Linnaeus, not yet known as one who could categorize all life, is out there. He’s in Lapland, enduring the bitter cold in order to study lichens (which sustain the native reindeer), mosses, rocks, and the few plants Lapland has. One flower in particular commands his attention—he calls it Andromeda. It finds a place in his journal:
Nothing worth noting, sighs the poem, except. In his drawing, her feet bound to a mound more rock than earth; her arms flail, begging for help while a monster looks quizzically on. Before his eyes, the myth unfolds—the arms, the quadrangular shoots. The shackles, the boots. Historically, his words:
This plant is always fixed on some turfy little hillock in the midst of swamps, as Andromeda herself was chained to a rock in the sea…. Dragons and venomous serpents surrounded her, as toads and other reptiles frequent the abode of her vegetable prototype…. As the distressed virgin cast down her blushing face through excessive affliction, so does the rosy-coloured flower hang its head.
An excess of imagination, we are prone to diagnose the naturalist with. But let the fullness of his and Niedecker’s imagination speak. Combined, they voice an understanding of an epoch:
Linnaeus in Lapland (from Poetry)
Nothing worth noting
except an Andromeda
with quadrangular shoots—
of the people
wet inside: they must swim
to church thru the floods
or be taxed—the blossoms
from the bosoms
of the leaves
I see only
where I now walk. I carry
where her snow-grave is
of mourning doves
This same Andromeda, reaching up with quadrangular shoots, contains the aspirations of many. On the one hand, she and they are both prisoners—they must swim to church thru the floods or be taxed. Niedecker’s scenario is so ridiculous one can’t help but picture it. A congregation in wet boots that swam to church through a flood in order to avoid taxes. The superhuman services the painfully petty ordinary. The life of a plant stands an unwitting alternative to what nominally rules men.
On the other hand, this little plant, filled with misguided aspirations, is life itself. The blossoms from the bosoms of the leaves. In Andromeda, not just the myth, but the constellation.
Linnaeus recognizes how life can be radically unfree, but then assumes a power. Fog-thick morning—I see only where I now walk. I carry my clarity with me. One might think this the statement of a scientist, which it certainly could be. He lets limits craft his vision into truth. But I could also see it as one of a jilted lover, one trying not to let his expectations best him. If the latter, is Linnaeus reproaching himself for indulging the juxtaposition of the plant and the woman? Again, his own words, not the poem: As the distressed virgin cast down her blushing face through excessive affliction, so does the rosy-coloured flower hang its head.
There is another possibility—embracing one’s desires and imagination while understanding one’s limits. Hear, he says to apparently no one. Hear / where her snow grave is / the You / ah You / of mourning doves. His vision becomes sound, as he understands that he has been speaking to himself. Love is lost, but that doesn’t mean seeing it in the world is any less real.
To understand the limits of one’s desire while embracing the whole world is a fantastic task. Linnaeus found at least 100 more species in Lapland than had previously been recorded. His acquisition of knowledge is literal enlightenment; his belief in his efforts heralded another age, another way of living life. Eros, by implication, is not strictly hierarchical, commanding allegiance to a greater beauty or merely standing above the worst sort of punishment. Wet boots are not the only way to furnish blossoming.
When I first read this poem, I thought of Linnaeus as having the power of Adam and naming everything. It looks like he names an absent Eve, but this poem only touches that to bring Linnaeus into focus. The power to name comes from God, and if one could name everything correctly, it would not be blasphemous or the mark of hubris to take note of a Supreme Being. What stands out is Linnaeus’ overripe imagination, his gentleness, his regret and communion. This is his universe, his Eden, and we are lucky to be witnesses.
Notes and References
The excerpt from Linnaeus’ journal is from Jonathan Skinner’s “Particular Attention: Lorine Niedecker’s Natural Histories.” In Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, ed. Elizabeth Willis. University of Iowa Press, 2008. 47.
My thanks to the Wikipedia page on Linnaeus, accessed March 4-5, 2019: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Linnaeus