Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Katrina Vandenberg, “Remembrance Poppy” (non-fiction) from Orion #40.3

What did the poppy know of my grandfather’s death that Christmas Eve? Its essence had been inside his body through his illness. It had been part of him when he died. What did the poppy know of our daughter’s birth?
We want the world to cleave neatly into halves, no and yes, evil and goodness, fantastic and real. We want it to be clear what to choose and who to hate. We want life and death to be opposite endpoints on a single line. The poppy reveals this kind of thinking to be hopelessly naive.
Poppy seeds are not circular. They are pitted and kidney- shaped.
The poet says in the voice of one of the Magi, three astrologers schooled in prophecy who were guided by a star to witness the birth of Jesus, “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.”
Mysteries are places where opposites touch.

I learned some interesting tidbits about poppies from this essay. But more importantly, I learned more about the lyric essay, and the braided essay. And maybe, just maybe I learned something about poetry. Vandenberg is primarily known as a poet, after all.

Let’s start with the simpler stuff: all about poppies. When you hear the word, what pops into your head? Opium, most likely, and the drugs that derive from it. How about Memorial Day? I vaguely remember making paper poppies in kindergarten or first grade. The tradition seems to have faded since then. Or maybe it’s Veterans’ Day, which used to be Armistice Day, marking the end of WWI, commemorated by the poem “In Flanders Fields the Poppies Grow,” but now as Veterans’ Day celebrates living veterans while Memorial Day is for those who died… and it’s very confused. No wonder no one wears poppies any more, we managed to muck it up. The British celebrate Remembrance Day on the second Sunday in November, and Europeans are more likely at this point to wear poppies, possibly because the war was literally in their back yards and because they were at it much longer than we were. 

One thing I learned from this essay is why the poppies grew in Flanders Fields:

Mostly, poppies don’t grow right away. They lie dormant in the earth until they are disturbed, often by a plow. In the spring of 1915, in Flanders, the cornfields had been turned to battlegrounds, and whole nations full of young men waited in the dirt, in trenches they dug for themselves. The battlegrounds had been so disturbed by mines and trench digging that nothing was left, not a single tree or a blade of grass, not one building. But all the dormant poppy seeds were awakened. Blood-colored poppies began to grow. For the next four summers, until the fighting ended, poppies were everywhere.

That’s so incredibly… horrible. And beautiful. Nature scolding us, laying our sins before us. Or blessing us, comforting us. As she said, mysteries are places where opposites touch.

I learned something else, maybe not so much about poppies but more about baby poop. Medically, a baby’s first bowel movement, formed from amniotic fluid ingested in the womb, is called meconium, which literally means poppy-juice:

Meconium – from Greek mekonion meaning the poppy juice obtained from pressing the whole plant which gives a thick Juice of black, greenish-brown color. The intestinal content of the newborn infant has a similar consistency and appearance and so Galen adopted the term for the content of the bowels of newborn infants.

American Academy of Pediatrics 46.6

That surprised me.

There’s also an explanation of the way morphine fits perfectly into certain neuroreceptors which is why it’s such a feel-good drug, and a bit about baked goods, such as kalach, containing paste made from poppy seeds, which are found in abundance in poppies, as tokens of that abundance in terms of luck, money, fertility, or general happiness, depending on the culture and occasion.

Extraneous to the essay, but on my mind because of the timing, was the memo just released last week from the Department of Defense advising service members to refrain from any foods containing poppy seeds, as some can contain enough opioids to cause a positive drug test. I guess that excuse has run its course, at least as far as Uncle Sam is concerned.

I also furthered my education on essay writing thanks to an interview with Brenda Miller, a writing professor specializing in essay forms:

I just read an astounding braided essay in the most recent issue of Orion (Autumn 2021) called “Remembrance Poppy” by Katrina Vandenberg. In it, she weaves in information about poppies, poppy seeds, and opioids, with personal stories about the birth of her daughter, the death of her grandfather, and her own experiences of pain…. I was completely engaged from beginning to end because of the way her associations—that started with the tiniest thing, a poppy seed—kept growing and deepening. That’s what a perfect lyric essay does—immerses me in a subject I had no idea I’d be interested in and then makes me wholly invested in learning more.

