The RHS Book of Garden Verse

A REVIEW

Uncomfortable with their intimate dependence upon plants, human beings have asserted dominion over their lowly green companions. For generations, from Gilgamesh’s whacking at the holy Cedar Forest, to the expulsion from Eden, to medieval botanists collecting herbs for their signatures to healing, to Charlotte de la Tour’s explication of flower dialects, to Luther Burbank’s seed catalog, and Monsanto’s genetic insertions into corn and soybeans, humans have considered plants as cultivars and instruments, like pebble-tools, fire, querns, or rototillers.  Uncomfortable with the thought that plants might be transcendent beings with long-term strategies of their own, most humans maintain a strictly I-It relationship—except for poets. Decorous in the best sense of a well-matched counterpoint of the verbal and visual, the Royal Horticultural Society Book of Garden Verse, published by Quarto in the Frances Lincoln collection of illustrated gardening books, is a splendid addition to the long tradition of miscellanies and anthologies of horticultural verse. Happily neither comprehensive nor predictable, but concise and surprising, it is like a country walk, welcoming inquiry at every turn. The expected favorites make an appearance—Kilmer’s Trees, Herrick’s Cherry-Ripe, Housman’s Loveliest of Trees.   But all is not cowslips and golden daffodils. Here also find Sharon Olds’ lowly slug with its gelatinous trail, Sylvia Plath’s mushrooms who “shoulder through holes”, and the weedy patch that will not yield, no matter how much Housman “hoed and trenched and weeded.” The prints are as dramatic as they are apposite to the text. With no sign of desiccated, flattened specimens or botanical preciosity, the roses and marigolds float from page to page like greetings from a country walk to Colley Hill or Banstead Heath.  Like Edwin Morgan’s “strawberries/ like the ones we had/ that sultry afternoon/ sitting on the step,” these prints and poems make a sweet gift for the gardener with muddy knees and for the wintry-minded bookish naturalist who takes her greens in water-colors, in this garden of diction, you will find palms with island dialects and low plants with American vowels, mingling with the verbal cataracts of English Romantics, and the word-intoxicated intensity of Elizabethans. References to other works, like the poem, “April,” from Vita Sackville-West’s The Garden, will lead, like the “couch-grass throwing shoots at every node” into the larger company of green beings with lives and minds of their own. #TheRHSBookofGardenVerse #NetGalley

–Richard L. Rose https://frameshifts.com/

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