Kimberly Johnson on Life, Death, and the “Corpse Flower”

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Kimberly Johnson’s poem, “Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum),” appears in our Winter 2010-11 issue, edited by Terrance Hayes. The poem opens with these lines:

This morning’s hothouse: a pornography.
All my darlings pressing up to watch

My fan-dance, velvet spathe flourishing
Open to my hidden plush.

Here, Johnson shares her fascination with this rare-blooming flower that smells like death and tells us how it inspired her poem:

I learned some years ago about the corpse-flower, the Amorphophallus titanum, a Sumatran bloom that opens very infrequently, and—in this country—with much fanfare.  The flower is spectacular in its beauty—you can see time-lapse video of the bloom here, which is worth more than a thousand words:

And there’s another video here:

But it is more famous for the putrid smell it emits in blooming.  It smells like rotting flesh, which attracts the carrion-eating bugs that pollinate it.  I am drawn to the simultaneity of decay and generation, death and the most beautiful manifestation of life, in this flower.  My poem, “Corpse-flower (Amorphophallus titanum),” explores the relationship between beauty and death, suggesting that we come to a consciousness of beauty only because of death, because of the way it circumscribes and limits experience.  Such highminded thoughts got combined with my sense, watching those videos over and over on Youtube, all the folds and crevices and that large phallic spadix in the middle of the bloom, that my fixation on this plant was starting to be a little prurient.