Book Review: Flora Poetica: The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse

Flora Poetica: The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse

Selected, Edited and with an Introduction by Sarah Maguire

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Recently this book featured as a prop in my “In a Vase on Monday” post, and I realized I had not reviewed it although I have had it for several years now.

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This collection of poetry is the second favourite in my book shelf (my first favourite is the New Dragon Book of Verse which I learned to love in my school days!), and it often gets an airing, not just in winter.

The poems are all about plants, and they are (in my opinion!) all wonderful… in very different ways. Perhaps I haven’t read every single one, but there are many I have read over and over again. One seasonal example is Louise Glück’s “Snowdrops”, which I find very moving. Here’s an excerpt…

… I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring–

Snowdrops February 2014

Snowdrops last spring

The book is divided rather unusually into botanical families, which means that I have learnt a few things while thumbing through it. Did you know, for example, that forget-me-nots are in the same family as borage? I suppose some of you did, as you are all so knowledgeable, but I had never given it much thought! We are taken through over 50 different botanical families such as the  Maple and the Beech, the Onion, Arum, Lily, Beech, Spurge and Olive, and many of the poems have a note on the botanical name of the plant, tree or flower that is the subject. The sections vary in length; families like the Vine have only one, while the Rose section has over 40. One of my favourites in the Rose section is Dorothy Parker’s “One Perfect Rose”, and here are the first and last verses

A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet –
One perfect rose….

… Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

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 Another surprising element of this anthology is to read one poem from, say, the 17th century and then the next one is from the 20th century. For example, Robert Herrick’s poem “To Daffadills”  is followed by Sylvia Plath’s “Among the Narcissi”. Then the first line of the 1998 James Reiss poem “Lily” reads “Went out & scissored a lily…” and on the opposite page we read “White though ye be; yet, Lillies, know…” in Robert Herrick’s “How Lillies Came White” from 1648. These juxtapositions are fascinating, unexpected and work very well.

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It is also fascinating to see the way certain plants, such as the rose, have captured the romantic imagination over centuries. Symbols and human desires have changed very little over time, even though the countryside in which they grow has altered dramatically. John Clares idyllic images of rural England in the early 19th century demonstrate this time and again with his references to meadows, wheatfields and cattle grazing. There are quite a few of his poems here; with his eye for detail and his passion for the countryside he tended to focus frequently on individual plants.

And then having Sylvia Plath next to Ted Hughes, or John Clare (“The Wheat Ripening”) next to Vikram Seth (“Evening Wheat”) is, quite simply, very enjoyable reading.

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There are many writers in here I did not know before, from all over the globe, and I have been encouraged to look for more of their work. But then there are also the lovely old English familiars; Thomas Hardy, John Donne, W.B.Yeats, William Wordsworth, D.H. Lawrence, etc.

The book has an index of the poems under the botanical families, as well as an index of poets, one of titles AND one of first lines. There is also a nice introduction by Sarah Maguire, a poet herself, who composed this anthology. She describes how and why she gathered so many poems on flora and gives a few details of what she was unable to include, as well.

If you love plants, botany and poetry you will most definitely like this book!

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Click on this picture for a link where you can buy Flora Poetica

A final note: the name “Chatto” in the title refers to the publishers Chatto and Windus, an imprint of Random House. I thought there must be a connection to Beth Chatto so looked this up and found out that the founder of this publishing house in 1873 was actually Beth Chatto’s father-in- law. Curiosity satisfied!

Book Review: The Knot, by Jane Borodale

“Knowledge should run freely between men and women, readily available to those who care to know…”

(Henry Lyte, in “The Knot”)

(Picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

Henry Lyte was  a British botanist, living in the 16th century. He became well known for his translation of Rembert Dodoens’ “Cruydeboeck” – a register of mainly herbs and medicinal plants which was translated by other famous botanists into French and Latin as well as other languages. Other botanists around this time were Carolus Clusius (who gave Gentiana clusii its name), John Gerard (Geradia), John Tradescant (Tradescantia), or Mathias de l’Obel (Lobelia).

This novel is a fictional account of his life with his family on the Somerset Levels in the west of England.

