Study Guide

Big Poppy Quotes

  • Transience

    She sways towards August. (3)

    This line comes very early on in the poem, and already the speaker is imagining that the poppy isn't just swaying in the breeze, but is actually swaying towards August. What does it mean to sway towards August? Well, August is typically how we think of the end of summer, no? After that, things start cooling down, and plants begin their fall transformations. So, the first instance of this poppy's movement is already towards her own transformation at the end of the season. This early line sets up the poppy's transience for the rest of the poem.

    Up the royal carpet of a down-hung,
    Shrivel-edged, unhinged petal, her first-about-to-fall.
    (6-7)

    This image is really specific – we're talking here about one single petal that's flopped down a bit, letting the bee crawl up it into the flower. The focus on this particular petal is more important than just a runway for the bug, though. It's also symbolic of the extremely temporary nature of the poppy's flowering. Since we know that it's not actually the end of summer (the "towards August" bit), this quote gives us a specific image of the poppy, having just flowered, already beginning to wither a bit.

    Already her dark pod is cooking its drug. (12)

    Impending transformation here – even though the poppy is still in bloom, the speaker knows what's coming, and what's coming is a seed pod full of poppy seeds, which are used to make opium. This is the first directly dark notion of transformation we've had in the poem so far, and it makes us think perhaps that the poppy's production of opium is a little scary to the speaker, like he almost can't believe that something so pretty and passive could produce something so aggressively intoxicating.

    Bleeding inwardly
    Her maternal nectars into her own
    Coffin – (cradle of her offspring).
    (18-20)

    Like the quote above, these lines move towards the end of the summer, when the poppy's petals are gone and the plant is doing other, more sinister work. The poem is gory about it, too – instead of a word like "transforming," we have "bleeding," and the process of becoming mother is linked entirely to the process of dying, all of which happens very quickly in this poem.

    "She wore herself in her hair, in her day,
    and we could see nothing but her huge flop of petal,
    (22-23)

    This first part of the eulogy for the poppy seems to be reflecting upon a kind of transience, especially with the "in her day" bit in there – the poppy did in fact have a day, but that day was only twenty-odd lines long. (We know, we know, the poppy flowers for a time period, lines are not a time period, but in this poem creates a world! So the poppy, for purposes of this kind of analysis, only exists in the poem. For 26 lines.) During that extremely brief period, the poppy was a riot of color and sensuality, so much so that those who looked upon her "could see nothing" but her.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Hot-eyed Mafia Queen!
    At the trim garden's edge
    (1-2)

    These lines are some of the most interesting in the poem because they're next to each other and they're so different. What does this have anything to do with man and the natural world, though? Well, it seems to set up a kind of crazy contradiction that's related to how the speaker feels about the world that he's in. On the one hand, the poppy is this huge, "hot-eyed" thing that's staring at him almost menacingly (the "Mafia" part), and then it's like he suddenly realizes that, wait one second, he's in a "trim garden." So, on the one hand, there's all this wildness, and on the other, the wildness exists in a really controlled environment.

    He utters thin
    Sizzling bleats of difficult enjoyment.
    (8-9)

    Again, more of man's observation of nature – and so far, the one thing that man seems to be capable of doing in this poem is project human qualities on to natural things. In this case, the bee was introduced a few lines ago, but now the speaker is telling us that whatever the bee is doing in the flower is producing enjoyment. So the speaker is relating to the natural world here by projecting, perhaps, how he would feel if he were a bee in that moment. In a lot of ways, this is representative of how we organize the natural world around us, don't you think?

    A fly, cool, rests on the flame-fringe (15)

    The theme of man-relating-to-nature in this quote rests in a single adjective – "cool." There's no way that we can know whether or not a fly is cool (literally or figuratively, we guess), and so it's yet another projection of a human quality onto something that's decidedly not human. In this case, we think maybe that the speaker is kind of wishing he could be more like the fly – content to rest on the fringes of things, keeping his head about him. As it stands, the poem has struggled to keep itself under control regarding its awe over the poppy.

    Then we shall say:
    "She wore herself in her hair, in her day
    (21-22)

    Now we've moved into the realm of conversation about nature – so this is a little less symbolic, a little more literal. How do we as humans talk about "the natural world"? (As though we weren't a part of it!) Again, we personify, trying to match parts of plants (in this case) to parts of our own bodies. The natural world causes us to reflect upon the ways in which we live our own lives – how we "wear ourselves," as it were. This last part of the poem goes on for some while talking about the flower as if it were a body. The speaker turns the flower fully human, in other words, bringing some of the wildness of the natural world into the human world – or maybe saying something about how wild humans are, and how we really are inseparable from nature.

  • Women and Femininity

    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.).

    Bleeding inwardly
    Her maternal nectars into her own
    (18-19)

    Now we have a different notion of femininity placed onto the poppy – woman-as-mother. The "bleeding" part has a couple layers of meaning, one of which could easily be menstruation (and the other one we'll get to in the "Mortality" section). In this quote, though, the blood isn't actually leaving the body – just like how a woman will stop menstruating when she's pregnant, which is exactly what the flower is at this point. So motherhood is framed as a kind of gory process here, more like internal injury than the creation of anything new and beautiful.

    "She wore herself in her hair, in her day,
    And we could see nothing but her huge flop of petal,
    Her big, lewd, bold eye, in its sooty lashes
    (21-24)

    We've broken this last chunk of the poem into two distinct quotes because they have such different ways of talking about femininity. (Women may be super-contradictory in this poem, but at least they're consistently so.) In this first bit, the poppy-as-woman is incredibly feminine in a traditional way – big skirts, big hair (both indicated in the "flop of petal"), mascara on the eyelashes, and bold, but in a distinctly female way.

