“The Dahlia Gardens”, a poem by Amy Clampitt, recounts the story of Norman Morrison, a Baltimore Quaker who burned himself to death in protest of the Vietnam War at the Pentagon in 1965. It is a long work in free verse. Epic and mythic, it pictures Morrison’s act occurring against a system that devours everything. (Including Morrison himself). Asides refer to employees exiting the Pentagon, traffic leaving along the Potomac, troop trains rolling beside the Mekong. Images of light and fire burst out midway in the piece: headlights, candles, kerosene-lit windows, rush lights, neon lights, napalm, burning ghats, saffron robes charring and others. The poem is the final piece in her book The Kingfisher.
Amy Clampitt (1920-94) was one of the most highly regarded American poets. Her works included Multitudes, Multitudes; The Isthmus; The Summer Solstice; The Kingfisher; What the Light Was Like; Archaic Figure; Westward: Poems; Manhattan: An Elegy, and Other Poems; As If; and A Silence Opens: Poems. Other books were Predecessors, Et Cetera: Essays; The Essential Donne; and A Homage to John Keats. She taught at the College of William and Mary; Amherst College; and Smith College. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship; a McArthur Fellowship; a Lila Wallace Readers Digest Writer’s Award; and a Rockefeller Foundation Residency and was a member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters and the American Academy of Poets.
Clampitt was a Friend from rural Iowa. For a time she was involved with the Episcopalian Church, even to the extent of considering becoming a nun. Late in life she noted that she thought she was a Christian but she had trouble with dogma.
“The Dahlia Gardens” is a stunning poem. It is full of rage and pain. Elaborate, rich images abound. Morrison’s act continues to be wrong. But Clampitt explains it. A quote regarding the moment just before the match is struck:
His mind/plunges like a derrick/into that pitch black as he uncorks the wine jug/and with a quick gesture not unlike/a signing with the cross (but he is a Quaker)/begins the anointing of himself with its contents/with the ostensible domestic Rhine wine/or chablis, which is not wine-which/in fact is gasoline.