“The Knot”, by Jane Borodale

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While raising a large family, managing an estate, fighting a lawsuit by his father’s second wife for possession of his ancestral home, and creating a garden, Henry Lyte is also busy translating a botanical masterwork into English – a long process involving hours of dedicated and meticulous concentration, that will be of monumental importance to those who, in Elizabethan England, are unable to pay a physician and need information on medicinal plants in the English language. Henry dreamed: “Imagine a world where good health is a universal possibility!”

As the story slowly unravels, with Henry’s second wife Frances taking trouble in settling in, and the loss of several children to illness, we sense a secret regarding the death of his first wife, Anys. The sense of anticipation lasts throughout the book, though not affecting the gentle pace of rural life and the methodical progress of his work. In fact the tranquility of the garden and the down-to-earth gardener who always seems to be present seem to emanate peace and harmony, counterbalancing the annoyance Henry feels about his wife’s lack of interest in his garden, and his step-mother’s claim to his home.

Henry loves his garden and plants above everything it seems… One evening his wife refuses to accompany him to view the madonna lilies, so he goes out alone:

“He bends his head and breathes deeply. If only more men would take the chance to drink in the smell of lilies in the night in June, he thinks. There can be nothing so delicious. Nothing that could make a man so contented. He feels dizzy with love and tenderness for his garden. Above him is the clicking of bats, and a pale moth looms and flutters near the grass. He tilts his face to the moon and closes his eyes to its whiteness, bathes in its unflinching gaze. The air is warm. He feels enveloped, cupped between the sky and the earth…”

The passing of seasons and the constant references to plants and herbs growing in the marshy surroundings or in his own garden drew me into the story. As did the disparity between Henry’s love of nature and mankind, and his unintentional negligence to the needs of his family. He can, however, give his seeds and beans his absolute attention. On inspecting them he sees:

“… they are all – he feels quite overwhelmed with the sheer mass of them – waiting… And the promise they contain. These things seem dead, and yet… A few drops of water, the enclosing dark earth with minerals, the warmth of sunlight; and each of these dessicated, mummified little bits of toughness will hydrate, fatten and burst into vivid miraculous sweet shoots, climbing, sinewing towards the light.”

This book is not a masterpiece, but a gentle and enjoyable read. I personally felt that the storyline was lacking, but the journey through Henry Lyte’s life is pleasurable and calming. Little drama, hardly suspense, but I am glad I read it and would recommend it to anyone interested in the earlier pioneering botanists. The age in which he lived was so much slower and life was harder. The connection to the earth had to be suppressed where prayer was considered the only connection necessary:

“He wonders whether there has been any rigorous scientific study of the effects of spring on nature and man, and even idly toys with the idea of making some notes towards this himself… not as a counter to the truth of God, of course, but rather as an observational study of what actually occurs.”

Henry Lyte, sadly, does not appear to have had any plants named after him. Had he sacrificed the peace of the countryside for London he may have had more success and renown, but he is depicted here as a lover of plants and the earth above all, who hated travelling to the city…

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So, if your reading list is not too long already, here’s another book to add!

😀

Winter Reading

This hasn’t been a year for reading for me; partly a matter of time, but also because I have been struggling for months(!) with a novel I was determined to finish before starting something else. I failed! I’m still reading the novel: “The Cider House Rules” by John Irving, but have also started some short stories by Lydia Davis, along with some other short fiction.

The best book I’ve been reading recently was this:

Casting Shadows

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This is a collection of short stories, published by Word Machine Press, from new writers who developed them as part of their MA course in Professional Writing. These stories were immediately singled out for publishing.

Fancy a good chilling read by the warm fireplace this winter? You will feel your spine tingling, shivers on your goosebumps, your hair standing on end! Each of the eight ghost stories will draw you in making you feel as if you are really there. You can’t put this book down in the middle of a story. However, each is just a few pages long, and if time is short you could fit one in over lunch. You’ll be hooked though, and impatient to read the next! I found these writers all succeeded in making their stories very vivid, and very real… I am reminded of Roald Dahl’s “Tales of the Unexpected”, with a twist at the end – at times almost expected but not always.

An extra point – the illustrations are also remarkable.

The reason I chose this book was one of the writers, Danielle Charles. Danielle has a blog called

The Teacup Chronicles

which was the first blog I ever followed, two years ago. Since then I have taken much pleasure in her moving tales and prose, and her delicious natural recipes. There is something magical about the way she writes, and her photographs are also always a delight.

