Poetry of the Day: On Beauty and Brutality

Devil’s Helmet (Aconitum Napellus)

The blossoms of the Wolfsbane, also known as Devil’s Helmet, are some of the most beautiful flowers in the world – and some of the most toxic. In ancient times, toxins from the plant was applied on arrows and spears, and in Ancient Rome it was used as a method of execution. It was even considered to repel werewolves, hence the name Wolfsbane. The most dangerous toxin found in the Devil’s Helmet is aconitine; it can cause both neurological and cardiovascular issues. Simply touching its flowers can numb your fingertips. 

That beauty in nature can also be tainted with poison teaches a larger lesson – one that speaks to life itself, whether human or those of other sentiment beings – which is that beauty and brutality have always conspired since the creation of the world. And the Wolfbane is a striking reminder that in life, we take pleasure and pain in one gulp. More importantly, the joy of living outweighs pain and suffering; it is this unequal balance that makes us want to live another day. And another, till it is time to go.

Here are two poems on the twinning of beauty with brutality. The first piece, by David Whyte, quietly celebrates “what is precious inside us”, our capacity for resilience to survive and thrive in the face of the brutal onslaught of life even as we take in its beauty. The second poem, “Flower” (by me) is part thanksgiving and part stoic acknowledgement of the blessings and curse that will always be a part of all living things, from flowers to whales, to us.

“The Winter of Listening” by David Whyte

No one but me by the fire,
my hands burning
red in the palms while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.

All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
round every living thing.

What is precious
inside us does not
care to be known
by the mind
in ways that diminish
its presence.

~ From David Whyte’s book, Essentials.

“Flower” by Wallace Fong

With cupped hands
I drank till empty
showers of petals
from the one who
roams the skies.
It isn’t all gentleness
if that is what you think.
Look this way – I’m the one
bending, pulling out a thorn
from my side.

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