Poplars, Sunflowers, and a Boy, by Missy Greenleaf Flinn
In this time of so many tragic deaths, I want to share this story about a single tragic death. About memory and literature and this frail human life that bursts into brilliant fragile bloom. About how a few poems, or a few trees in a park, can bring us together.
My friend Karen’s son Ian died about 10 years ago when he was just a teenager. He was a golden boy with sunflower hair, crazed with light, the same age as my son Gus. They were great pals who played soccer together in Goodale Park and “Call of Duty” in my living room. Karen called me the other day from the park to talk about Ian. I remembered this:
On what would have been Ian’s birthday, a year after his death, I thought it would be appropriate to dedicate a tree in the park in his memory. I wanted to plant something that was deeply tied to trees in literature. We decided on a pair of poplars, based on the description of a youth who fell in battle in Homer’s Iliad, a book I have read so many times I should be able to sing it from memory. In Book 4 we hear the moving story of the birth and death of the young man Simoeisios, who was cut down in the “flower of youth” and died before he could repay his parents for the love and nurture they had given him as a boy. You see, his life was cut short by Telamonian Ajax, a Greek hero of colossal size and strength—the “wall of the Achaeans.”
Young Simoeisios was probably about the same age as Ian when he died. This heart-wrenching story still makes me cry when I read it.
We planted two poplars on either side of the sidewalk going down to the pond in Goodale Park.
I like to think they talk to each other of rain.
“Then Telamonian Ajax struck the son of Anthemion, virginal Simoeisios in the flower of youth, whom time ago his mother, descending from Mount Ida, bore by the banks of the river Simoeis, when she followed with her parents to watch the flocks. And for this reason they named him Simoeisios; his parents he did not repay for his nurture, and short was the life allotted to him, who was broken under the spear of great-hearted Ajax. For Ajax struck him as he came among the front fighters, on the chest, beside his right nipple, and straight on through the shoulder the bronze spear came; and he fell to the ground in the dust like a poplar, which in the lowland of a great marsh-meadow has grown smooth-trunked, and yet branches are brought forth on its topmost part; and these a man, a chariot maker, with gleaming iron axe cuts away, so that he may bend from them a wheel rim for a splendid chariot; and the poplar lies drying by the banks of the river; such then was Simoeisios, son of Anthemion, whom Zeus-descended Ajax killed.”
Iliad, 4.473-489, translated by Caroline Alexander
All day and night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy, and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.
Out of the blacksmith’s cavern comes the ringing
Of hammer, shoe, and anvil; out of the inn
The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing—
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.
The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
Not ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,
A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.
And it would be the same were no house near.
Over all sorts of weather, men, and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.
Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.
“Aspens,” by Edward Thomas
Bring me the sunflower, let me plant it
in my field parched by the salt sea wind,
and let it show the blue reflecting sky
the yearning of its yellow face all day.
Dark things tend to brightness, bodies
die out in a flood of colors,
colors in music. So disappearing is
the destiny of destinies.
Bring me the plant that leads the way
to where blond transparencies
rise, and life as essence turns to haze;
bring me the sunflower crazed with
from “Cuttlefish Bones,” by Eugenio Montale
translated by Jonathan Galassi