Brenda Miller, interview in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

I first became aware of the formal use of the terms lyric and braided in regards to essays just last year when I listened to a podcast that discussed, among other things, Cathryn Klusmeier’s truly great essay “Gutted.” I’d recognized how an essay could be about two separate things and combine them by overlapping certain elements of each, but didn’t know that was a formal thing or how it was accomplished. I see it clearly here in the crossovers: the essay starts:

About the time a pregnancy test registers as positive, a fertilized human ovum is the same size as a poppy seed.
I sing and celebrate the poppy.
Our daughter was born by an emergency C-section. She was already more than two weeks late, and even then she did not want to come. Her heart rate had dropped dangerously low. Before the surgery, the anesthesiologist came to deliver the spinal block, a numbing anesthetic combined with a powerful form of synthetic morphine. He was blunt and smart, highly skilled and not kind.
I have a needle next to your spinal cord right now, he hissed. I don’t care how bad your next contraction is. Don’t. Move.
I hated him and adored the bite of his needle all at once.

By starting with that particular imagery, birth and poppy seeds are connected, only to be strengthened by the etymology of meconium; pain comes in the next paragraph. As I go through the essay, I recognize other resonances, as the podcast put it: the baker who provided a free kalach when Vandenberg’s grandfather died on Christmas Eve; the entire Flanders Fields section; and her childhood memory of cough syrup, back when codeine was a standard ingredient:

My sister that I were among the final group of American kids given over-the-counter children’s cough syrup laced with codeine before the FDA outlawed the practice. It was thick and grape-flavoured, with the dull sheen of an eggplant. Probably it soothed our coughs and helped us sleep, but what I remember most about it was the feeling of well-being it created, as if I’d been swaddled in purple blankets and allowed to sleep all night in my mother’s arms…. When my sister and I reminisce about growing up, it’s the banned cough syrup that gets our most dreamy praise. This must be one of the more sinister aspects of narcotics: no other drug has made me feel beloved.

I’m older than Vandenberg, but I don’t really remember getting stoned on cough syrup. Then again I don’t remember much from prior to my teen years. Hmmm… maybe I was stoned more than I realize. Ah, but the point is, that’s a gorgeous image there, a drug that makes you feel beloved.

These images proliferate even in the more fact-based sections. Bringing in the Opium Wars again reinforces the connection between poppies and war; the surprise about their appearance, as opposed to what we think they look like from our acquaintance with bagels and muffins, comes in handy when we get to that last paragraph, the one I quoted first, because it says everything: nothing is simple. Look more closely.

Then there’s just this touch of poetic whimsy that had me laughing out loud:

Poppy seeds look as if someone took all the periods from typesetter’s case and scattered them. Somewhere there exists a marvelous three-hundred-page book with all of its hesitations cast away.

Even amidst pain and death and addiction, we can laugh at something. And the idea that periods are hesitations is just perfect.

And this is what I learned about poetry: Maybe I’m not as clueless as I thought. If Vandenberg had written this as a poem, I would’ve been trying to figure out why this line breaks here and that one breaks there. That’s why I struggle so with poetry: I focus on the question, “Why is this a poem?” and only rarely find the answer. Here, this essay has all the associations and images of a poem, but it doesn’t try to be something artsy. Oh, ok, the sections are numbered, but that’s useful, the numbers could just be section breaks, or maybe there’s some reason for the numbers, maybe they mean something that I just haven’t seen. The point is: I’m not worried about why it’s written the way it is. It works. Maybe more poems should be written as essays.

At the start, I said I learned a lot from this essay. Maybe Vandenberg – and other readers – would have preferred I said it was beautiful, or well-written, or something more overtly laudatory. But I love a story – or an essay, or a poem, or a Post-it for that matter – that teaches me something, and I learned a lot here. Including something about poppy seeds.

* * *           

  • Check out Vandenberg’s website for more information about her and her poetry.
  • The etymology of meconium can be found in numerous places like Wikipedia and various online dictionaries, but for authenticity I used “On The Etymologic Derivation Of Some Commonly Used Words In Pediatrics” from the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 46.6
  • Brenda Miller’s November 2021 interview via “The Assay Interview Project” from Assay: The Journal of Nonfiction Studies  is available online 
  • The Defense Department memo of February 21, 2023, can be found online.

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