Every couple of years, something prompts me to reread my well thumbed anthology of Pablo Neruda’s Cien Sonetos De Amor.
I carry these poems in my brain and in my heart. I recall them often, when an experience or passage reminds me of Neruda’s writing. Parallels in life and art are wonderful; when I find them I grab them close and consider. And so from the bookshelf one night recently I yanked my garishly pink volume for a rereading of Neruda’s one hundred.
Neruda is a master of motif and recurring symbol, his favourite being the carnation. My volume of Cien Sonetos has dozens of circled references to this anchoring flower of his sonnets. Even in the tired Sonnet XVII — a poem that would have the wedding ceremony reading market cornered if not for Corinthians 1:13 running away with that title — the carnation stands proud: “I do not love you as if you were the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.” When I first read Neruda back in tenth grade, I was surprised and happy that he was all about the beauty of this hardy bloom.
I’ve written before about carnations and my softness for them – about my mom’s Friday ritual of rotating the flowers that my dad would bring her from the market. And I’ve thought long about how our culture maligns this flower – associating it with high school proms and limp corsages, grief scented funerary arrangements, and the saddest grocery store bouquets you ever did see. I have a friend who measures her men by their bouquets: and carnations will never stack up. Our culture privileges a dozen long stem roses, preferably crimson and velveteen.
A lot like life: the carnations we love or don’t are particular to who we are and the biases we keep. What hidden spaces within cause us to love some things so deeply and other things not as much? What about fat and showy roses makes me recoil? Without the sweet memory of my dad’s weekly gesture toward mom, would I consider carnations so fondly?
As an aesthetically bent person, I’m a frequent Pinterest user. It’s my tool for collecting and honing and curating interests visually and assessing patterns I find over time. What I find most interesting about this social corkboard is how different we all are, how so many photos catch another’s attention that wouldn’t mine – a quote, a flower, a recipe, a photo, a dress. Some images immediately turn our heads, some we scroll over without second thought, some turn our noses up. What characterizes what we love is so specific to who we are. Some of these attractions are parse-able – a matter of tastes and preferences – but many aren’t.
Trying to figure out why I’m drawn to one thing versus another is sometimes impossible. Some biases are held so deeply and subconsciously inside that I’ll never understand the why or how.
We don’t choose what we love – carnations or otherwise. It’s at the very core of being human that our boundless complexity brings with it things we’ll never understand about ourselves, no matter how hard and long we analyze. As a creature of frequent self-reflection (sometimes of the navel-gazing sort) this used to make me uncomfortable, that I couldn’t always get comfortably inside my own head, this place that is my own and of my making!
But more and more, I have come to realize it’s okay – it’s more than okay – that those visceral, natural, instantaneous, in-the-gut reactions to something or someone are who I am, for better or for worse. When I see a carnation and smile at its dense and frilly petals, that’s enough. That it is unintelligibly beautiful to me, for reasons I may never uncover.
(Photo of carnations, my own)