I hope you will drop by her blog, or even better – buy the book!

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Another book I’m dipping into at the moment is also a collection of (relatively) short stories and writings, this time by an old favourite: Charles Dickens, and his Christmas stories in

Dickens at Christmas

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Of course, “A Christmas Carol” is in there, which I re-read at least partly every December. But you will also find all the Christmas Books as well as many other Christmas themed tales.

I particularly enjoyed the first story “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” from “The Pickwick Papers”. A miserable grave-digger is kidnapped on Christmas Eve and shown the error of his ways, in a similar way to Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”. This time it isn’t ghosts that “spirit” the character away, but a group of rather violent goblins…

There are several very short stories, and a few slightly longer. Perfect for selecting some reading for half an hour or a whole afternoon. Another attraction of this book is its binding and cover. If you are going to look at a book again and again, it has to be a hardback, and my Christmas Carol paperback was beginning to look a bit scruffy. This version is well bound and the cover is very seasonal. A classic.

So, what have you been reading recently? Any tips?

😀

Book Review: Bring Up The Bodies

Bring Up The Bodies

by Hilary Mantel

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This is a review I’ve been meaning to post for some time now. Even if you haven’t read Wolf Hall, the first in this (what promises to be a) trilogy, Bring up the Bodies is an excellent read. Perfect for your summer holidays! I thought Wolf Hall was fantastic, but the sequel was much easier to get into at the beginning, and focussed immediately on the court of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I enjoyed it immensely.

Hilary Mantel takes you back to the early sixteenth century, when Henry VIII still hasn’t had a legitimate son to succeed him on the throne of England. The death of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and the “imprisonment” of his daughter Mary, later to become Queen Mary, coincide with the increasing discomfort within the royal court at Anne Boleyn’s behaviour. At the head of this, advising the king and controlling all the strings it seems, is Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell’s political deeds and manipulations are revealed with exquisite detail. In fact, despite clearly using a lot of imagination and fantasy, Mantel sticks to details such as dates and places with fastidious precision.

As the book progresses England’s isolation from the Catholic Church becomes clearer and the fate of the monasteries is hinted at. With this backdrop, the future of Henry’s monarchy is considered to be at risk and an heir is the absolute priority. Henry is by this time besotted with Jane Seymour. Cromwell’s role here is to ensure that Anne is removed from the throne legally, so that Jane may be accepted as the new Queen, while at the same time various families and connections useful to his and the king’s own future are secured. He is a genius. And yet somehow we suspect that as his net is spun, he may also fall victim to his own cunning plans… in fact we may even begin to wish he does…

Extremely well written and powerfully compelling to the last page. Different to other historical novels, I feel – as you are drawn into the dialogues and characters so genuinely and transported immediately into the court of Henry and into Cromwell’s head. I am now hoping the third novel will be out soon. And will it remain at a trilogy? I thoroughly recommend this book, and if you have the time to read Wolf Hall first, all the better, but not a necessity.

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By the way, Hilary Mantel won The Man Booker Prize for both these novels, making her the first woman to win the prize twice.

Book Review: Outside in My Dressing Gown

Every morning I take my old doggie out into the garden first thing, still in my dressing gown, sometimes stopping to admire a rose or a geum, checking my herbs or opening the cold frame.

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When I saw the title of this collection of humorous poems I had to take a closer look. And when I took a closer look I had to buy the book!

“Outside in My Dressing Gown”

by Liz Cowley

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Liz Cowley has succeeded in touching on so many funny sides of gardening life – what the neighbours think, the frustration of the crowds at the Chelsea Flower Show, snails and slugs, the weather, being tempted at the garden centre, weeds…. There is at least one poem in here for everyone to associate a personal experience with. One that stands out for me is her poem “Ground elder”, a weed I posted about recently. Here’s an excerpt:

Spaghetti roots are everywhere.

You dig them up and bitterly.

You know you’ve got enough out there

to cover half of Italy.

Spaghetti roots – impossible –

and most of them you can’t remove.

So if ground elder’s in your place,

There’s only one solution. Move!

