s

icy rise to a sabered coast rattling
its outsized pearls, sea-smoothed stones

and the knobby wreck of oysters
pried open, clean

as kneecaps.
 

§

 
Survival means living

always in reverse: night-opening
stomata, trunk a taproot

plunging toward core, that interred star
centering a planet warmed not by light

but decay: U238, forty-five hundred
million years a half life ghosting the age

of Earth where surfacing terminates
as discovery, as drilling

fuses, No Entry’s freshly dug
perimeter of signs jutting the park’s own

rusting signage warning tourists
against trespass, curiosity which killed

a lichen field laboring centuries
toward this very absence, the poise

of ore trucks straight-lining horizon paused
until the unearthing word—

Okay.
 

§

 
What survives is made visible
most for what scars it, field

history endures as ox wagon tracks neatly
scoring it still. A lichen’s fragility

its strength: that it exists
only as fusion, scaffold of fungus

an alga feeds. But nothing’s
singular; lop off either leaf, a welwitschia

will never sprout a third, will remain
always the flawed schism

it never lost faith with. Welwitschia:
in Nama, !kharos; in Herero,

onyanga: desert onion. Because it isn’t landscape
that starves.
 

§

 
Lebensraum, just a little
elbow room
Konzentrationslager, a little space

to disappear in. Nama.
Herero. A little space

for forgetting, century
we were born to

born here
in genocide, all exits blocked

but to thorn, waterholes
poisoned, survivors

strung into plots
of barbed wire, narrative

enthralling the young Hitler
a halved world

away—
 

§

 
Whether influence
or confluence, inspire

or conspire, like
leads to like, desert by desert. Namib,

Kalahari. Nothing
singular. Nothing true

twinned: Race hygiene. Bastard
studies.
Operations overt

and covert, wars civil
and cold: history a spectral arc

so deeply dug, the desert’s pronged
with sand-shrouded tiaras, the antlered plates

of bounding mines; with blast mines
forged to the span of the human

palm, of baby carriage wheels
ground puck-smooth, scattered

like shattered spines, disks
of some fossil species more

or less human. But nothing’s fossil
but the living here—Darwin’s term, living

fossil, for the welwitschia, for what stalls
at origin. What changes only

circles: seasons clocked by arrival, fetal fists
of cones unfurling. Pollination

by flies.
 

§

 
Like butterfly feelers, the narrow shoots
the cones top; like delicate antennae

tuning the static hum of the world’s latest
mined harbor. The human body

needs no acoustic signature. Is
both trigger and crutch.
 

§

 
Despite his urging a local name, the Academy ambered
Welwitsch in Latin: welwitschia since conserved

by military occupation, by colonial
proclamation, by the serendipitous sowing of mines

unharvested still.
 

§

 
Phantom by phantom, the desert unscrolls
dualed leaves rind-thick and corrugated

as the zinc roof held down by stones
of a house a woman one morning

walks away from, into a field suddenly
percussive with light.

To survive, the body
will seal at the thigh, heal

to a single bruise
of air—a tenderness that lies

only in the missing.

 

 

 

Protea lepidocarpodendron (Black-Bearded Protea)

            Silvermine Nature Reserve, Western Cape, South Africa

 
Each outsized bloom’s a cup on the cusp
of inflorescence, flowers

held at bay: half fist, half swan’s
folded wing, each a downy clutch

of quills dampered by cream bracts
tipped a burgundy-black tattooing

fading as my father’s did from
recognition—18, shore-leave drunk, goading

shipmates, still he chose the smallest in the book
of offerings, what best to shrink

away from: his bicep mucked a flowering
he couldn’t name. To define

that day’s place is to again dissolve
in fog so thick its milky smoke

stains, breathing in; even my hands
clouded with descent that robbed

all direction but the bite of jagged cliffs
knived over sea, trail a question

I failed to answer to until late
afternoon’s clearing threaded me back

to a now abandoned lot, everything
missing where I’d

stupidly stashed it: car lock
you cracked, tires you slashed I

drove to the rims, that metallic rattle on gravel
the tin can-clatter ghost tailing me

of the day I cast off my own name
just to slip free of my father’s.

