Mary Jo Salter's "Peonies"

Beyond the merely pink and pretty, a great flower poem can deliver a powerful challenge, or, as in Mary Jo Salter’s “Peonies,” an uncanny arrival at floral abundance that is only in part familiar—it blooms with startling freshness in the right language.


Heart-transplants my friend handed me:
four of her own peony bushes
in their fall disguise, the arteries
of truncated, dead wood protruding
from clumps of soil fine-veined with worms.

“Better get them in before the frost.”
And so I did, forgetting them
until their June explosion when
it seemed at once they’d fallen in love,
had grown two dozen pink hearts each.

Extravagance, exaggeration,
each one a girl on her first date,
excess perfume, her dress too ruffled,
the words he spoke to her too sweet—
but he was young; he meant it all.

And when they could not bear the pretty
weight of so much heart, I snipped
their dew-sopped blooms; stuffed them in vases
in every room like tissue-boxes
already teary with self-pity.

Excerpt from A PHONE CALL TO THE FUTURE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS © 2008 by Mary Jo Salter. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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