Semper Augustus

For the past 15 years I’ve worked closely with flowers as a florist. Naturally, I’m interested in their layered histories as symbols, talismans, medicines, and ornaments. Flowers are attendant to the touchstones of human experience: birth, death, matrimony, celebrations, and intimate coded exchanges. The Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century represents a typical market bubble in some ways. I’m fascinated with the ways it does not. Tulips have no overtly practical purpose and are valued solely for their beauty—bulbs whose blooms last approximately 10 days. Ephemeral beauty is a well-worn, romantic trope, but how does it function as currency? Is it reasonable to bet on next year’s blooms? Is an economy of adornment possible? The most valuable coin on the Dutch market was the Semper Augustus, a striped breed born of a virus, known as a “broken” tulip. Are the broken among us exalted?

I can believe that tulips were once
worth much more than gold
that the beauty of a broken bloom moved
the sinews of men dressed exclusively in black
with silver buckles. Semper Augustus wore red
and white stripes—left them open-mouthed, a
pepperminted sweet, white cracked, like an egg,
showing the blood of birth inside, the drama of
carnal coloring, a simple vein calling to mind
the spark of embryonic sash, the yoke lain
on the shoulders of gamblers and wishers.
The word tulip means turban and the leaves
like sheathes of prayerful hands. Is to pray
to supplicate? Or to sacrifice oneself
to the antediluvian pull of petaled poetry
written with a pen only a creator could
fathom? I like the idea of a status symbol rolled
in dirt and quick to perish. How humble it seems,
compared to self-driving cars or meta-universes.
The romance of a flower with hardly a scent.
A tulip keeps growing after it’s cut, keeps opening
and closing as night stalks day it sleeps and wakes
with its watcher, getting longer and longer,
“leggy” we say as it creeps farther from the
vase, searching out the golden coins of sun.
Heads rolled when the market crashed against
the northern shores. Bulbs betrothed to futures
were exposed to be marauding garlic or shallots,
their oniony breaths caught stinking of hope
for ease. We shun those who search for ease, but
really why should we? Isn’t it hard enough
to push through the soil, to come back every year?

Jessie Zechnowitz Lim is a florist by day and poet by night, living in California on unceded Ohlone land. She holds an MA in Art History. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in California Quarterly, The Indianapolis Review, The Ekphrastic Review, FEED, Litbreak Magazine, The Bold Italic, and Mother Mag.



A Conversation with Seif-Eldeine Och, Poetry Chapbook Winner, Mark Blackford, Chapbook Editor


An LSAT of Culture, Mike Yunxuan Li
Chichi and I, Noel Cheruto
Sudden Evolution, Eileen Tomarchio
Paying for It, Lana Hall
Decay, Rachel Lastra


do you see me, Maya Hersh
Delineation of a Woman’s First Child as Her True Religion, Abduljalal Musa Aliyu
Busted Cantaloupe: Pilgrim, Isibeal Owens
Pray the Elegy, Njoku Nonso
Semper Augustus, Jessie Zechnowitz Lim
The Long Call of Yearning, Guy D’Annolfo
Djinn and Men, Biswadarshan Mohanty
Last Communion, Joan Kwon Glass