Are We Petals on a Wet, Black Bough?

I have just sown a few bulbs of freesias. Rain clouds are hovering. Soon a drizzle will ‘baptize’ them. Sowing a few bulbs and seeds in my balcony pots at this time of year is a ritual. It is also an act of vehement defiance since my balcony crisscrosses wind gusts from all directions plus I am not particularly green fingered.

Just as I get the job done, I recall how last Spring I woke up to a cluster full of magic.

A misty morning had welcomed my first bouquet of freesias adding dewy drops to the ballerina grace with which their blossoms half-tilt, half-wilt, half-droop, half-swoop.

Sinking my nose into their deep, delicate fragrance is scenting heaven. Always worth pressing pause on whatever you happen to be doing, or not doing. This year I also had the claret and purple blooms jostling with their yellow and white siblings – jewel colours adding vibrancy to zing and innocence.

I remember that as the morning chill hit me, my mind somehow recalled Ezra Pound’s 2-liner poem, ‘In a Station at the Metro’ which goes like this:

The apparition of these faces in a crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

I honestly cannot say how this Imagist poem came to my mind at that precise moment. Yet it would not let go, especially during my commute back home. We may never have a metro in Malta (a currently controversial topic); however, like any urbanised, millennial society, isolated, alienated faces are everywhere you look. More so, since everyone is constantly head-phoned and swiping their smart phones in total oblivion of what is going on around them. I get a daily double dose of such a scene since I use public transport. As if this is not enough, people of all ages hooked to their devices are everywhere wherever you go.

Given its focus on a crowd at rush hour, it is hard to believe that Pound published this poem in 1913. Its brevity is even more fascinating since apart from steering clear of conventional description, it shocks the reader with a perplexing bewilderment that invariably elicits ‘What is this poem all about?’ ‘What on earth is Pound saying?’

To begin with, this is an Imagist poem. Meaning a succinct poem that works on the reactions to the images it conjures. This poetic style is highly influenced by the Japanese Haiku poetry which Pound found utterly intriguing. Typical of Modernist literature, the reader is required to play an active role in bringing the text to life.  Indeed, if the poem fails to jolt our imagination, it looms as a static blank. Though it does not make relaxed reading, such a poem beckons unexpected routes to take.

Like any titled poem, the title offers the road signs. In this case, the key words are: ‘In’, ‘Station’ and ‘Metro’, which prefigure Pound’s fascination with the blur of ghostlike figures in an underground station. The difficulty to take in the telling blankness of their facial expressions is conjured by the ghostly connotations of ‘apparition’. This in turn is reinforced by the metonymic image of ‘faces in the crowd’; for these are disembodied persons whose faces are disturbing the poet… and us.

Moreover, homing in on their faces suggests his struggle to recognise how different and similar he is to them. He can do so because he is assuming the detachment of an observer. But being at the station makes him one of the crowd too. Being underground also has all commuters submerged bereft of natural light. The brief reference to faces, and nothing else, also emphasises how disembodied they appear. This is an important point to reiterate because it suggests a spiritual sterility and links to the poem’s feeling of something cut off and broken. I find this most resonant with our godless world.

The realisation that ‘these faces in the crowd’ are also trapped in a soul-deadening routine gains more weight in the second verse because ‘petals’ suggests a plucked flower severed from the lifeline of its stem. Furthermore, the ‘petals’ have fallen on a ‘wet, black bough’, that in turn suggests a dank and burnt out setting. Consequently, the ‘petals’ are another metonymic rendition of the crowd. Once again, we can relate to the tedium of our humdrum lifestyles in which it has become a challenge to dare to stare.

Yet, the association of fragile beauty evoked by ‘petals’ also hints at the poet’s empathy for the conscious and subconscious feelings of angst that torments the soul of the ‘faces’ Pound is looking at. Similarly, the ‘wet, black bough, is also a metonymic image evoking spiritually aridity. The petals’ decay is therefore, quickened by the corrosive and corroded bough. Is this the natural decay of a life’s cycle? Possibly. But I think it is more of an analogy to a rudderless society rotting away. If so, can we prevent such decay?

It is also significant to note that the metonymic images in the poem work in combination whose impact creates a metaphor for a glimpse of a spiritually sterile society. The shoving crowd heaves with people who cannot and do not care about each another. Locked in their own private world and possible abject loneliness recalls a line in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ where he states: I had not thought death had undone so many.’

That such isolation and alienation continue to hound us over a hundred years on should halt us in our tracks and make us rethink on how we are unravelling our thread of life. What I find even more chilling is that we are infinitely more isolated and alienated primarily because the safe harbor of the nuclear family is no longer sacred in a world where everything and everyone is labelled and regarded in terms of ‘exchange value’. Also, because our smart phones and laptops (and I have not even considered AI) have become the centre of our actions rendering lives lived in virtual, segregated, disconnected bubbles.

