Thursday, September 2, 2010

The House of Orchids

I like house music and orchids, so one of my random Google searches took me to "The House of Orchids," a poem by George Sterling.  Sterling was a key figure in the early-20th century Northern California bohemian scene.  He helped develop an artist colony in Carmel and ran around with folks like Jack London and Nora May French.  San Francisco has a park named after him and Berkeley named Sterling Street in his honor.  I had never heard of him before.

Not being much of a reader of poetry, I have no profound insights into The House of Orchids.  I think he really liked orchids.  My literal-minded reading of the poem has him walking through a greenhouse and tripping out on the various flower forms and colors.  Now that I know he was based in Northern California, I can picture a lot of cool-growing Cologenes and Miltoniopsis in the collection.  I envision a harlequin Phalenopsis upon reading the line "And thou, most weird companion, thou dost seem Some mottled moth of Hell."  And I think we've all seen an orchid flower "Red as Adonis' wound it seems."

At times, the poem felt like a Rush song (compare, for instance, "A ghost of fragrance whose elusive hands Touch not the hidden harp of memory" with "As a mad and immortal man, Escape these Caves of Ice, for I have dined on honeydew and drunk the Milk of Paradise.") 

Other moments of the poem fell outside my ken.  Like, exactly how pallid was Aphrodite's cheek?   What does "Where white Astarte strays" mean?  What's "Antares' light?"  It's all Greek to me.

But "The House of Orchids" has moments that will resonate with any orchid enthusiast, like:

"For mystery hath lordship here, and ye
Seem spirit-flowers born to startle man

With imitations of eternity
And hints of what the flowers of Heaven may be."

Sterling, like Nora May French before him, committed suicide by drinking cyanide.  I think he might have found a reason to live had he surrounded himself with flowers, creating his own house of orchids.

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