Tag Archives: childhood

Why Flowers?

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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.

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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.’[1]  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.[2]

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.[3]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

[1]Adrienne Rich, When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision (College English, Vol. 34, No. 1, ‘Women, Writing and Teaching’ (Oct., 1972), pp. 18-30.

[2]Georgia O’Keeffe,‘About Myself’, in Georgia O’KeeffeExhibition of Oils and Pastels, exhibition brochure (New York: An American Place, 1939).

[3]Linda France, Reading the Flowers (Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2016).

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What Is Is?

Lately I have been enjoying dipping into Michael Donaghy’s delightful anthology 101 Poems about Childhood (Faber, 2005).  His brief introduction is full of insight and provocation.

In one sense, all poetry is kids’ stuff.  What makes us recognise a piece of writing as a poem is often a ‘technique’ whereby poets imitate children’s thinking.

…Perhaps poetry is our way of using the power of language against itself so that, however briefly, we see and feel the world afresh, with all the intensity of infancy.

…we expect wisdom from poets, as we expect it from philosophers and cosmologists.  In fact, we expect them all to pose the very same questions children ask:  What is is?  Why is there anything?  And why doesn’t it all happen at once?  Like children’s art, children’s speculative thought shows a resourcefulness and curiosity missing from most adults.

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The anthology is arranged chronologically and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end reading Alexander der Wilde’s poem from the 13th century When We Were Children.  In David Ferry’s elegant translation, it is beguilingly fresh.  I am fascinated by what people remember of the natural world from childhood, how those memories lay down a blueprint for our relationship with the earth and what grows and lives on it (including ourselves and others).  There is often an aura of innocence, nostalgia, paradise lost.  This poem, nearly eight centuries old, captures the sorrow of our fall into adulthood, its default, though illusory, certainty; all of us ‘left standing in the field’, ‘stripped naked’.  A better fate perhaps than being shut inside the castle with the king?  At least outside we have the chance to learn how to enjoy the art of toiling and spinning, asking and living our questions.

When We Were Children

I remember how, at that time, in this meadow,

We used to run up and down, playing our games,

Tag and games of that sort; and looked for wild flowers,

Violets and such. A long time ago.

Now there are only these cows, bothered by flies,

Only these cows, wandering about in the meadow.

I remember us sitting down in the field of flowers,

Surrounded by flowers, and playing she loves me not,

She loves me; plucking the flower petals.

My memory of childhood is full of those flowers,

Bright with the colors of garlands we wore in our dancing

And playing. So time went by among the wildflowers.

Look over there near those trees at the edge of the woods.

Right over there is where we used to find

Blueberry bushes, blackberry bushes, wild strawberries.

We had to climb over rocks and old walls to get them.

One day a man called out to us: ‘Children, go home.’

He had been watching from somewhere in the woods.

We used to feast on the berries we found in that place

Till our hands and mouths were stained with the colors of all

The berries, the blackberries, strawberries, and the blueberries.

It was all fun to us, in the days of our childhood.

One day a man called out, in a doleful voice:

‘Go home, children, go home, there are snakes in that place.’

One day one of the children went into the grass

That grows high near the woods, among the bushes.

We heard him scream and cry out. He came back weeping.

‘Our little horse is lying down and bleeding.

Our pony is lying down. Our pony is dying.

I saw a snake go crawling off in the grass.’

Children, go home, before it gets too dark.

If you don’t go home before the light has gone,

If you don’t get home before the night has come,

Listen to me, you will be lost in the dark,

Listen to me, your joy will turn into sorrow.

Children, go home, before it gets to be dark.

There were five virgins lingered in the field.

The king went in with his bride and shut the doors.

The palace doors were shut against the virgins.

The virgins wept left standing in the field.

The servants came and stripped the virgins naked.

The virgins wept, stripped naked, in the field.

 

Alexander Der Wilde

Translated from the German by David Ferry

(from Dwelling Places, University of Chicago Press, 1993)

N.B. The poem is divided into six-line stanzas but the formatting has eluded me here.

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