“Before the Killing Frost” by Diana Whitney

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I found this poem posted on my Facebook page this morning and illustrates my sentiments about this lovely time of year. The longing in me is for a return to physical health and the ability to dig holes for tulips . . . .



  • Author photo: Jeff WoodwardDiana Whitney

[From the WVFC Poetry Archives, first published September 15, 2019]

Before the Killing Frost

It was too much to ask.
The weeds stopped growing.
And September’s tangle was free

for the taking— yellow fist apples
blackberry thumbs, wild ginger
glazing the cedar woods. Yes

everything promised
had come to pass. Even the burning bush
turned crimson. And we lay down

on the creeping thyme bed
under the sunflower roof.

Dark red pansy. Darker beet.

The tomatoes’ green glass
refusing to blush.
I took down the ladder

took down my hair, dug holes
for the tulip bulbs
shedding gold skin. Planted

those hard white tears
in their skins.
Last harvest.

The sudden geese
parting the air. My life

rushing past me again.

September 19, 2021

Mama Nedley’s Cottage

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Munstead Wood

This front view of Gertrude Jekyll’s house strongly resembles, to me, my maternal grandmother’s little cottage on the country estate in the Deep South where I grew up. Mama’s house was a microcosm of Munstead Wood without the upper story windows under a peaked frontal; Mama’s front facade sloped with a wood slat awning over the wide triple windows, with a window box filled with geraniums. A wide front lawn running down two acres to the highway was bordered with huge azaleas on the left, under live oak trees; and, on the right, smaller azaleas and a Southern Magnolia along the edge of a pine forest remnant. In my dreams, I still wander there with my dollies in their buggy.

Aftermath ~ 2o years later

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My gardens were at their best that morning, the roses full and fragrant, the dogwoods not quite turning red. Songbirds were unusually quiet. Honey bees ceased buzzing in and out of the flowers. I carried my cuppa tea cradled in my hands as I strolled the narrow brick crosswalk in the potager. Bushy parsley and lemon balm tickled my bare ankles like cat whiskers, or was it Tabitha who brushed her furry body against me?

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The jangling telephone just inside the patio door interrupted my reverie.

“Mom! Turn on the television! Now!” She sounded urgent, my newly married daughter. “Turn on ABC.” She knows I never listen to the news first thing in the mornings because that’s my morning prayer time.

“What happened?”

“Somebody crashed into the World Trade Center. In New York. Turn on Peter Jennings.” What I saw looked like an old black-and-white movie reel of a war scene: smoke roiling through skyscraper canyons, people running in grit-choked darkness. A little private plane did all that? or were we under some kind of attack?

“But, this really can’t be happening,” I protested, still on the ‘phone. “This is America.”

“Let my eyes stream with tears day and night, without rest, over the great destruction which overwhelms the virgin daughter of my people, over her incurable wound. If I walk out into the field, look! those slain by the sword; if I enter the city, look! those consumed by hunger. Even the prophet and the priest forage in a land they know not. . .” (Jeremiah 14, 17-18)

In the hours and weeks that followed, shock gave way to wrenching grief, wrenching grief faded to a strange numbness. Even the songbirds and the honey bees remained stunned into silence, as though the very air across the country had been disturbed by the turbulence in New York.

I called everyone I knew to say “I love you.” I commenced stove-top “comfort cooking” and baked loaves of Jewish braids and delivered them, still hot and wrapped in linen, to the priests at my church and around the neighborhood. There is something deeply comforting in the sensual touch of soft dough with bare hands, shaping the ropes and braiding into intricate shapes.

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Other people brought over jars of jams and marmalades they had cooked. I harvested herbs and dried them on, laid out on screens. In October, I began to write poetry again . . .

Afternoon sunlight flits

through willow branches

dangling like fern frond

shadows dancing

in my lap across

the tea table beside me

and to the wall beyond.

The last doll left at home

stares vacantly

neglected beside old books.

Maybe a cup of tea

will do me good.

Tomorrow evening, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, “Great Performances” on PBS is televising Verdi’s immortal Requiem Mass as a fitting tribute to first responders, those lost, those who survived. I, for one, will tune in.

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Red Poppies

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In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

This past week as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, I’ve been thinking of this poem, “In Flanders Fields,” a post-World War I poem written by a World War I brigade surgeon who was struck by the sight of the red flowers growing on a ravaged battlefield. The red poppy became a symbol of the fallen soldiers of both sides, their blood shed in countless battles.

Since 1920, it has become the custom to wear a red poppy pinned to one’s left lapel or pocket on the 11th of November, Remembrance Day in England and Canada, Armistice Day in America (now Veterans Day). A red poppy fashioned from crepe paper was handed out at church entrances and along parade routes, and still is today in many areas.

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It is a solemn way to commemorate the fallen in the First World War (1914-1918), especially in the Western World.

Victorians attributed numerous meanings to the flower, most of which varied depending on the color. It was most commonly used to represent loss, extravagance, and deep sleep.  The Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians connected poppies with sleep because of the sedative nature of its milky sap. In particular, the Greeks related the flower to Morpheus, the god of sleep. 

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In Gostan valley, Nimruz Province, Afghanistan’s fields of red poppies are grown not for red flowers to commemorate the war dead on Remembrance Day, or for an abundant harvest of tiny black seeds to sprinkle on muffins for tea . . .

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. . . but as a major source of opium production in Afghanistan’s own Flanders fields of shed blood in countless battles. More land is used for opium in Afghanistan than is used for coca cultivation in Latin America.

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Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

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