Only a Peony

Eileen Chong

There is nothing more difficult…than to paint a rose.

Henri Matisse

Peony, Chinese rose, history taught me about you.
You adorned the headdresses of Manchurian princesses,
pinned above tassels that swung back and forth,
mimicking their mincing walk. An upturned bowl placed
under a platform, the sway of hands for balance. A fiction
of bound feet. Were you real, flower of fortune?

What does a peony smell like? I have nestled
my nose within their depths but breathed nothing
of their notes. Perhaps I needed to have crushed them,
smeared their juice in my hands, eaten their petals one
by one. I know that women who swallow flowers
must avoid princes, rivers and deposed emperors.

Like the rose, so many shades of blood and white.
One birthday I woke to find peonies in the shade
of night’s red stabbed in a vase. Their hearts:
so closed, so full of mystery. In seven days a shake
and the flowers would fall apart. I would taste
the naked heads: nothing, not even pollen, would remain.

Under the sign of mudan, you bought me my first gift.
Celadon-green, cool against the peach skin of my cheek.
Too big: the bangle slipped on and off my wrist. When a man
gives you jade, it’s like diamonds, only truer.
How was I to know
we were only mortal? I bound the cracks with gold.
I thought I was to die. Then it shattered into four.

In the darkness of the shophouse, arrayed on a stand:
bottles containing the essence of peonies. Pivoine magnifica,
the magnificent peony. Healer of the gods, I see you
tacked under the alter in a takeaway shop. On the shelf,
Guan Yu, deified, stands ready for battle. His face, painted
crimson: the shade of these peonies before rot.

We cut away the tape and unroll the carpet.
Pink and red swirls tufted in pure new wool.
Blossoms on branches form the background
to stylized cross-sections of peonies: leaves,
stems, blooms. One lady nods and smiles:
China’s national flower. Is it? Am I? I’ve forgotten.

 
Back to top