Azaleas (1774)

by R.T. Smith

The red ones, ephemeral, festive in time
for early Easter — “Swamp honeysuckle”

Bartram called them, and sketched quickly,
knowing they were close to rhododendrons

he’d found in windbreak coves
where the Appalachian chain shadowed any

thought of spring. Also cousin to highland heather,
and he recalled their name behind the fragrant

momentary blossoms was from the classical
Greek for “dry.” Even as he saw them

across the Savannah River’s soiled waters
as bursts of wildfire inexplicable

in the time of green, he studied the seed
vessels, tasted the root and was sure

the first sap could not long prevent
such loose panicles of flowers from withering.

The branches’ white hardwood opened
to his knife. He found the scent bitter.

Nothing like this existed in all of Europe’s
dark forests or tyrannical gardens, but

he was not homesick, he told his journal,
not Ovid in exile, though all about him

the landscape changed and clouds shifted
so quickly he thought it could only be

the work of a god. Vagrant on this savage
landscape, he did not wish to dwell

in nostalgia for the Passion, the Host
cool upon his tongue or cathedral

echoes, and yet, out there in the Territories,
April looming, shagbark and tulip trees

loosening pollen, sassafras rampant, he found
science inadequate and settled

by the fatwood fire to read Luke’s gospel
aloud. Even mapping his daily transit —

the congress of flood-rich rivers, pinewoods,
azalea-strewn slopes still magical

long after sunset — he could discern only
the Lamb pierced and broken, His suffering

never softened by Latin catalogues
of genus and species. The spread petals,

sudden outcrops of untamed color, his own
fibers tightening — it all taught a single lesson,

the question of estrangement. Secular
in every bone the year before, he had dreamed

of drawing bud and leaf-sheen with a birch
pencil. Now, even asleep, he prayed

for dawn and a sense of mission,
the wilderness a miracle he was meant to list

like Adam, the Adam of plants, though this
was far from Eden and the Swede Linnaeus

had set the precedents. He wished
for subtle pigments to set the heat of azaleas

exact in his ledgers, and that was the first
week out, reconnoitering before the straggling

retinue caught up, before fever,
moccasins, hard crossings and the bewildered

circling. He discovered also four species of biting
flies and a glittering rivulet rising

wild and brilliant from the shadow
of a skull-shaped stone. He could almost

discern the form of Eve dazzling amid sunshafts.
He wrote between calfskin covers, “In a paradise

fallen, I am westbound, stunned by the benison
of azaleas and celebrating Zion alone.”

R.T. SMITH is Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University, where he edits Shenandoah. The most recent of his four collections of stories is Sherburne (Stephen F. Austin U Press, 2012). His work has appeared in Best American Short StoriesNew Stories from the SouthVQRSouthern Review and Esquire. A new book of poems, The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O’Connor will appear in 2013. Smith lives in Rockbridge County, VA, with his wife, the writer Sarah Kennedy.

All poems reprinted, by permission of author, from Messenger, Louisiana State University Press, 2001.