In its first painting, only the bloom’s
complete, that single specimen

Bauer, at eighteenth century’s end, detailed
down to the beaked

outer bracts, leaves and stem left a faintly
penciled gray. Unfinished

as what I’ve failed
to picture beyond descending mist

steeled in a bivalve of silver light, my purse’s
compact mirror: your face,

your appraising eye I
can’t catch as you sort camera

from lip balm, passport from lunch sack
you’ve eaten my peanut butter

sandwich from even before you test the flashlight’s
narrow beam, twisting its blue fashioned best

to betray blood’s spattered trail to the night-
vision red pitched to illumine

charts that constellate what’s missing
from Cape Town’s drained sky, what sundown disappears

with the flats you came up from—tin houses bogged
beyond the bright city grid that bleeds

even your unelectrified sky blank
as my pocket notebook you stack with the packet

of tissues, nail file, hairbrush: play,
I imagine, for your youngest.

Truth? Even my photographs fog as much as flower
what I sought that day, what Linnaeus christened

to preserve his own good name, hedging
uncertainty, species he knew solely through his period’s

penchant for florilegia, not by the dissection
of his own touch. Elusive he clouded

allusive: Protea for Proteus, for that mythic
shape-shifting, not

for knowledge, future that men kept holding
him down to. To be no one

in a country that doesn’t care to know you
is one version of home. Out of range

but for one quartered second’s
connection, a single text lit the cell

I held exploratory, morphed
aggressive, stomach liver bone brain

Dad—message I must only have read
as fragments, as crouched against

the road’s view, you must have been deep
in your own best work just then: crowbar,

knife in hand. That undocumented
night, as I braided my hair back in tangle

for the photographs that would restore me
to name and place, as I watched

from my hotel window two friendly battleships
nose into False Bay, the harbor sundowning

to a shimmer of refracted light that would spill
the dusk streets with crew-cut boys razored

toward the end days of youth, did you
picture me? Did you see

them, Protea lepidocarpodendron, that rare stand
only lost I finally found—bush

after bush, every flower head’s pearly grail
inked to what survives the poverty

of night’s slow burn: near exhausted coals
rinsed in morning to rescue what still

might warm, the crumbling black bits
at the heart. Was it you who patted them

into cakes, soft fists mapped to the tracks
in your palms a day’s winter sun

would harden? So tenuous the hold
of some Proteas, to dig the foundation

for a single house could erase them forever
from this earth. But the face you stole

was paper, not bone, and whatever limit
stamped my book, my father’s urging stay

left me to witness what I’d crossed
a world for, what I barely saw

though all I did for weeks was look:
that spectacle, spring. In one gold-

shrouded view, desiccation
and bloom; desert dunes morphed

to meadows, Namaqualand daisies’ fringed wheels
and succulents I could distinguish

only by scale: some larger than my outstretched hand,
some less than the tip of my thumb, as if

what had shifted was only the matter
of perspective, as white sand deepened

to red fields at dusk—shattered stone starred
by innumerable black eyes lashed electric

white, neon blue, magenta bright as the King
Protea, your nation’s flower

rayed across every rand in that roll surely
you pocketed first.

Truth? I made it back
for goodbye, and what I can’t let go

is what I can’t know:
how what’s held

so long as seed can suddenly
riot into bloom; how what’s stared directly down

still eludes. And that second charge to the Cape Town
McDonald’s, the last to blink through

before my card cancelled: who you went back for
to feed, your confederates, or

your children. But truth’s what we tell
when no one’s listening, and lacking

more than the most rudimentary vocabulary
for anatomy, or grace, hunger’s all

I’m holding you to: brain, heart, bone.

 

 

 

Sandra Meek is the author of four books of poems, most recently Road Scatter (Persea Books) and Biogeography, winner of the Dorset Prize (Tupelo Press), as well as editor of an anthology, Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad (Ninebark). Her fifth book of poems, An Ecology of Elsewhere, is forthcoming from Persea Books in May 2016.

Photo of Welwitschia mirabilis, Namib Desert, by Sandra Meek.


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2 Responses

  1. Derek Sheffield

    What I admire about this work is how it combines sonic fireworks with biologic terms used with some facility. I don’t have the feeling that this poet is just grabbing words out of some reference book. Rather, it feels to me like she has used the term “stomata” in the field.

    And there’s the occasional slap done by a marriage of sound and image and lineation, as in “clean // as kneecaps.”

    I think Linnaeus and Hopkins would both be fans.

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