    And that stripped, athletic leg, hairy,
    In a fling of abandon—"
    (25-26)

    But what is up with this part? Suddenly we have an unshaven leg that probably plays soccer or something! This sets up a final contradiction that, overall, makes women out to be something nearly unfathomable at the end of the day. First, the poppy is all done up in skirts and makeup, and yet the poem ends by framing the stem of the poppy as a decidedly masculine body part (inasmuch as we think of masculinity when we see the word "athletic" – a dumb stereotype, to be sure, but combined with "hairy," it's tough to avoid). So the woman-poppy in this poem is incredibly complicated, almost past the point of understanding: passive and aggressive, feminine and masculine, maternal and promiscuous. All at once!

  • Mortality

    Shrivel-edged, unhinged petal, her first-about-to-fall (7)

    This first reference to mortality in the poem is pretty oblique (that is to say, subtle) – we have just the barest hint of something withering ("shrivel-edged"). The petal in question, though, is representative of the beginning of a process that will quickly take all the petals of the flower. Each petal in turn will also be "about-to-fall," and so the observation of this first petal brings the idea of eventual death to the forefront of the speaker's consciousness.

    Every breath imperils her. Her crucible
    is falling apart with its own fierceness.
    (13-14)

    You'd think that the sentence "every breath imperils her" would imply sickness of some sort, as if the flower were really frail. Turns out that it's more complicated than that. This flower, as you've probably figured out by now, is not withering away quietly. Instead, the "crucible" that the petals form is going to fall apart (each petal falling off) from sheer force – as if the energy contained in the color of the flower was simply too much to sustain for any length of time. The flower's riotous beauty and bigness are to be its imminent downfall.

    Soon she'll throw off her skirts
    Withering into vestal afterlife

    More impending death – and yet another imagistic way of talking about petals falling off. This time, it's the removal of clothing (hey, risqué!) that portends (is an omen of) death, and this time it's also all of the petals, not just one. Notice also that this line is yet another example of how contradictory this poem is about its subject. In the first part we have a woman undressing, and in the second part we have an "afterlife" that is modified by the word "vestal" which has come to mean virginal/chaste/pure.

    Her maternal nectars into her own
    Coffin—(cradle of her offspring)
    (19-20)

    This is another "baseball bat" of a symbol – if coffins don't represent death, then what does? These lines, however, save themselves from being cliché by placing the coffin directly next to a "cradle," thereby putting into very close relation the ideas of death and birth. In the poppy's case, motherhood is going to kill her, quite literally. Thus, the coffin is also the cradle – to get really morbid about it, the offspring of the poppy emerge quite literally from the mother's dead body. Yikes.

    Then we shall say:
    "She wore herself in her hair, in her day,
    (21-22)

    This quote is a reference to the future, after the death of the poppy, and is all about how we remember the dead. In this case, it's still all in the petals – those big orange, eye-popping petals that throughout the poem have been symbolic of both life and imminent death. Fitting, then, that the first thing the speaker thinks we ought to eulogize about is the flower's "hair," i.e., those very petals.

  • Sex

    A Bumble Bee
    Clambers into her drunken, fractured goblet—
    (4-5)

    OK. So we have a very obviously female flower, here, and while the bee doesn't get gendered until line 8, the very mention of the word "bee" in a nature poem conjures up thoughts of "the birds and the bees," that classic euphemism for sex. Not to mention the fact that the bee's action is kind of suggestive, laden as it is with notions of entering, intoxication, and the like. Obviously the bee can't actually have sex with the flower, but it is about to make it possible for the flower to reproduce by pollinating it.

    Up the royal carpet of a down-hung,
    Shrivel-edged, unhinged petal, her first-about-to-fall.
    (6-7)

    A couple of subtly sexy things here – first of all, the description of the petal itself is pretty suggestive. "A royal carpet"? "Down-hung, shrivel-edged"? We're thinking female private parts here. So things are getting a little steamier, though they're still kind of subtle. What's less subtle about this passage is the "first-about-to-fall" part, especially if you think of it in terms of sex being, to some, a kind of sin. Thus, the loss of virginity ("first") is paired up with "fall," which alludes in this way to the Fall of Man (you know, that bit in the Bible where Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and God kicks them out of Eden).

    He's in there as she sways. He utters thin
    Sizzling bleats of difficult enjoyment.
    Her carnival paper skirts, luminous near-orange,
    Embrace him helplessly.
    (8-11)

    This is the act itself, ladies and gentlemen. In what can really only be read as a blatant reference to copulation. Phew! We're fanning ourselves again. Interestingly, the poppy's role in this whole act is incredibly passive – while she is swaying, it's due to the wind or the motion of the bee – the poppy, as much as this poem makes her a woman, is still a plant and can do nothing of her own volition. So she literally cannot help but embrace the bee.

    Her big, lewd, bold eye, in its sooty lashes,
    And that stripped, athletic leg, hairy,
    In a fling of abandon—"
    (24-26)

    The ending note of the entire poem is pretty sexy in nature, though in kind of a weird way. Speaking in terms of popular conventions about beauty (which might be for the birds, but that's another story), we usually don't think of hairy female legs as being anything particularly attractive. But there's that word "lewd," and then "stripped," and then the verb "fling," which when you're talking about legs, usually implies something sexual. So the poem ends on this kind of wild sexual note, which is exactly how the poem wants us to think of the poppy.