In Their Own Words

Katha Pollitt’s “Lunaria”


Now that I am
all done with spring
rampant in purple
and ragged leaves

and summer too
its great green moons
rising through
the breathless air

pale dusted like
the Luna's wings
I'd like to meet
October's chill

like the silver moonplant
that bears toward winter
its dark seeds

a paper lantern
lit within
and shining in
the fallen leaves.

All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the author

On "Lunaria"

I wrote "Lunaria" almost by accident, while working on another poem, which was about Judas and was not going well. In my poem, Judas was an ordinary man. Everyone knew Jesus had to die, including Jesus himself. Somebody had to make it happen, though, so that the story could unfold, and in that arbitrary way He has, God had chosen him. My Judas was like a character in a novel, who appears to be free, although in reality the writer controls him completely, only the Judas of my poem had the consciousness of a real person, and was completely bewildered to find himself standing on the street with that bag of money in his hand. It was as if Anna Karenina suddenly found herself on that train platform and thought, What am I doing here? Actually, I have alternatives!

I was sitting at the computer late one night, trying to flog my poor confused overcomplicated poem through yet another draft, while simultaneously woolgathering on the internet under the guise of "research": iconography of the Last Supper, where in many paintings of that tableful of Jews only Judas is given "Jewish" features, which led me to anti-Semitism generally, and is the yellow star connected to the yellow robes Judas is often portrayed wearing? Ancient money --was 30 pieces of silver a lot or a little? And flowering Judas, what was that, anyway? Pictures of this lovely tree, from which legend has it Judas hanged himself, led me to pictures of lunaria, which in Denmark and Holland is called coins of Judas, but we call honesty, money plant or silver dollar plant.

Lunaria was much more exciting than Judas and his metaphysical quandaries. It is a plant I love dearly--I have a lot of it naturalized in my garden -- and the most interesting thing about it is not its Danish-Dutch connection with Judas, but that it has three distinct phases, each beautiful. In the spring, it has a tall stem of purple flowers, in the summer it has flat round green seed pods, and in the fall the skin of the seed pod dries up and falls away and reveals the inner translucent lining; you can see the seeds inside. That last phase is the one that gives it all those names referring to moons and coins and truthfulness.

I liked the idea of Lunaria moving through its stages of life until the last one, which is also the most striking and unusual. That aging was not only loss but a stripping away of inessentials. That there could be a transfiguration. "Lunaria" came very quickly, and although one friend found it rather mysterious – it helps to know it's about a plant , not a planet or a goddess– I think it's pretty clear. Maybe too clear.

The poem about Judas remains unfinished.

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