When I was a child, we lived in a flat with no garden. All the flowers I knew were on stamps I collected, or cards in packets of Brooke Bond tea I pasted into stiff little albums that had to be sent away for. From the bright flat images next to the old songs of their names – cowslip, butterbur, meadowsweet, forget-me-not – I sensed that plants were powerful, even though they were small, soft and, as far as I knew, silent. So I learnt young that there was such a thing as paradox, that life could contradict itself and things weren’t always what they seemed.
The flowers whose names chimed in my head, like portable poems, wild and cultivated, seemed to grow in an imaginary realm, a world I read about in books where people lived in houses with gardens and gardeners, exotic apparatus like wheelbarrows and spades. They belonged to people who weren’t us, with different names and different lives – Alice Through the Looking Glass and Mary in The Secret Garden, across the ocean Anne of Green Gables. My mother’s name was Lily and, in the absence of a garden, she filled our flat with houseplants she’d water every Saturday morning and feed a magic potion from a fat brown bottle.
I was twenty-four before I saw a snowdrop and knew that was what I was looking at, consciously paired the word with the three-dimensional flower growing out of hard winter earth. By then living in rural Northumberland, as the seasons changed and flowers appeared in garden, woodland and hedgerow, I remembered all the names I’d forgotten I ever knew. It was a revelation that echoed Adrienne Rich’s reflection on poems – that they ‘are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know.’ Flower and word spoke to each other – in the botanical texts I read as well as the poems I wrote. I got my hands dirty in the soil, watching and learning how different plants grew, looking up where they came from and how they were named. Moving between inside and outside, self and other, I experienced a kinship and intimacy I found nowhere else.
When Georgia O’Keeffe took the flower as muse, she felt her portrayals were misinterpreted. How she explained it is a touchstone for me:
A flower is relatively small.
Everyone has many associations with a flower – the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower – lean forward to smell it – maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking – or give it to someone to please them. Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint a flower exactly as I see it no-one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.
So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers… Well – I made you take time to look … and when you took time … you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.
Like a friend, a flower is never just one thing: both subject and object, it is a composite form, a layered text. In the field, however long you look at a flower, however closely you observe it, the flower shifts shape at different times of day in different kinds of weather. You have to get on your knees, down at the flower’s level, to inspect it properly. I need to put my glasses on and lean in very close. If you use a botanical hand lens, the scale changes even more: stigma and stamen, pollen grain or droplet of nectar are magnified, so you can imagine how it might look to a foraging bee. This is ‘reading the flowers’, via our word ‘anthology’ from the Greek, which also means ‘gathering the poems’ – just one seed of a long association of plant and book, word and root, folio and leaf.
Images from the Margaret Rebecca Dickinson Archive in the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library at the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle upon Tyne.
The orphanage of possibility
has had to be expanded to
admit the sea mouse. No one
had asked for such a thing,
or prophesied its advent,
sheltering under ruching
edges of sea lettuce –
a wet thing but pettable
as, seen in the distance,
the tops of copses,
pine trees, bearded barley,
or anything newborn not bald
but furred. No rodent this
scabrous, this unlooked-for
foundling, no catnip plaything
for a cat to worry, not even
an echinoderm, the creature
seems to be a worm. Silk-spiny,
at home where every corridor
is mop-and-bucket scrubbed
and aired from wall to wall
twice daily by the inde-
fatigable tidal head nurse.
(1920 – 1994)
As well as painting plantlife, Victorian naturalist and artist Margaret Rebecca Dickinson closely observed and recorded the array of shells and creatures she found on the Northumberland coast. I was pleased to spot my first sea mouse a few years ago in an after-dark rockpooling adventure up at Cresswell.
I’m going to be talking about Margaret Rebecca Dickinson at the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library (in the Great North Museum, Newcastle) on Wednesday 22nd August, 6 – 7.15 pm, when some of her paintings will be on display. It’s free but you need to book – details here.
The first photo is of harebells growing from the walls of Lindisfarne Castle, looking across to Bamburgh, 19th July 2018.
At times I was even sure the garden and I were made of the same substance, sand and earth rubbed my bones, mosses, ferns, violets and strelitzia sprouted from my skin, stretched out my limbs. In springtime I let the caterpillars stride over me, in rusty soft processions, and when they made moving rings around my spread fingers, my skin had the stiffness of bark.
