“Which Do You Value More?” by James Davis May

James Davis May


I bought my daughter a Venus flytrap for five dollars
at the orchid nursery in Florida City, where the orchids
hang from the ceiling and crowd the shelves, striking 
as the paper lanterns that float like jellyfish in the skies of Chiang Mai. 
Reds and oranges, violets and pinks—extravagance 
is the word, as if nature, tired of the dreary camouflage it designed

for dust-grey mourning doves and brown toads, said, 
This next round is just for me. Some art is indulgent, 
and that’s why it’s good. Compared to those
pastel and neon flowers, the stunted flytrap looked as though
one of last year’s flowers died in a pot that hadn’t yet received
a new flower, so some strange grass with teeth took advantage of the vacancy 

and, unassumingly, set up shop. But it’s what she wanted,
and on the ride home she told me how Venus flytraps 
don’t just eat flies, they chomp down on raw hamburger, too!
That’s what the book she read and made her fall in love
with the plant before she ever saw one told her,
and I knew about the hamburger, though I didn’t tell her,

because when I was a boy, I read the same book 
and also convinced my parents to buy me a flytrap,
and I even successfully lobbied for the raw hamburger, 
which I took to my room and dropped into the dinosaur jaws
I didn’t know people thought it looked like labia, and watched 
as the burger fell out—it was like feeding a nearly invalid grandfather

who doesn’t want to eat, when really what I expected
was the velocity of an alligator’s ravenous snap.
Better to have the world disappoint her than her father,
I thought. And when we got her plant home and put it
on the table and picked out a little raw meat, I was surprised
that it did close, not as fast as a gator’s mouth, but fast,

automatically, sort of like the way her hand closed
around her mother’s right after birth, an instinctual grasping
that fascinates us because it seems like will, it seems like love,
and maybe it is, but it’s not conscious of itself. And who says
love has to be conscious of itself? Which do you value more:
planned gestures like roses and chocolate or visceral action, 

your lover shielding you with his or her body
when you both mistake the transformer blowing up
for a bomb—a move that says I’ll die for you, darling,
without even thinking about it? We hold onto what we love 
the way almost-falling people hold onto railings. 
I’ll take the grasping every time. It’s what my body meant 

when I held onto my wife as I cried and cried and didn’t know why—
well, I knew I was depressed, but the pain had no source. 
I felt like a poorly shot bear in those awful minutes after the bullet,
how it doesn’t know where the threat came from and thinks,
maybe, that the trees did it, or the ground, but it still looks
for something to hide from so that thing doesn’t continue to kill it. 

I held onto her and cried until we were kissing
and then making love. Did things get better after that?
A little, and then they got worse, and then better, and then worse, 
and then better, and then worse, but that’s life, right?
The point is that this time the plant took the food 
because sometimes the world doesn’t disappoint us.

from Rattle #68, Summer 2020


James Davis May: “When I played hockey as a kid, my friends and I would sometimes announce that we were certain NHL greats before scrimmaging. ‘I’m Lemieux,’ someone would say, and someone would shout, ‘I call Robitaille,’ and another would shout, ‘Coffey!’ Of course, we knew we weren’t actually these players; the thinking was, I guess, that we were somehow calling on their spirits to help us. Then as we played, we would mimic those players, trying to shoot, stickhandle, and skate in their style. My theory is that poets do something similar, that almost every poem has a hero/heroine poet behind it, a Dante guiding us through the process. It’s pretty clear my hero for this poem is David Kirby, whose braided poems just stun me. Inevitably, when I finish a Kirby poem—a poem like, say, ‘More than This,’ which appeared in this magazine, I ask myself, ‘How does he do that?’ I explored that question by writing this poem, and it’s worth noting that after finishing the first draft I stood up and threw my back out.” (web)

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