a wild flower.
Not knowing its name
its beauty only.
Ok-koo Kang Grosjean
Today we had a tour of Vitosha Nature Park by the Director and an expert botanist called Toni. A massive pick-up truck transported us 2000 metres up within sight of the Black Peak.
1489 plants have been recorded at Vitosha – about half of the native Bulgarian flora and one third more than the whole of the U.K. flora.
Even at the highest point it was still hot but up there, the land was boggy, disguising the ever-diminishing reserves of peat. Small blue butterflies and big orange ones, bees and crickets were busy feeding on the nectar. We saw a couple of incredibly graceful kestrel practically floating in the enormous blue sky.
It’s not a problem untilI try to articulate my experience and find it impossible – words inadequate, the wrong medium. Birdsong might do it or some Scandinavian yoiking. All I know is when we came down my ears were full up and the city appeared too soon, also full, intoxicated with its own cacophony.
Sofia Botanical Garden is the only one I’ve visited (so far) that is practically located on a roundabout. It’s hard to imagine – even when you’re actually there. But of course the result is it’s very far from being an oasis, the constant heckle of traffic impossible to ignore.
Slow is the word…even the gardeners go very slowly to be able to work in the burning heat. Sometimes it’s cooler inside the glasshouses. My poetry brain feels a bit like a battered coffee percolator on an old iron stove.
Also known as Japanese briar, saltspray rose, beach rose, potato rose and Turkestan rose.
The white variety Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’ is now in bloom in my garden and doing much better than usual after a spell without any cows in the field next door. On Sunday my friend Cesare from Milan and I were inspecting the more common deep pink variety up at Harnham and pondering the rugosa part of its name. The Latin means ‘wrinkled’ but although the petals have an unironed quality, they’re more dishevelled than actually creased or wrinkled.
It eventually occurred to me that perhaps it was/is the leaves that were/are rugosa – quite deeply lined, much more textured than other varieties of rose. It seems to make sense. Strange to notice how this new insight about a plant I’ve loved for a very long time has made it come alive in a new way for me, freshening my intimacy with it. And that’s all before I even mention the smell…These past few warm days the garden’s been a veritable bowl of sweetness.
planted in plastic tubes hope coming into leaf
broom nothing but an explosion of custard yellow
yachts in full sail the swans glide 2 white 5 grey
Rufus on my mobile another Happy Birthday!
vetch lady’s smock kingcup campion (pink & white)
swallows glance low little origami planes
may blossom still balled tight star clusters dreaming
keeping my mouth shut to avoid inhaling insects
dressed in white the Thai women busy with flowers and candles
sky full of itself a great canopy of cloud
spiked willow catkins more animal than plant
our small bouquets offerings raffia tied
the monks lead our procession – five shades of saffron
a dandelion clock says it’s time yes now
Reading the Flowers began life as a small collection of poems written during a Leverhulme Residency at Moorbank, Newcastle University’s Botanic Garden, sadly now closed. Nine months in a garden isn’t even a full cycle of the seasons so it was natural to want to expand into a longer, more far-flung exploration of what happens in a Botanic Garden, a space where nature and culture meet.
The poems do not document or delineate the gardens I visited so much as put them under the microscope, zooming in on individual plants and processes. They also range beyond the walls of formal gardens, spilling into hedgerow and meadow, wild garden and island. The ‘landscapes budding inside us’ also draw my attention, psychological, social and spiritual concerns mirroring what is translated into botanical classification and horticulture. This thematic diversity is reflected in an abundance of formal strategies and multiple voices telling how their gardens grow.
As a garden is a managed, boundaried green space, so the collection opens with an invitation ‘to enter./Step across the carpet of petunias and fuchsias’, in a poem called ‘Cut Flowers’, immediately placing together the realms of plants and paper in a collaged ‘flora’, signalled by the book’s title. Similarly, the final poem enacts the dynamic of arrival and departure, entrance and exit, via the traditional turnstile gate. This cycle is built into the poem’s structure, which uses the mirrored specular form. An earlier, simpler version of the poem gave its (then) title, Through the Garden Gate, to the pamphlet it introduced of poems from Moorbank. I’ve enjoyed the sense of evolution and adaptation in the six-year process of gathering this collection together.