What has become our point of reference? Have we really turned our back on the warmth and support of living in families and communities? Do our young people especially know what a community is? What kind of home do they go to? How many families still gather around a table and speak/listen to each other without a gizmo gadget in sight? Aren’t our chat groups voicing a hunger for ties that bind?

Nor are young people the only fallen petals ’on a wet, black bough’. One of the 40+ managers where I work, who ‘thrives’ on being driven and who regards a holiday as a hiatus, often declares that she has no time for love. Strangely, or not so strangely, she is always dressed in black. Her life is her choice. Who am I to interfere? Yet her words rank among the saddest I have ever heard.

If nothing else, this poem has made me look upon fallen petals as mirrors we may choose or not choose to face. What about you?

#millennials #alienation #isolation #spiritual sterility #community

Noemi Zarb
Noemi Zarb
Writing, teaching, marketing. I have pursued three totally different career paths with the power of words serving both as link and lynchpin. Now I dedicate most of my time to writing - a never-ending romance. Typical of content writing I have been and am still responsible for scripting webs, advertorials as well as full-length articles. As a feature/opinion writer, I have over 600 articles published in Malta's leading newspapers and magazines (and still counting) - an experience which honed my interviewing skills when I interviewed countless painters and people involved in the performance arts. I also have over two decades of teaching English Literature and Critical Thinking via Textual Analysis under my belt having prepared students for the IB Diploma in English Language and Literature as well as MATSEC, IGCSE and SEC examinations in English language and English Literature. TEFL sometimes punctuated my summer holidays. Dealing with young people keeps you young and I have truckloads of cherished memories of my past students My current writing continues to be inspired by what life throws at me together with my critical thinking of what goes on (or doesn’t) around me firing my sense perception and vice versa. Being immersed in the corporate world gives me endless opportunities to observe facets of human behavior which invariably have me brood over. Learning and thinking over what I learn is still my way forward.
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Darlene Corbett

As usual, Noemi, your gorgeous lyrics propel us to think. The simplicity of Ezra Pound’s poem derives a beautiful surprise from you with your lovely interpretation. Yes, you are correct as was Pound long ago. Our society, for many, continues on a disturbing path of meaninglessness and hopelessness. For those of us who promote the opposite, we need to remain vocal in whatever form we choose. Your amazing prose is one way. Thank you for this!?

Laura Staley

Thank you, Noemi, for helping us to stop and pause, to reflect on what and to whom we are connected-how important to be with people in person, to look in each other’s eyes, to offer a kind touch, for this positivity resonance to grow. And how the absence of this connection-people to people-leads to tough conditions for human thriving. Healthy connection seems as important as oxygen in our lives. I’ve been reading Love 2.0 by Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D—.A fascinating, scientific discussion of love and positive emotions. How important all these experiences with others are for our health, our fulfillment as people.

Ginger Luttrell
Ginger Luttrell

This is very beautiful yet disturbing in context. My family has been discussing this very thing… not wanting the busy, crazy, distracted, disconnected world around us to drag us into being that. I think many are wanting something more simplistic, more genuinely connected, but not knowing how to systemically attain that. Thank you for sharing this!

Sesila Cibuku
Sesila Cibuku

I used to feel these past days that I was an old butterfly who forgot to die with the last summer sun…

But, you got me into thinking differently!–and I thank you for being so kind and fragile!?

Garry Aernouts
Garry Aernouts

You are a master wordsmith Noemi, and as usual, I love reading and pondering the thoughtful imagery that your writing creates for me. The title of your piece in this case, instantly generated thoughts of using a dark background for high contrast, the purpose of the presentation being, the offering of beautiful, recently living flowers.
I had no instant recollection of Ezra Pound’s iconic modernist aesthetic poem. In a mere 20 words, including the title, he managed to evoke so much! I also consider similarly, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ from William Carlos Williams. After reading your article, metonymic, imagist, and other terms came back to my memory! The ability of these poets to make the ordinary extraordinary, causing the reader to mentally expose the layers of depth, using mere English words with American idioms, is legendary!
Your metaphoric interpretation is spot on also, in my opinion.
I agree with your descriptions of Pound’s view of the Parisian train station, now interfaced by you, with today’s crowds in any metropolis. The correlation is a rather scary one to contemplate in that we have not evolved to better interact with strangers in the subway. We just interpolate newspapers for cellphones. The searching questions though seem identical, “Why does my life seem so hopeless?” and “What is the meaning of all this?”
And we, collectively, do not still have definitive answers.

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