Wednesday 25 June 2008

52 FLOWERS: flower 23 queen of the night

bisbee, arizona 00/01

In Carmen’s house there grows a queen of the night from the tropics in a pot; its huge arms extend over the floorboards of her large airy study. It flowers dramatically one night in September. On this night we sit with small candles and keep a reverent vigil by the six large flowers, and afterwards leave all our adjoining doors open, so that the extraordinary scent may reach us in our dreams. I have an uneasy night and am troubled when I wake up.

Irrevocable is the word that comes to me when I wake, a feeling of finality. I know when I wake up that something represented by this house is over. It is dawn and I can hear the muffled footsteps of the illegal immigrants, as they emerge from their hiding places and run down the street to catch their bus.

Nostalgia is a treacherous business. It comes like the memory of the kitchen of this house, with the sound of a screen door banging, and a woman’s voice singing. It is held in a certain line, a line someone once wrote, or someone said to you, that brings the fragrance of a forgotten place within your heart. Just gone, just out of reach; something ineffable, unfathomable. Something over. Nostalgia takes all its power from the past. It is not a real past that it invokes however, but an imagined one, a possibility that once existed, that lives almost in another dimension. It didn’t really happen in the past. It should have happened. Something should have happened.

I’m gonna build you a house in the bend down where the cottonwoods grow.

In her evocation to John Wayne this is the line, the nostalgia line, that pulls the writer Joan Didion all the way down into Mexico to watch him make his last movie. At a dinner with the dying actor and his wife, she basks in the radiance of the man who played so many pioneer heroes, of a time that was not really a time, when men built houses for women and made them feel at home in an alien land. A certain kind of America. Except this is not a house under the cottonwoods but a restaurant in Mexico City, in a different time, and no film is home. It’s the illusion that make-believes it feels like home, that holds you in a kind of spell.

America is not a motherland, Carmen used to say. Only the name America holds us like a spell, like a mantra we repeat to ourselves. To make ourselves feel at home.

There are some houses that hold you in their spell, that you return to year after year, and this is one of them. It was not built down by the cottonwoods but by a chinaberry tree, and was originally a hotel, or boarding house, for the European miners who came here to dig for copper at the beginning of the last century. There are apricot trees too in a small courtyard full of pots and morning glories, you find if you go up a staircase, across a little metal footbridge. And when you go down the side alleyway there is a screen door, and if you push that screen door open you will find yourself in a kitchen.

The kitchen was large, bare-boarded, with red shelves full of books and icons, a big stove and a central island with high stools, around which everyone sat and talked. It was a lovely room and all manner of people had come here since Carmen and Peter had restored it in the 1970’s: poets, painters, mystics, travellers, herb people, crazy people. All kinds of exciting dialogues had taken place on the island, as people came and went through the screen door, as they passed through the town. We had visited this kitchen for years, and now in 2000 we were staying in one of the hotel’s apartments. Something in me however couldn’t settle in this house, something I felt that lurked underneath these talks was being skipped, some unquiet spirit that jarred our communications together, prevented us. I kept running up into the red hills outside.

The reality is we will not ever say to each other what we really came to say in this kitchen, because Mark and I do not share the same past as this house, nor its inhabitants. We are from a different time and place. We will never quite be able to speak the lines we wanted to out loud. Or perhaps we had said them, but no one had taken any notice. I think it happened once when we were praying for the rain in the drought times, but then we were so busy thinking about the sky we didn’t look at each other. It could have happened five years ago when we used to sing together, but we were so busy singing we didn’t look at each other. And then the singing stopped. We just couldn’t hold those harmonies anymore. There was always someone crying. Or arguing, or in a sulk, or one person laughing and one feeling uncomfortable. There was always something that made us look away.

Often we came at five and made coffee, waiting for Carmen to come back from the library. Sometimes Alex would be there cutting up carrots for the evening dinner or skinning chillies, and we would give him a hand, and we would talk, and he would roll tobacco in large perfectly made cigarettes, and we would all smoke them together. The tribe of cats would jump in and out of the window, and Carmen would light a candle when she arrived, one of those lovely gaudy Mexican votive candles, and it would burn all evening on the island, like a lighthouse in a stormy night.

I came because I loved to hear the lines about the 1960s. When Alex spent a decade driving a truck across America after he gave up his career as an artist in New York, how he once read out the contents of the Queens telephone directory at a Happening; when Carmen left her hometown in Wyoming and went to live in Haight Ashbury. I loved to hear about those times. About the acid trips, the mystical films, the women with flowery dresses and bare feet, the tangerine-coloured dream.

Everywhere has its nostalgia, with its certain lines and sounds. In England this was a moment just before the Great War, that is captured in lines that catch you by the throat. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. In America it is a song by Joan Baez about Bob Dylan, just after Vietnam, sung with a kind of crack in her voice. I could have died then and there. It pulls you that song, like all songs, like all hippy songs. But where does it pull you exactly?

Joan Didion’s seminal book on America in the sixties, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, takes its title from Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming. Yeats, a metaphysical Celtic poet, writes of a spiritual breakdown where man (the falcon) has become separated from his spiritual self (the falconer), and how this separation will bear out its terrible consequence within the collective. The falling apart, the fall into matter that is not spiritualised, is a terrible fall indeed. There is no ascension after such a fall. No revocability. The book’s title essay charts the phenomenon of a generation who broke with the tradition of home and hearth and went to live out a certain kind of innocence in San Francisco. She saw this expression of drug-swirling innocence as presaging a kind of fall in America, a coming of loss of freedom, a breaking apart of the whole.