In the old days I’d have been scared. But now I knew it was me the garden. I was the garden. I was inside, I was made of priceless diamonds and I had no name. Earth, Earth, I cried.
From Hélène Cixous, A Real Garden (1971) Translated by Beverley Bie Brahic
Images by Francesca Woodman
(The Portable Cixous
Edited by Marta Segarra
New York: Columbia University Press 2010)
If you are passing Hexham Hospital over the next few months, do make a point of swinging by the Atrium (next to the HVS shop) to see Touch, a beautiful exhibition curated by Matilda Bevan. I’m very happy to have a poem included, written specially for the show – printed by Christopher Bacon in Allendale and embellished with watercolour details by Matilda. It sits well alongside work by Mathilda Hornsey, a QEHS student who was invited to participate.
The other artists whose work, using a range of different media, is on display are: Jo Aris, Enrique Azocar, Pauline Gibson, Sheila Martin, Claudia Sacher. All the pieces are delicate but strong, inviting close attention and reflection, resonating in unusual ways with each other and within the hospital context. It’s really worth a look. You will be touched.
Sean Scully, Untitled, 1967
Like many of us, I’m looking forward to this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival, Crossings 2nd – 5th May. A sweet little taster came in the form of an interview with Sasha Dugdale on the Festival blog. She will be chairing a session at the Translation-themed Symposium at the Sage (3rdMay) and also give the Royal Literary Fund Lecture on Pushkin at Northern Stage (Saturday 5thMay). It will be an exciting few days with lots to think about. Do come along to listen and enjoy – and spread the word to folk who may be interested.
Further excitement in the Translation Dept – the cover of my new Selected Poems from Bulgaria – blue and beautiful. For those of you whose Bulgarian is a touch rusty, it is called Simultaneous Dress and translated by the wonderful poet Nadya Radulova. The book is now published but I have yet to hold a copy in my hands. They are itching.
When I stayed in Sofia a couple of years ago I wrote several new poems. This is one of them – seen from the balcony of my apartment on Kyril and Methodii Street.
The Screaming Party
Every evening they come darting across
the skyline dots and dashes of high-pitched morse.
Who knows what they’re screaming for static
in their throats white noise plucked from the day’s havoc
and flung back into blank air. Hypnotic drifts.
As if auditioning for Hitchcock these swifts
carry the contraband pressure we must
scatter before we can capitulate
to the dark tucked inside us and sleep. Strident
cries industrious wings are hooks to rest
our shadows on watch them soar our own fall
mouths agape. Each burst of piercing calls
silvers a key to unfasten the doors
to dreams so greet greet our night visitors.
The American poet Galway Kinnell wrote: The secret title of every good poem might be ‘Tenderness’.
And so begins Jane Hirshfield’s ‘Late Prayer’ –
Tenderness does not choose its own uses.
It goes out to everything equally,
Circling rabbit and hawk.
Look: in the iron bucket,
A single nail, a single ruby –
All the heavens and hells.
They rattle in the heart and make one sound.
In ‘Ars Poetica?’ the Polish poet Czeslow Milosz wrote:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
How difficult it is to remain just one person,
For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
And invisible guests come in and out at will,
(trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee)
On yet another snowy day, I have been enjoying sitting by my fire and re-reading Jane Hirshfield’s wonderful essay ‘Writing and the Threshold Life’, from Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1998). These quotes come from that book and the images are from The Heart of the Matter at Great North Museum: Hancock, an exhibition by Sofie Layton et al. ‘Heartland’ is my own contribution.
I went to one of Sofie Layton’s wonderful workshops around this work and ended up contributing a poem to the exhibition. This is not it…but a sideways take I found during my research.
The earth is suffocating. Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won’t be buried alive.
Chopin on his death bed, 1849
Smuggled by his sister
back into his homeland
past Russian guards
sealed in a jar of cognac
interred in a Warsaw crypt
conferred on an SS officer
who admired his music
returned to the Holy Cross
examined for cause of death:
pericarditis, chronic tuberculosis.
Paul Nash, Flight of the Magnolia, 1944
New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.