Camellia Japonica
Katherine Smith

Camellia Japonica

          Oak Ridge, 1943

The camellias tolerate this zone from April
until at least October, maybe even till Christmas

if it doesn’t snow and we cover the plants
from frost in November. More enduring

than the peonies’ brief late spring wilting,
the camellia survives beside the Victory garden

where it isn’t needed, neglected beside
the squash, pea vines, potatoes, lettuce.

The neighbors who hurry past our house scowl
until my mother wants to hide the flowers under burlap.

I beg her, shame-faced, to let live the ruffled pink silks,
the candy stripes, the crimson and cream satin,

full cups of stamens and pistils. Some say
flowers are a luxury. Maybe so.

But I pile our baskets with blooms,
some for us, some for the neighbors

who’ll call me selfish, pretend they don’t want them,
not while the factory in the valley reeks of smoke.

The couple who lost two sons
won’t come to the door. It doesn’t matter.

I abandon camellias on the stoop. I’ll keep
one red heart to remember peace,

a few white petals in the long years of war.

Katherine Smith

has contributed to Poetry, Cincinnati Review, Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Southern Review, and many other journals. Her short fiction has appeared in Fiction International and Gargoyle. Her first book, Argument by Design (Washington Writers’ Publishing House), appeared in 2003, and her second, Woman Alone on the Mountain (Iris Press), was published in 2014. She teaches at Montgomery College in Maryland.