I was freshly arrived as the editor of Arnoldia when Peter Del Tredici suggested I consider Amy Lowell’s poem, “Magnolia Gardens,” for the magazine. Eager to bring contemporary verse to our pages, I filed the poem away. But the strange horror in Lowell’s verse—her “curves and colors…. Reeking with sensuality”; the “fire of magenta” inspiring Lowell not to wonder, but “disappointment”—kept pulling me back to her lines. Philosophy famously begins in wonder, but Lowell’s lyric begins in disappointment. With spring again swinging into view, I recall afresh that I go to the garden for surprise, delight, discovery—for wonder foremost. Why then for Lowell this disappointment? What’s wrong with magenta?

Colors, like the passions, have excited the wonder of gardeners as much as philosophers. “We treat desire as a problem to be solved,” writes the essayist Rebecca Solnit, noting “the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing.” She encourages us to shift our perspective, to cherish the longing itself, “since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance.” What then of magenta? This hue combining the blue of distance, of longing, with the red of blood and the body. Not as mixture or mingling, but as harmony or hybrid, a special kind of consonance. To Goethe, colors are “the deeds and sufferings of light.” In “Magnolia Gardens,” magenta’s deeds are misdeeds, and suffering is everywhere.

Magnolia Gardens
It was a disappointment,
For I do not like magenta,
And the garden was a fire of magenta
Exploding like a bomb into the light-colored peace of a spring afternoon.
Not wistaria dropping through Spanish moss,
Not cherokees sprinkling the tops of trees with moon-shaped stars,
Not the little pricked-out blooms of banksia roses,
Could quench the flare of raw magenta.
Rubens women shaking the fatness of their bodies
In an opulent egotism
Till the curves and colors of flesh
Are nauseous to the sight,
So this magenta.
Reeking with sensuality,
Bestial, obscene—
I remember you as something to be forgotten.
But I cherish the smooth sweep of the colorless river,
And the thin, clear song of the red-winged blackbirds
In the marsh-grasses on the opposite bank.

Amy Lowell (1874–1925)

Magenta is what’s called an “extra-spectral” color: a compound of red and blue wavelengths in combination—not a single note, but a chord. The light falling on these soft petals took some eight minutes to arrive from the sun. Born out of fusion reactions at the sun’s core, these energies storm the solar midlayer, where innumerable collisions rob them of energy. Escaping at last through charged regions of plasma and the corona, they fly through space, scatter their blues through the atmosphere, and pass through a magnolia petal, where a smattering of woven, whirling wavelengths catch in folds of protein in one of your retinal cones, exciting a sense of magenta. Indeed, this soft storm of wildly-woven light fills up the garden with a menagerie of colors—“exploding amid light-colored peace,” indeed!

In many plants, pigments called anthocyanins produce the hues described as magenta. These pigments absorb ultraviolet light, and thus are often present in young plant structures, the bud scales of shagbark hickory to the tepals of magnolia, where they protect thin, fragile, fast-growing tissues from the damaging bands of sunlight’s spectrum. Depending on their chemistry, these pigments can be red, purple, blue, or even black. In their endless variety, intermixture, and modulation, they transmute light in shattering, scattering, braiding variations of wavelength—a quilted sea of sunlight flooding the garden, exploding, unquenchable, overflowing.

Although the color it names has always been raveled from sunlight’s skein, “magenta” is a modern coinage, named for an 1859 battle fought between French and Austrian forces at the town of Magenta in northern Italy. Among the French forces was a regiment of Zouaves, whose dashing uniforms of blue and red were inspired by the Berber fighters of French North Africa. Though the battle was small in scale, it proved a turning point in the war, and news accounts forged a link between the exotic image of the Zouaves and the town of Magenta. That same year, a team of British chemists synthesized a new reddish-purple pigment from coal-tar derivatives, the product of a revolution in the manufacture of dyes from fossil fuels in the mid nineteenth century. They named “magenta” after the battle, perhaps simply to capitalize on the notoriety of a major news event. Or maybe it was the hue of the fezzes worn by the Zouaves in engravings of battle scenes that inspired them. As for the town itself, it took its name from Maxentius, the Roman emperor defeated by Constantine I in 312 CE. On the eve of the battle, Constantine experienced a vision promising him victory under the sign of the Christian cross. So the name “magenta” is blood-drenched, a sanguine vision, blued with the distance of time and the exotic.

Philosophy famously begins in wonder, but Lowell’s lyric begins in disappointment.

None of these reasons explain Lowell’s disappointment, however, as magenta “explodes” and upsets the “light-colored peace” of the garden: the misty violet of Wisteria, the white of Cherokee rose, the exotic fragility of Banksia. Even amid the violent energies of magenta, Lowell finds solace and surrender in these whitened, softening hues. Rebecca Solnit tells of the vogue among renaissance painters for the blue of distance: “when you look at these paintings you can imagine a world where you could walk through an expanse of green grass …and then at some point arrive in the blue country: grass, trees, houses become blue, and perhaps if you look down at yourself, you too would be blue.” Where then is Amy Lowell headed in the early twentieth century, exploding into this magenta of longing and the body? What is this magenta? We’re inclined to presume it’s the color of the magnolias featured in the poem’s title, though in fact Lowell never names the source. In its volatility and violence, it seems almost sourceless, though it takes vivid shape in the “curves and colors” of “Rubens women shaking the fatness of their bodies.” It’s “raw,” corporeal and corpulent, expressing an “opulent egotism”—who wouldn’t want some of that? An uncanny, synaesthetic color—it’s “reeking with sensuality”; it’s “bestial, obscene”—Lowell’s e’s bracketed with spittle-blowing sibilants and plosives. And if, as the closing line suggests, colorlessness is peace, it is a strange peace of nonlife, which the vitality of the magnolias’ magenta lovingly destroys. Lowell conjures magenta in such voluptuous terms that it’s tempting to disbelieve her dislike for the color.

