To be a flower is profound responsibility.
Oaths of the Blossoms is composed of nine oaths to be sworn by nine white wildflowers. The oaths are embossed on nine sheets of blank paper using standard embossing seals that resemble the seals employed by a notary public. I ordered my seals from www.thestampmaker.com. They work best on flimsier paper, up to about 65#; the impression is faint on high-quality thick stuff like Arches or Rives BFK. I like the utilitarian quality of the embossing seal. It’s bad, bureaucratic.
For example, the oath of the fairy lantern, a small globular lily native to foothill and chapparal habitats, states, “I hereby renounce all allegiance to the lilies.” This phrasing is derived from the first clause of the United States’ oath of citizenship: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.” Other oaths are based on the characteristics and behaviors of a given species. The oath of the gravel ghost reads, “I will hover over gravelly washes / so help me light.” The gravel ghost is so named because its petals seem to float. Its spindly stems are tall, thin, and of a similar color to the desert pavements in which they grow. The ghostly hovering of this flower is a trick of the light, rather like the observable depth or volume of an embossed text.
In the guise of a notary public, I have made a small cycle of poems that combine the forms of the notary’s seal and the oath one swears in a notary’s presence. A conventional notary’s seal contains a notary’s name, the state in which the notary is licensed, and the expiration date of the notary’s commission. In Oaths of the Blossoms, I’ve taken the form of the notary seal and, rather than put my own name on the seal, have invented specific oaths for specific flowers, admixing and confusing swearer and notary, seal and language, wildflower and citizen, text and paper. The whiteness of these flowers mirrors the whiteness of paper, a kind of void. Bereft of ink, these seals notarize blank documents with oaths I imagine a flower could swear: “As no word is my witness, I can be weedy in landscaping,” vows the yarrow. Oaths of the Blossoms asks how poetry can speak from a position outside human experience—a straightforward question that’s impossible to answer. And so it seems fitting that these seals notarize blank documents.
Flowers, wild and domesticated, have always meant. That is, they have always had meaning imposed on them, been subject to the designs of language and people, of human dream and will. Medieval herbal traditions introduced the Doctrine of Signatures, which described the medicinal properties of a given plant according to its shape’s similarity to the shape of human organs. Because eyebright resembled the human eye, it must have curative properties for the eye—an analogical reading of form in nature.
The Victorians, lovers of plants and morality, wrote encyclopedic volumes on the “language of flowers,” cataloguing every flower’s symbolic or allegorical meaning. Critic Beverly Seaton has written extensively about the phenomenon of sentimental flower books, which “do not treat flowers in botanical or horticultural terms, but rather in terms of sentiment, feeling, and association.” These volumes were not reference volumes, but rather display books, often lavishly illustrated and engraved. Their purpose was ornamental, and they were marketed and produced, in contrast to scientific or horticultural works, as “a properly edited form of nature for women.” With titles like A Lexicon of Ladies Names With Their Floral Emblems and The Ladies Book of Flowers and Poetry, these works were addressed explicitly to a female audience, yet with a few notable exceptions, they were written by men.
Throughout Victorian literature, we see women and flowers alike serve as mute vessels for symbolic meanings produced by male poets. Take for example these lines from D.G. Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damozel”:
The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
The last couplet is richly symbolic: The lilies represent purity, and the stars in the damozel’s hair allude to the “lost Pleiad,” Merope, who fell from the sky because she loved a mortal man. Therefore, the damozel is both a figure of purity and transcendent love. Heavy going.
Take for example this list from Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers, one of the most popular American examples of the sentimental flower book genre:
Why does the lobelia symbolize malevolence? And why would you want a malevolent plant in your garden? And how does the yellow lily symbolize both falsehood and gaiety? These flower books existed alongside and in conversation with “serious” works of botany and horticulture, and were their domesticated, sentimental doubles. They contain a trace of animism, replacing the objectivity of the naturalist with an associative, emotive equivalence between some human quality and a flower. Adjectives transform plants into persons: the locust tree is indeed elegant, the lilac humble.
I admire the typographical decision to create a table, because it creates rigid links between affective states and their symbolic relation to the flowers. But that sentimentality, that weakness, seems at odds with the page layout of the table, which has the directness of authority. Contrast the Greenaway table’s orderly, rigorous assurance to this more skeptical and specific treatment of the language of flowers, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Flower in a Letter”:
Love’s language may be talked with these;
To work out choicest sentences,
No blossoms can be meeter;
And, such being used in Eastern bowers,
Young maids may wonder if the flowers
Or meanings be the sweeter.
Poet Annie Finch asks of Browning’s poetry the following question: “How does [the poem] maintain the perspective of a poetic subject, a historically male role, in the voice of a gender that had been defined as the ‘object’ of poetry?” As a Victorian woman, there is a special valence to Browning’s questioning whether “flowers or meanings [are] sweeter?” The artificiality of the language of flowers itself, by creating this complex symbolic language, has exposed an artificiality in the supposedly “natural” relationship between subject and object. Browning writes from the intermediate place of the speaking object. Could a flower occupy this position? In what language could a flower speak back to the Language of Flowers?
Recently, Bolivia codified the rights of non-human beings under the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (UDRME). This declaration was adopted at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba in April 2010. The UDRME was integrated into the Bolivian Constitution and takes as its goal “the holistic recognition that all life, all ecosystems on our planet are deeply intertwined.” There are clear parallels between the UDRME and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations in 1948. The UDHR has sought to create fundamental norms recognizing the “inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” The document has helped spread human rights discourse around the world, even as crises like the recent flow of refugees from Syria attest to how fragile and tenuous the concept of “inalienable rights” really is.
