by Ted Hughes
Big Poppy Women and Femininity Quotes
How we cite our quotes: (line)
Hot-eyed Mafia Queen! (1)
Right off the bat we have a characterization of poppy as woman. What kind of woman might a "hot-eyed Mafia Queen" be? We're thinking pretty intimidating. Maybe with lots of jewelry, and a penchant for marrying guys who break kneecaps for a living. So, at any rate, this first characterization of women in the poem is very specific – royal and a little scary perhaps. However, let us not forget our knowledge of the Sopranos. Even though the poppy is set up as mafia royalty in this very first line, what we know of mafia wives is that, while they can be incredibly strong characters in and of themselves, they can also fall victim to their even stronger husbands. This kind of semi-helplessness will be played out in the rest of the poem, so here, "Queen" is a loaded word indeed.
Her carnival paper skirts, luminous near-orange,
Embrace him helplessly (10-11)
And here's the character complication – even though the poem sets up the flower as this incredibly fierce, strong kind of woman right off the bat, by the time the bee gets to her, she's an entirely passive agent. And no wonder – she's a plant. It's not like it could get up and move if it wanted to. But by characterizing the flower as a "she," the poem is necessarily saying something about the nature of femininity here. Something along the lines of women being kind of unaware of their own strength, even resigned to it, maybe.
Every breath imperils her. Her crucible
is falling apart with its own fierceness. (13-14)
This next quote supports the notion that women in this poem are characterized as nearly paradoxical – on the one hand, even just "breathing" (poppies don't breathe, obviously; we figure that this is an instance of personification that refers to the passing of time) is almost too much for the flower, but on the other, what's "imperiling" the flower is her "own fierceness." So it sets up this wacky contradiction in character traits – you'd think "fierceness" as a trait would prevent one from falling to harm just by breathing, and yet there's the element of self-destruction about it, too. It's almost as if the poppy-as-woman is living so intensely that she doesn't realize her own impending doom. This sounds a little like, in some cases, the way drug addicts live their lives. This is probably not coincidental, given the substances that poppies produce (heroin, morphine, etc.).