Born on the border of Iran and Kashmir
as buteh jegneh, the symbol of life everlasting
shaped into the scales of a cypress pinecone,
it flowed south on the sapphire rivers that vein
the Subcontinent: cast into a kidney’s form,
cast into a teardrop. In Hindi it fluttered
petal by petal. In Tamil called mankolam,
the mango, sign of prosperity, it adorned
the shoulders of priests. In Persian the buteh
was woven with threads of gold and silver
into the florid tapestry of court regalia.
It boarded great ships.
Packed in British East India Company trunks,
it sailed to Scotland where, translated
from wool to silk on the newest jacquard looms,
it blossomed in the town that gave it a famous name,
from the Gaelic passeleg, or basilica.
Queen Victoria loved those shawls.
Each loom followed the chain of cards,
punched with holes that dictated the pattern,
the forefather of modern computers.
The first creative patents were for patterns of paisley.
The Scottish looms seeded a riot of new color.
And still it wandered, mutable,
dazzling each new audience. Adapted
for cotton, it could be printed on top of fiber
rather than woven in, no longer a luxury item.
American hippies made it psychedelic,
and Fender made it rock, clad in a pink
paisley Telecaster. Prince danced
Around the World in a Day in its wild exuberance,
wrote lyrics in its curling typeface.
The mighty tadpole embraced
hedonism, rebellion, and counterculture.
Printed on bandanas, it signified LA gangs,
red for Bloods, blue for Crips.
Gay men in San Francisco turned it
into code tucked in back pockets,
on the left for tops, on the right for bottoms,
each color the flag of a different fetish,
an invitation for initiates.
Like a street preacher spreading its gospel:
the symbol of life everlasting,
pinecone, kidney, flower, teardrop,
born on the border of Iran and Kashmir.
Kim Roberts is the author of "A Literary Guide to Washington, DC: Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston" (University of Virginia Press, 2018), and five books of poems, most recently "The Scientific Method" (WordTech Editions, 2015). She co-edits "Beltway Poetry Quarterly" and the web exhibit "DC Writers' Homes." http://www.kimroberts.org.