Wave of Cereus: Some Comments on My Poem

This is the paper I presented as a member of the January conference panel organized by Steve Heller. 

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I wanted to share the following information as background to comments on my poem “Wave of Cereus.”

Several sources were combined to produce the following Wikipedia text on Hylocereus undatus. I’ve changed a few words, I should note.

Hylocereus undatus (White-fleshed Pitahaya) is a species of cactus and is the most cultivated species in the genus. It is used both as an ornamental vine and as a fruit crop - the Pitahaya or Dragonfruit. The native origin of the species has never been resolved.
There is a locally famous cacti hedge on a lava rock wall of the Punahou School in Honolulu, the hedge of Kapunahou. 
In 1836, Mrs. Bingham planted the hedge of Hylocereus undatus, the famed cactus known in Hawaii as panini o kapunahou. Its exotic blossoms still bloom during the closing summer months on the Punahou walls. The hedge is on two sides of the school and about three hundred meters long.
From July to as late as October the hedge blooms and several times there is a wall of white flowers hundreds of yards long. Supposedly all the H. undatus in Hawaii came from the wall of Punahou School. People used to come in the evenings from all over the island to see them blooming and “borrow” some cuttings so that now they have this species all over the islands.

From a Hawaiian-dictionary site comes this entry for Punahou:

Private school, street, and section of Honolulu, formerly called Ka-puna-hou. The school was established by Hiram Bingham in 1841, on property given at the request of Ka-‘ahu-manu, for chiefs’ children and missionary children. There were 34 students in the first class; in 1971 there were 3,500, from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. Lit., new spring. (The god Kane thrust his staff into the ground here to get water. According to another story, an old couple lived by a pandanus tree and each dreamed of a spring; when the man offered red fish and pulled up the pandanus tree, water oozed out. The seal of Punahou School depicts a pandanus tree, pool, and taro leaves.)

The word wave makes us think of sustained intensity; travel toward or journey to a point of rest or completion; development from a low point to high and perhaps back down; vibration, current, pulse through a medium, e.g., air, water, time, thought, emotion.

A poem may start with a sound—word, phrase, emotion, sensation—or an image. As it builds, it generates a wave through the poet’s heart and mind, engaging both as a large wave might engage a fish or bird. 

Once set in motion, the poet proceeds unconsciously for the most part—i.e., navigation is unconscious, though a poet will try to move toward meaning or resolution. Sometimes resolution is that of form. For example, when my principal reader, Frank Stewart, reads an unfinished poem of mine, he may say, “You haven’t solved the form yet,” meaning that I have created a problem—i.e., a subject—but not given it the right form, the one in which it might find full expression or release.

The poem I am going to read, “Wave of Cereus,” appeared first in a different form. It was a sort of tribute to a writer friend that expressed the mystery of what lies in the dark of poetry and can, with the poet’s skill, be drawn into the light. He, I, and the group of writer friends we belonged to were all familiar with the lava-rock wall surrounding Punahou School. One member of the group, Barbara, lived on the campus, and we would frequently walk across it to her house for dinners and other gatherings. The cereus flowers would bloom several nights a year, and many people would stop to appreciate them as they overtook the lava rock. Wondering at the large white beauties emerging from black lava, people young and old would linger as if entranced.

After I wrote the poem, I had the experience of walking along the wall with another friend. It was evening, and we were talking. There was no flowering of intense feeling, so to speak, as described in the poem. However, I began working on the poem again, and as I did so, my feelings deepened and I made a leap. The wave flowed through me, and I expressed it by heightening the register of the voices and intensifying the risks being taken by the two people. 

Then wordlessly he takes her hand
and unfolds the slender fingers against the wall.

That image of flesh and bone pressing against the lichen-covered lava rock changed the meaning of the poem. Once created, the image assumed weight, form, and energy, and it became my task to place it in the reader’s mind with a story he or she would not forget.

Botanical drawing from Wikimedia Commons.

The end of the poem draws together, unifies several elements: the cereus plants, the light they emit, the relationship between the two people, the nascent feeling that moves beneath them like a wave. Just as white is the sum of certain colors, white hearts are the sum of subtle but strong feelings, delicate but powerful images: the modesty of people who feel for each other, the purity of their connection, cereus plants blooming in moonlight. And the power such forms of beauty can have to make the mind want and the heart wish.