The epigraph is from Iris Murdoch’s novel ‘A Fairly Honourable Defeat’:
People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.
This clearly points to its opposite – how people on this planet fail to appreciate the beauty of the flowers that grow all around us and so miss out on a whole world of wonder and delight. Part of the poems’ intention is to encourage the reader (and the writer) to look more closely and not bypass the opportunity to ‘be mad with joy’ at least some of the time.
Joy is not the only response flowers elicit. They also inspire gratitude and appreciation, reminding us that we depend upon green growing things for the very air we breathe, by courtesy of the process of photosynthesis. Plants provide us (and other creatures) with food, shelter, medicine, clothing, artistic inspiration, spiritual illumination and hope. The natural world, a traditional symbol of renewal, is currently under threat; climate change, desertification and development, extinction, all shifting the emphasis towards that other symbolic association – impermanence. A flower’s beauty is enhanced by its short life. Although it comes and goes, part of us knows it will return the following year. This is becoming less and less of a certainty, making flowers even more precious, as are all the birds and insects with which we share our gardens.
A sense of ‘kin’, the glittering web of interdependence, is taken up in the poems capturing memories of family, nurture and roots. Love too is nourishment, offering the possibility of (re)generation.
Travelling ‘away’ to gardens across the globe, the concept of ‘home’ is investigated – a source of identity, presence, desire and nostalgia. Its dark side is revealed in poems triggered by the colonial agenda of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, reflected in the horticultural and botanical imperialism of plant collection and classification. War, violence and environmental disaster are also part of the garden’s story.
Ultimately, however, the balance is tipped in the light’s favour, the therapeutic effects of time spent ‘reading the flowers’ undeniable. In many languages this has a double meaning of ‘picking the flowers’, recalling the origins of our word ‘anthology’, from the Greek meaning ‘a gathering of flowers’. The implication is that reading about flowers has a similar effect to closely observing flowers. Many gardeners write extremely well about the plants they spend so much time nurturing. Many others enjoy reading what these gifted writers have to say, particularly during the winter months when short days and harsh weather keep those of us in the northern hemisphere indoors.
Reading the Flowers follows the long line of poet-botanists/horticulturists such as Goethe, Erasmus Darwin, D.H. Lawrence, Vita Sackville West, Michael Longley, Louise Glück and Sarah Maguire. It is not a garden manual but, unlike the cherry blossom itself, a poem evoking cherry blossom will never lose its petals; absent loved ones live and breathe on the everlasting span of a page: both plants and poems naturally ‘our highest currency’. Looking at flowers is a lesson in transience, an encouragement to make the most of these small, brief miracles in our lives that are so easily overlooked.
Just returned home from a wonderful trip to Glasgow where there seemed to be flowers everywhere we went…
at the Tramway’s beautiful hidden gardens
and the lovely Botanics
in Kibble Palace
to this – my new collection! Hooray! Spring is here!
…The Whole Place Goes Up
Today with Spring here finally we ought to be living
outdoors with our friends.
Let’s go to those strangers in the field
and dance around them like bees from flower to flower,
Building in the beehive air
our true hexagonal homes.
Someone comes in from the outside saying,
‘Don’t play music just for yourselves.’
Now we’re tearing up the house like a drum,
collapsing walls with our pounding.
We hear a voice from the sky calling our lovers
and the odd lost people. We scatter lives.
We break what holds us, each one a blacksmith
heating iron and walking to the anvil.
We blow on the inner fire.
With each striking we change.
The whole place goes up, all stability gone to smoke.
Sometimes high, sometimes low, we begin anywhere,
we have no method.
We’re the bat swung by powerful arms.
Balls keep rolling from us, thousands of them underfoot.
Now we’re still. Silence also is wisdom, a flame
hiding in cotton wool.
I’ve mentioned visiting Lisa and Mel during their year in residence at Beadnell before and posted a log on their lovely blog. For this new publication, I’ve written a poem from my time there – about the Rosebay Willowherb growing in the dunes. Do come along to the Lit & Phil, if you can make it, on 12th April. I’m sure it’ll be a rich and interesting evening. Look forward to seeing you there.