The UDHR is addressed to “everyone,” as opposed to specific states and nations. It’s addressed to you (a human) and to me (a human), and not to “them” or “it.” By contrast, the UDRME is not directed toward those who might bear the rights it outlines; instead, it is directed toward those who have the obligations to protect a personification: Mother Earth, which is figured here as a “a unique, indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings.” Setting aside the accuracy or inaccuracy of this statement, it is clear that this “self-regulation” (interesting Protestantism in this animism!) has been altered by human activity to such an extent that this definition is itself at odds with the measurable climate change with which we are now contending.
The UDRME seems to reinforce the passivity of the personification it describes: Article 2 outlines “Inherent rights of Mother Earth” while article 3 outlines “Obligations of human beings to Mother Earth.” Non-human entities have no reciprocal obligations in return for the rights they are granted: All obligations are humankind’s alone. The Yale law professor William Eskridge presents a “reciprocity understanding” theory of rights and obligations, which posits that a citizen’s “rights and obligations are roughly parallel.” A citizen must obey laws, but is also protected by them. True or not, this suggests a problem with the UDRME: When rights are conferred without attendant obligations, no reciprocity is possible. These non-human entities have no reciprocal obligations in return for the rights they are granted. All obligations are humankind’s alone. For example, it is a person’s obligation to “promote and participate in learning, analysis, interpretation and communication about how to live in harmony with Mother Earth.” Nature’s rights and humanity’s obligations aren’t intertwined here—they are separate. This reinforces a dualism that is actually at the heart of the problems it tries to mitigate.
Oaths of the Blossoms exposes the weakness of the language of rights when speaking about the non-human world by describing a set of obligations for specific species to undertake, rather than engaging with the grand abstraction “Mother Earth.” Rather than give beings rights without obligations, as the UDRME does, I wanted to consider an opposite state of affairs for these wildflowers. What if we were to declare that the beings constituting a part of the whole of “Mother Nature” have obligations, too? That they are citizens—subjects rather than objects of the Law?
Oaths are old formal gestures, performative statements; not as old as flowers, but old in human years. Once, oaths acted as earthly invocations of God’s ability to see all (“as God is my witness . . . ”). God saw everything, so oathtakers were fundamentally bound, in speech, both to God and to the person with whom they contracted. Sealing agreements, making promises, solemnly asserting the veracity of some testimony: These are fundamental legal relations between beings and their creator, a set of codified, conventional behaviors bound by rule and occasion.
An oath is supposed to be sacred and rare. To take too many is considered profane, an example of “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” In Oaths: Their Origin, Nature, and History, published in 1835, the pious if grumpy James E. Tyler wrote a treatise on oaths as a way of supporting the House of Lords’ attempt to limit the number of oaths required to do daily business. Tyler wanted to abolish such oaths as “The Oaths of the Custom-House, Excise, Post Office, of the Taxes and Stamps, the Woods and Forests . . . ” and so on. Reading the text, one gets the feeling that any activity involving the government required an oath. Buying stamps? Getting a bike license? Raise your right hand. Tyler wanted to substitute oaths with “declarations” in order to preserve the solemnity of oaths for swearing allegiance and assuming official offices.
Wildflowers don’t talk, at least not in a language we can write or interpret. They don’t promise. Are there some actions they could take on as duties? What could a wildflower promise? Rather than will—i.e., deliberately choosing or deciding on a course of action—wildflowers demonstrate what Spinoza called “Natural Right”:
… since the universal power of the whole of nature is nothing but the power of all individual things together, it follows that each individual thing has the sovereign right to do everything that it can do, or the right of each thing extends so far as its determined power extends.
In other words, wildflowers do what wildflowers do.
A notary public is “a responsible person appointed by state government to witness the signing of important documents and administer oaths.” I love the clarity of this job. When my partner and I became domestic partners, we swore an oath. The notary held up her hand we held up ours. She brought out the embosser and stamped the document. We read her name in shadow, in relief, curved around an image of the Great Seal of the State. The notary’s work is to witness and to say, “This action happened.” Not to command or opine. There is a certain humility to the profession. To be Law’s eyes. The traditional oath—“As God is my witness”—has been supplanted by the modern bureaucratic oath. And so, too, the notary, with stamp and logbook, who possesses only a license, finds herself, as the inheritor of an old idea, diminished, relegated to the Postal Annex or the Mailboxes Etc.
A poet may, as Browning has it, speak a language by using flowers as one uses words in a language, but the ability to speak as, for, or to that flower is an anthropocentric fantasy, a strong, delicious, resilient, even noble, fantasy. Such a poet is like a lawyer called upon to advocate for her client. But how does a lawyer conceive of this “speaking for”? I wondered if a poet could play with this position. Being a notary might expose something about the way language imposes qualities on the unspoken and the non-speaking, beings that demur. Let’s say you wanted to administer an oath to a wildflower. Would you need some special kind of instrument to “hear” the sound of a flower’s speech? Perhaps a translator or some other interlocutor? Would you need to coax, convince, or cajole the flower into fulfilling its obligation? Could the poet or lawyer’s role as advocate fall away? She could then assume the role of notary, humbly attesting to the fact that the flower had spoken for itself. “As for my sun-turn, I am sworn to secrecy,” swears the salt heliotrope.
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