A poppy by any other name – or – when is a vulva not a vulva?
Updated: Aug 31
When I was young, every Anzac Day we had a school flag hoisting; rows of fidgeting primary schoolers contemplating the significance of a day when we watched the principle erect a flag on what was on other days at best a crude maypole that we might swing ourselves silly around. But on Anzac Day the flag pole wasn’t for the blister inducing squeal of finger-skin on metal. On Anzac Day the pole was for rather more clanging than usual, as the ropes were adjusted, and for the pseudo-silence created by fidgeting children. When I was ten our class re-wrote John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’, and our teacher read it for us at the flag hoisting. On that day I cared less for the ritualised drama and more for the reading of our poem. Or to be precise, for the reading of the one word that I had contributed to our poem: cobber. Cobber was also my own personal victory. When my teacher had requested of our young poetic minds, ‘what word should we use here to mean friend?’, Cara raised her hand to suggest ‘mate’. But both the teacher and I knew that ‘mate’ was not the right answer, and when I, prompted by personal affront at the potential misrepresentation of my forbears, offered ‘cobber’, Cara’s word was rubbed off the blackboard to be replaced with mine. You see I came from a home where cobbers were the eerie ghost contained within the corners of my father’s smile. Oh yes, my family knew of war. The teacher was well pleased with my familiarity with Pakeha myths and legends. As, to be fair, was I.
The same year that I bested Cara for what was probably the first and last time, Georgia O’Keeffe died at the age of 98. An American modernist painter, O’Keeffe’s rise to fame in New York coincided with the middle of World War One, where McCrae’s original ‘In Flanders Fields’ was published a few months before the opening of O’Keeffe’s first major solo exhibition. By the 1920s O’Keeffe was painting large-scale close-ups of flowers that highlight the similarities between female genitalia, and flowers. Because it was the 1920s Freudian interpretation abounded. Because her flowers looked like vulva, she went on to become a myth and legend of late twentieth century feminism. I knew none of this at the time of her death, which took place about a month and a half prior to the reading of our Anzac Day poem, which understandably, because of my cobber contribution, I now thought of as my own.
There has always been a similarity between vulva and flowers, Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t create it, nor did the feminists who later asserted she had painted this subject matter on purpose. There has always been an association between flowers and Anzac Day, too, in part because the day originally took the guise of a communal funeral with wreaths and other floral commemorative bouquet, but also because of the poem written in 1916 about Flanders Fields, where the poppies grow. But there has never been an association between vulva and Anzac Day to make the triangle complete. Until that is, Charlotte decided to proceed with an installation that knitted women and Anzac poppies together, set to open on 25 April 2015.
In my mind’s eye the walls of the museum’s gallery will be lined with thousands of knitted poppies and vulva, making the room seem like a red woolly womb, a snuggly fitting tribute to the women of World War One. But in the meantime it involves knitting, which always gives me blisters on my fingers. And, incidentally, seems to induce anxiety dreams about wool.
The Charlotte Museum Trust invites knitters to contribute to their community knitting exhibition commemorating the women of World War One, by posting or delivering knitted poppies, poppy-vulva, and vulva, of approximately 10-15cm across, to the Museum by 20 April. Further details are available on our facebook page.