Portrait of the Artist as an Island Flower
However much it loves history, a poem
is not an interpretation panel, in a frame.
There are many things it cannot do in a time
at odds with itself. Gather up, as she did –
field garlic, brookweed, sea campion, beaked parsley,
water plantain, knotted trefoil, tufted centaury.
Pluck them where they hide on whin or dune to take
home (imagine crossing the sea-soaked causeway
by horse-drawn carriage) then paint – purple and white,
yellow and pink, the common language of green.
Not scented or seductive, each one’s a modest plant,
at risk from slipshod steps, or simple disregard.
Conjure the woman in a watercolour mirror
of flowers as tenderly as if from her own bones
sealed in a box; her secrets – thank god – encrypted.
Heed the silence, most eloquent against the tide.
In 1874, Margaret Rebecca Dickinson made seven watercolours of plants found on Lindisfarne, many rare and endangered. These images are among the 468 botanical paintings in the Margaret Rebecca Dickinson Archive in the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library at the Great North Museum, Newcastle. 2018 marks the centenary of her death, aged 98, at Norham on Tweed. To our knowledge, no portrait of her exists.
I wrote this poem for Newcastle Poetry Festival’s Waves & Bones project, based on Lindisfarne, tying it in with my PhD research. In my critical essay, I’m connecting various threads and Margaret Rebecca Dickinson is one of them.
One flower she didn’t paint is the Lindisfarne Helleborine, which I’m going in search of next month. Also a good chance to see the 650 sweet peas coming into bloom they’d just finished planting in Gertrude Jekyll’s garden last time I was there.