Read in the Park

Please can it stop being so humid?  Especially in the office at work and on the Central line?

Ha.  Fat chance.  I am doomed, dooooooooomed to continue to struggle to stay awake in the afternoon when I would so rather be out in the park near work – or the wood near home.  Maybe with a book, maybe not.  Definitely in the shade.

If I did have to choose a book, I’d probably bring this along.  Here’s what I wrote about it for my colleagues recently (in a staff newslettery thing):

” I’m not sure I’ll get much reading done in the park this summer.  I’m too prone to what Andrew Marvell calls “Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade”.  But for those moments when I am awake, I’ll have with me Flora Poetica: The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse (ed. Sarah Maguire, 2003, Chatto & Windus). 

Maguire trained as a gardener in her teenage years, and later became the Poet-in-Residence at Chelsea Physic Garden.  It was in that latter role that she began to assemble this anthology (anthology: from the Greek word, anthologein, meaning ‘to gather flowers’).  Her botanical knowledge is put to good use here: each poem is accompanied by a note that gives the plant’s Latin name and its geographical origin.  I might well spend my lunchtime looking up the names of everything growing in Gordon Square.

Botany has given Flora Poetica its structure, as well as its subject.  The poems are arranged in Linnaeus’s plant classification system, which leads to some interesting juxtapositions.  In the Labiatae (Mint Family) section, Lorna Goodison describes a happy relationship – ‘living mint and sweet to each other’ (‘A Bed of Mint’, p.134) – only to receive an abrupt corrective from Robert Herrick on the facing page:

Grow for two ends, it matters not at all,

Be’t for my Bridall, or my Buriall.

(‘The Rosemarie branch’, p.135)

Elsewhere, William Blake addresses the sunflower, ‘weary of time’(p. 72).  One page (and a century-and-a-half or so) later, Allen Ginsberg remembers Blake as he and Jack Kerouac sit on the banks of a city river, ‘bleak and blue and sad-eyed’.  His companion has pointed out an ‘Unholy battered old thing’, but the dead sunflower transforms Ginsberg’s vision.  It becomes a ‘perfect beauty’, that helps him see: ‘We’re not our skin of grime…we’re golden sunflowers inside…’ (‘Sunflower Sutra’, pp.73-4). ”

 I’d forgotten all about Flora Poetica until I had to write the piece.  I’ve really enjoyed dipping into it again.


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