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This collection is such fun! With simple verse the writer can sum up precisely how a gardener thinks. I open a few pages every day and find myself smiling and nodding. She understands gardeners so well! In “Here at last” she expresses how the buds of spring can suddenly uplift your spirits. In “Are you named after a flower?” she lists some beautiful names/plants but suggests vegetable names should also be used… fancy being called Maris Piper?! In “Antirrhinums” she has a conversation with a flower. And in “I know I’m not a rarity” she writes:

I know that there are many thousands

of dressing gowners just like me,

outside, and dibbing, snipping, brushing –

I know I’m not a rarity.

The poems are divided into seasons, which is a nice touch. There are a few poignant lines in some of her poems too. This one caught my eye:

Plants can plant a love within you

that sometimes lasts you all life long….

Very true, don’t you think.

June

To sum up: ideal for gardeners who want a little giggle, some thoughtful moments and a few smiles.

😀

(By the way, I got the hardback here, but it is also available as a Kindle book!)

Book Review: The Secrets of Wildflowers

“The Secrets of Wildflowers: A delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History”

by Jack Sanders

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This was a Christmas gift and I’ve been losing myself in it on and off through the spring. The word “Feast” in the title is very appropriate – and “delightful” it is too!

Although the focus is on North American flowers, many are also prevalent in Germany and Europe, some even native. In the introduction the author states that his book covers both “natives and immigrants, friends or foes, because both kinds are here and both are interesting”. I like this attitude, as I find so many non-native plants growing wild, and think they are just as valuable as the native ones.

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Divided into Spring, Summer, Late Summer and Fall, it is easy to find what is flowering now. Each flower has its own chapter, which gives some botanical information and tells you a little about the plant’s history, the common names given, uses (medicinal, culinary etc) and myths or traditions surrounding it. The chapters are broken up nicely into little chunks – very readable. The botanical details are also fed to the reader in a clear way, without getting too complicated and without being patronizing. I am learning so much and in such an enjoyable tone.

I was immediately impressed because it is the first source I have found that upholds my belief that Hepatica nobilis sometimes gives off a wonderful scent… I was beginning to think it was my imagination, but Sanders quotes the naturalist John Burroughs: “Group after group may be inspected, ranging through all shades of purple and blue, with some perfectly white, and no odor to be detected, when presently you will happen upon a little brood of them that have a most delicate and delicious fragrance.”

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Occasionally a poem or quotes are included, even a recipe or two, and the little lesser known details and legends are so fascinating! Did you know, for example, that gypsies used to smoke Coltsfoot leaves (Tussilago) for pleasure? Or that spring violet leaves are extremely high in vitamin C? Or that a German scientist counted 93 species of insect that visited the dandelion flower?…

I shall be reading each chapter as the flower appears here, learning new and interesting facts and enjoying the feast daily. This book gets top marks for writing style AND content. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who loves wild flowers!

Book Review: RHS Latin for Gardeners

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If you love language and you love plants, then you’ll love this book. RHS Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison  explains all those tricky-to-pronounce botanical words attached to our dear plants, herbs and flowers.

The book itself – a hardback – has a lovely cover and is nicely bound… it looks pretty on your bookshelf! It is perfect as a reference book and for the odd dip into while drinking a cup of coffee. The main body of the book is an alphabetical list of botanical terms, each explained, with a pronunciation guide too. Here’s an example:

helix HEE-licks:

Spiral-shaped; applied to twining plants, as in Hedera helix

Now, I never knew “helix” meant that, but it makes sense….

I also never knew that the “novi-belgii” in Aster novi-belgii means “connected with New York”.

Or that the “bonariensis” in Verbena bonariensis means “from Buenos Aries”!

Or that “saccharata” in Pulmonaria saccharata means “sweet or sugared/as if dusted with sugar”.

And the list of discovery goes on!

I was pleasantly surprised how many I had guessed correctly, such as Cymbalaria muralis (“growing on walls”), and the information hidden within these words delivers excellent guidelines for planting… if a plant is from Buenos Aries it will like heat and sunshine, right?

A bonus is the pages in between the list… a few plants are profiled, with notes on how they got their name or certain associations and uses. And some famous plant hunters are also given a page or two, with examples of the plants they discovered on various continents.

This is the ideal gift for a keen gardener, and absolutely perfect for anyone fascinated by botanical plant names. It is already a favourite of mine, and the gardening season hasn’t even begun!

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