Poppies and the Light of Summer: June Write From Your Life

When I first experienced my first Kansas summer about 30 years ago, I immediately understood why people would often say that living here builds character. Sometimes, and actually more often than not, there’s a stretch of days that melts into weeks of intense heat, loosened only a few degrees after sundown that drives most of us to the couch with ice water, the air-conditioner and the fan on full-blast and urge to stay very still for a long time. Yet summer is also when we experience some of the most vivid sightings in our neighborhoods, particularly in June when the poppies open up, piercing the greenery and pasteled buds aplenty to show us what screaming red-orange can do when it explodes into blossom. The wicked witch of the west had it all wrong when she said of Dorothy and her friends crossing to the Wizard of Oz’s castle, “Poppies can put them to sleep.” Quite the contrary, poppies wake us up with, to paraphrase poet Mary Oliver, their orange flares.

It’s fitting to feature this poem from Oliver not just because of the poppies but because last month she made her first trip to Kansas to read at the University of Kansas’s Hall Center. Well into her 70s, and positively the best-selling poet in America, Oliver is known for writing about the flora and fauna in such ways that help us experience the earth and sky anew. She’s also known for her wit. When speaking to us last month, she said, “I finally made it to Kansas, but I had to land in Missouri to get here.”

Here’s what she has to say about a flower as vibrant as she is:

Mary Oliver

The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation

of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn’t a place
in this world that doesn’t

sooner or later drown
in the indigos of darkness,
but now, for a while,
the roughage

shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,

black, curved blade
from hooking forward—
of course
loss is the great lesson.

But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness,

when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,

touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight—

and what are you going to do—
what can you do
about it—
deep, blue night

Reading this poem, I’m struck by how she describes being “washing and washed/ in the river/ of earthly delight,” and how, while describing the fire, light and heat of the poppies, she also describes how everything eventually drowns “in the indigos of darkness.” Contrasting light and dark, she tells us of the “deep, blue night” but also the lights that comes regardless, a miracle of redemption and holiness, but especially of happiness.

In thinking about poppies and the wild light and piercing colors of summer, write about a moment that something you saw — poppies, a thunderhead at sunset, the way the cottonwood leaves clanged in the quick breeze — was an invitation to happiness for you. Or you might even make a list of all the invitations to happiness you receive right outside your front door, from the fireflies stitching the sky tonight to the mourning doves echoing above the poppies in the next morning’s first light.