Lowell’s “disappointment” is even more incredible when looking elsewhere in her work, which rarely is prudish when it comes to botany or the body. Indeed, she often is expressively erotic—as in “The Weather Cock Points South,” a poem from 1919:

I put your leaves aside.
One by one:
The still broad outer leaves;
The smaller ones,
Pleasant to touch, veined with purple;
The glazed inner leaves
One by one

White flower,
Flower of wax, of jade, of unstreaked
Flower with surfaces of ice,
With shadows faintly crimson.
Where in all the garden is there such
a flower?

These opalescent flowers prefigure the moon-shaped stars and constellating blooms of “Magnolia Gardens”—though here, the purple-veined and faintly crimson petals aren’t “bestial” or “obscene,” but pleasant and above all, rare. Why the horror in South Carolina?

Given her propensity elsewhere for erotic, body-botanical flourish, I wonder whether Lowell’s entire orientation in “Magnolia Gardens” is ironic—an irony that is born, moreover, of her own sense of vulnerability and precariousness: as a northerner in southern landscapes of violence and enslavement; as a woman contending with obesity; as a lesbian. For in her verse and beyond it, Lowell was a target of complaint, derision, and revulsion beyond the pages of Poetry. Fabulously wealthy and unconventional, she also was obese at a time when the American body was being interpreted in new ways. Fellow poets derided her with nicknames I won’t repeat here; according to literary scholar Melissa Bradshaw, contemporary criticism of Lowell went beyond bodily description. In body and person, critics deem her “voracious, engulfing, and out of control.… Everything she does, says, or touches becomes imbued with images of consumption, gluttony, and sloppiness as her bodily excess becomes a metaphor through which her entire person is interpreted.”

Lowell’s response was to embrace her notoriety, to feed off its energy. In an infamous performance in 1915, Lowell read an early poem in which her narrator describes taking a bath, luxuriant as the “sun-flawed beryl water” flows over her body. As the formidable Lowell declaimed, Bradshaw relates, a “suppressed snicker … rose to a roomful of undisguised laughter” from an audience that “could not listen to a poem and forget that a fat woman was reading it.”

Lowell’s lyric on monstrous magnolias, too, touched off a nerve—readers from the South wrote into Poetry to complain about Lowell’s identification of magenta in “Magnolia Gardens.” One correspondent reports that he visited the garden in the same season as Lowell; and while he saw “many shades of pink and some reds,” of magenta he found an “irreducible minimum, if any.” Walker continues in a tone we recognize today as mansplaining: “They tell me it takes blue to make magenta. As Miss Lowell was being fêted in the choicest southern style, how can there have been blue in her outlook, to mix with the reds and produce magenta?” Walker concludes that Lowell’s poem “misses the color of the scene and is therefore dubious art.”

For all its beauty, the landscape Lowell visited along Charleston’s Ashley River was touched by the legacy of slavery, the myth of the Lost Cause, and the evils of Jim Crow. “Magnolia Gardens” was the first in a series of three Lowell poems that appeared in the same issue of Poetry. The next poem in the series, “A South Carolina Forest,” peers through the gloom of southern woods to uncover the horror of lynching: “There are butchered victims behind those trees/And what you say is moss I know is the dead hair of hanged men.” The third poem, “The Vow,” risibly invokes the “lost cause” of the South, beseeching the dead “who die/Unconquered” to “deign some gesture of forgiveness/To those of our sundered race/Who come in all humility/Asking an alms of pardon.” Lowell seems to envision reconciliation between the white north and white south, beseeching some “benefice of love poured down on us from these magnolia-trees./That, when we leave you, we shall know the bitter wound/Of our long mutual scourging healed at last and sound.”

Together, the three poems take a strange trip through southern gothic gardens: from explosions of voluptuousness, past the ghoulish roadside remnants of racial oppression, toward city streets and squares ringing with conciliation. Why then was it her use of the color magenta that drew complaint? Perhaps it was a matter of displacement—a faltering in the face of the hard truths of the South’s bloody past and Lowell’s squirm-inducing splay of burgeoning bodies. “Magnolia Gardens” bathes the vivid intimate reds of sex and death with the blue of distance, sweet roses, and the distant grasses. Well, but what is the garden but a zone of harmony and contrast, a melting pot of cyans and yellow-reds and, yes, magentas, where the tangled pulses of different wavelengths converge, ripple, and interweave?

A dappled world, spilling over with colors of many colors. After chill days of bud break, the magnolias here in the arboretum bloomed into an April heat wave, and the fragrances of many cultivars, rose and citrus-soap and musky humors, mingle now in the sudden humidity. In the heat, the tepals emerged smudged and streaky-brown, and began dropping early. They still are falling as I write, a thickening litter of floral shards in white and pale and, yes, the flare of raw magenta. Still lively, the color bathes us in a relishing of wave and resonance. And I am not disappointed.

Matthew Battles is the editor of Arnoldia.

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

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