Didion, writing on the edge of a nervous breakdown, on the edge of a hotel bed, on the edge of midnight with the fires burning on the skyline, is a master documentor of collective fragmentation. Even her own body becomes a metaphor for the age, as she charts with minute accuracy her physical and emotional experience of this shift, of her own lack of home.

On the Big Island in Hawaii Didion sits by the graveyards of the young dead in a volcano crater overlooking Honolulu. Thousands of twenty old American boys who have died in the various wars wreaked upon the world: World War II, Korea, and now Vietnam. She is alone when she makes her visit, only the graveyard mowers with their mechanical scythes are there.

For some reason I think of myself in this kitchen when I re-read Didion’s essays. Because what Didion felt or couldn’t articulate exactly up there in the Hawaiian crater is now about to come further into focus. What she was saying is that underneath all the holiday consumerism, the real business of America was war. And what does it mean to live in a culture that is built on warheads, once the hula dances have stopped and the daiquiris run out and words like democracy and future and freedom begin to sound like threats? Underneath all her writing is the stirring of the rough beast waiting for its hour, and Didion, a great Cassandra, with her sensitive, neurotic, sometimes irritatingly flighty prose style, fends off the conclusion of the poem at every turn.

And it is this that the Queen of the Night has said is irrevocable. And something in me that has never trusted the diamonds and rust, never trusted the line about cottonwoods, never quite trusted the neurosis of anyone, not even my own, has started to pay attention.

The queen of the night in Arizona does not grow by this house but in the desert outside the town. You could miss this native queen for she grows under the scraggy cover of the mesquite tree and, unless she is in flower, you could mistake her for a twig. And you might not even see her flower because she flowers only at night, and not only at night, she flowers only once in the year. What she does for the rest of the year is store huge amounts of water in her enormous tuber. The tuber sits underground and keeps a vast reservoir of energy.

The South-western queen of the night flowers in the height of the summer, like many of the succulent plants: the chollas, prickly pears, agaves and yuccas. All of them have these inner reservoirs and show their extraordinary colours in the fiercest and driest times. While all other desert dwellers are panting and groaning in the relentless heat, the cactus family are having a party: rainbow magenta, fishhook pink, mammelaria yellow, barrel orange, saguaro white. The queen’s flowers are luminous white, lotus-shaped, with a rosy tinge and delicate golden stamens. They are completely arresting, and the scent of the flowers travels 100 yards across the desert night floor.

The queen flowers just outside where I am sleeping this following year, in 2001, in a straw bale house in the desert, way out of town. “Oh look!” Mimi says when she shows me the plants, “The constellation of Leo.” We stare upwards. I have never seen this constellation before and my heart leaps up with excitement.

Later that night I make an essence. I go out at midnight and the white cat follows me. I put the bowl of water under the flower that vibrates her invisible energy into the darkness. The cat and I sit down beside her. It is beautiful, sitting here in the great hot night, under the star Regulus, the regal heart of the lion. The starry flower shines in the dark; they are all gleaming white, the stars, the flower, the cat. All of us in silent communication together. It’s one of those moments you don’t want to end, and I hold it as long as I can, in my heart, and then I let it go. At daybreak I return to see the sunrise with the flower, and the white petals become tipped with gold. Soon it will fade, I wish it farewell. I bring the bowl back to the house, strain the water and make up the mother essence, just as the fierce morning heat arrives.

It’s one of those moments you don’t want to end. And yet it did end. For years I had come here. I had loved the flowers of this desert. I had loved the people of this town, and yet there was a split between us that was irrevocable. Some things need to end, says the flower, for others to begin.

What did Carmen’s house represent, why did the memory of it catch me in the throat, bring tears to my eyes, a pain into my heart? Why when I remembered the flower did it bring me joy? Why did the flower visit feel so clear, so complete, mysterious, lived out, while our visits to the kitchen feel so incomplete? The house reminded me of a golden age which I had always longed for, a time where for one moment it had seemed that love and peace and beauty could rule the world. An era which, when its flower power had faded and its free expression been forced underground, had been stored in the memories of certain people who still sang its songs, and wrote its poetry, and kept a kitchen vigil to the spirit of those innocent times. It was a powerful nostalgia, but like all spells and mantras, it could not bear the light of day, our looking too deep into each other’s eyes. There were marvellous conversations in this house, of spirit and soul, of art and music and poetry, and yet the dialogue that had to do with the future never happened. Because to live in that future means you cannot live in the past. Especially a past that is not your own.

At the end of the rainy season that year, just as the hotel Queen was about the flower, we went up into the Huachuca foothills, Alex, Carmen, Mark and I. We walked to the edge of the hill and gazed over the golden lands of Arizona as they merged into Mexico below us. The warm wind ripped the grasses like an animal hide. Everywhere there was space and light. I stood by a craggy lightning-struck juniper and breathed in deep. Then we went down to have a lunch amongst the trees. We had made an English lunch for Carmen’s birthday: there was chicken and salad and strawberries, and jug of fresh lemonade. We sat at the table and Alex shinned up a sycamore and collected wild canyon grapes. And although we had known each other for many years, it felt in that moment as though there was nothing left to say. The wind blew softly through the Apache pines above our heads: “I feel something bad is going to happen.” said Carmen suddenly, nervously. “I feel it in the air.” It was September 9.

It’s irrevocable, said the queen. It’s time to get real.

52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth is published by Two Ravens Press (£9.99).  For further info contact