From the Desk of Connie Wanek: Rhubarb Rises
The following contribution comes from Connie Wanek, author of Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems (Nebraska, 2016), in honor of National Poetry Month.
It’s April, your last chance to get the flu. Across the landscape, all that remains healthy is now flexing and sprouting. The first dandelion blooms at the foot of a south-facing wall. A hungry hare, winter-white with an earth-brown shoulder patch, promptly arrives to nibble, its eyes neatly placed on the sides of its head, alert to danger from any direction.
The ground is still mostly frozen, but on a warm afternoon in just the right patch of concentrated sunlight, you could finally dig a grave with an ordinary shovel. Or conversely, you could witness the (re)birth of rhubarb.
The dark mud opens a little at a time, as though it were painful to do so, and a tight red knob pushes up through it. The red is not blood, but I don’t know what it is. What gives rhubarb stems their aggressive color? Anyway, once I see the first rhubarb crown, I’m sure it will snow, and it does.
April snow isn’t serious, though, the way November snow is. But of course we’re no longer in the mood for winter. In northern Minnesota, winter is the dominant season, the recipient of lavish amounts of time, if not universal affection. The first snow to fall in November is usually the last snow to melt in May, there in the skirts of small balsams, the little girls of the woods.
A few days later the snow is mostly gone, and now when I look, there are seven more rhubarb knobs, a regular litter, and the first I saw, the oldest, has unfolded a red and green leaf, the size of baby chard. Also I seem to hear something, low and primal, like the first air drawn quickly into the lungs of an infant, a crucial displacement. I think it’s just the wind, though, in the birches, which are fuzzy with dangling catkins.
Once I was in a butterfly house at the Botanical Gardens, and behind glass in a shallow case, like an animated painting, cocoons hung from suspended twigs, shining as though varnished, and some of these were splitting open. From them, the soft, wrinkled butterfly wings-to-be were bulging out, enlarging even as we watched. What makes them expand like that? Well, it’s a liquid, say entomologists, a version of meconium, that’s later expelled as a waste product. Yes, “meconium” is also what comes out of a new baby. That first diaper is filled with digested, dark olive-green meconium (from the Latin for “poppy juice”).
The crinkled up butterfly wings also reminded me of unfolding rhubarb leaves. And then I had yet another thought: how fantastic it would be to have actual cocoons as earrings, to attach them to my ear lobes and wear them around until—in the middle of a poetry reading, perhaps, or maybe at church on Easter Sunday—they split open, and out came two butterflies, one on my left ear, one on my right. Then they would take their first flight, to the joy of the parish, fluttering up into the stained glass light, nature’s wordless sermon.
Some years it might be May before you eat your first sweet-tart slice of rhubarb pie, augmented perhaps with strawberries shipped in from a much, much warmer place, and crowned with ice cream.
But April is the month rhubarb rises out of the cold earth for a long sun-massage. It’s the month that rhubarb leaves widen, expand, farther and farther, until they resemble the flaring skirts of a flamenco dancer, caught in a camera flash at their most wild and haughty.
Let’s also say that in April there are double the number of births as there are deaths, and a sharp decline in the use of antidepressants. On the first of April such fables go entirely unpunished.