I have never been one to notice roses. I know the names of wildflowers by the score, particularly the alpine sort, and love to sit in mountain meadows counting petals and contemplating the sweet shine and attitude of shooting stars and Indian paintbrush. But roses—roses are the poodles of the vegetable kingdom—domesticated, fretted over, too precious for their own good.
They have their uses, of course. When my mother turned 75, my brothers and I rustled up that many red roses and surprised her with them—a whole cartload. And my wife, Sharon, seems to appreciate a dozen or so on special occasions as proof of my unwilted love. Then there was the time in college that a beautiful and breathy young woman, two years my senior, received a dozen anonymously. “Who could have sent these?” she asked in my presence. I, who had not sent them, stammered and blushed. Thus began a rather interesting few weeks, until I was disastrously found out.
My interest in roses took a turn three years ago, however, when Sharon and I lost our home to a wildfire on the outskirts of Santa Barbara and temporarily rented a place in town near the old mission. We jogged to the mission with our dog almost every day, which also meant jogging past our spreading municipal rose garden.
There is something about loss that dulls the senses; as I recall, our stomachs were knotted with the trauma of the fire, and life passed as a distant dream. But there is also something about loss that allows one to notice things. What I noticed about these roses is that they had names. Lots of names, announced for us on knee-high placards that lined the beds.
Rainbow Knockout, First Light, Wind Chimes, Buff Beauty, Hot Cocoa, Bishop Darlington, Red Coat, Child’s Play, Innocence. Nice, I thought. Some, of course, were a little much: Sunshine Daydream, Perfect Moment, Honey Perfume, Tahitian Sunset, Mellow Yellow, Over the Moon.
Overlooking these, however, I began to take a certain delight in reading off the names aloud and repeating them as I bounced across the grass after our golden retriever. There was a literary flavor to some: Clytemnestra, Penelope, William Shakespeare, Wise Portia, Fair Bianca, The Dark Lady.
There was also, of course, a whole French Quarter: Duchesse de Brabant, Etoile de Lyon, Marie Van Hautte, Monsieur Tillier, La Sylphide, and—my favorite—Beaute Inconstante. Since I had never bothered to learn French, I ran around the garden mispronouncing these in Pig-Latin as I pleased: BE-U-TAY IN-CON-STAN-TAY, music to my ears alone.
Then there were the racier varieties—Playboy, Playgirl, X-Rated, Sheer Bliss, Sweet Surrender—reminding me that of all flowers, roses may be the most suggestively erotic. Before there was first base, second base, third base, and home, there was the French medieval Romance of the Rose, the whole point of which was to penetrate the rose in the center of the walled garden.
It is no surprise, then, that many of the roses were simply named after women—or vice-versa: Rosaleen, Kathleen, Felicia, Brandy, Kristin, Cynthia—these the approachable girls next door when compared to the distant Madame Lombard or Lady Ann Kidwell.
A surprising number of roses were named after real or imagined goddesses of recent times: Betty Boop, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Sweet Diana, Maria Shriver, Julia Child. (Julia Child?)
And some were even named after men—which, I thought, represented an almost complete failure of the imagination: William R. Smith, David Austin, Mr. Lincoln, Henry Fonda, Dick Clark. Please, I thought. Dick Clark may be many things. But he is not a rose. He has only faded like one.
Nevertheless, I’m sure some resourceful person could find a poem in the Dick Clark rose. Maybe Clark could meet Betty Boop at the center of a walled garden. It might even be amusing to write it in broken French.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In May we’re exploring the theme Roses.