We sat with whisky, poker chips, and cigars in this South Chicago kitchen penetrated by the dark breathing of the steel mills and refineries, under webs of power lines. I often note odd natural survivals in this heavy-industry district. Carp and catfish still live in the benzine-smelling ponds. Black women angle for them with dough-bait. Woodchucks and rabbits are seen not far from the dumps. Red-winged blackbirds with their shoulder tabs fly like uniformed ushers over the cattails. Certain flowers persist.
-Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift
An old journal found from college years confirms that, somewhere around graduation, I was in raptures over this final sentence. I felt (it seems) positively helpless
before this sentence. In three words, everything that was beautiful and noble about the peculiar condition of life in hostile terrain. With such economy, the reason I'd adored riding around the L in Chicago at night, past the backs of old buildings, looking at the pockets of life in lit-up squares, as people made dinner and watched tv and lived their lives in a frame of brick and steel.
Just now, I was looking at an old Kertesz photograph called Rue Vavin
. It's a detail of the outside of a tenement building, all rickety shutters and stains and disrepair, but in one window, off in the corner of the frame, just a wild burst of flowers crowding the sill. And, looking at the picture, suddenly I was saying to myself, certain flowers persist.
I guess I've reached an age where you have to play detective with the unbidden thoughts of your own mind. What's that again? What's that from? What is my brain trying to tell me?
I'd strewn enough mental breadcrumbs around this particular line that I was able to find the journal, and I found the source, and then by the power of Google, I found two people with whom I have this very curious fixation in common. A certain Mr. Roy Bentley
has a book of poems, number 7 of which is titled with my sentence; a Mr. John D'earth has written a jazz-classical fusion
composition entitled Concerto for Quintet and Orchestra, the second movement of which is reportedly a jazz ballad called, yes, certain flowers persist
A peculiar fraternity are we.
(photo by John Graham)