Monday, 21 September 2015

Frailest of flowers: some notes on Vicki Feaver's 'Horned Poppy'

Horned Poppy 

Frailest of flowers, armoured to survive
at the edge of the sea: leaves
tough as holly, hugging the stem
like spiked cuffs; the buds protected
by a prickly sheath; the petals furled
like yellow parachute silk, opening to expose,
at its radiant heart, the threads
of stamens, pollen's loose dust. 
It blooms for at the most an hour; 
torn apart by the elements it loves. 
And then the pistil grows: 
a live bootlace, a fuse 
of multiplying cells – reaching out 
to feel between the shingle's 
sharp-edged flints for a moist bed 
to lay its seed; or in my kitchen, 
drying in the heat, a long thin hand 
summoning a salt gale, a tide to roll in 
over the flat land, roaring 
through the open door. 

It's a generalising oddity, no doubt, but I have an innate distrust of poets who churn a prize-winning collection out every other year; and, conversely, total respect and admiration for those who – like Sarah Maguire, Matthew Hollis, Kathleen Jamie and in this case Vicki Feaver – are far from prolific but are engaged in producing slowly-honed collections in which the individual poems cohere and there is no room for the throwaway or padding. Feaver has published just three collections in a career spanning at least four decades: her first collection, Close Relatives, appeared in 1981; her second, The Handless Maiden, in 1994; and her third, The Book of Blood, in 2006. Each is full of brilliant, hard-won poems in which the language strikes a fine balance between clarity and opacity, allowing meaning to be surmised on a first reading and then for its subtleties and resonance to deepen with subsequent readings. 'Horned Poppy' from The Book of Blood illustrates that balance perfectly.

In his 1995 magnum opus Flora Britannica, arguably the greatest of contemporary English nature writers Richard Mabey devotes little space to the flower, dismissing it as, "a showy plant of seaside shingle banks". I suppose it's all a matter of personal taste, but I'm with Feaver on this, i.e. that Glaucium flavum, the yellow horned-poppy, is worthy of close attention. On a recent, drizzly walk along the coast from Hastings to Bexhill-on-Sea, there were several blooming yellow horned-poppies brightening the way and I was instantly reminded of Feaver's poem and its fine, botanical details. It’s tempting to presume that Feaver’s poppies were spotted further west along the Sussex shore during her many years of teaching at what is now the University of Chichester.

Feaver wasn’t the first major poet to write about the flower; Robert Bridges, who was Poet Laureate from 1913 until his death in 1930 but is remembered more nowadays for his championing of Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote overwrought lines about it in ‘The Sea-Poppy’  almost a century before her.

The first thing that strikes me about Feaver’s poem is its title: the full name of the flower is the
yellow horned-poppy, but Feaver has deliberately omitted 'yellow' so as not to reduce the impact of the colour's appearance within the poem. However, that omission also enables ‘Horned’ to be emphasised, though somewhat curiously so since the flower’s horned fruit isn’t referenced within the poem. Nevertheless, ‘horned’ is echoed by ‘armoured’ in the wonderfully trochaic opening line. The oxymoronic description of the poppy being both the ‘frailest of flowers’ and ‘armoured to survive’ is continued by the vocabulary that follows, with a list of soft words (‘hugging’, ‘protected’ ‘sheath’ and ‘silk’) interspersed among hard ones (‘tough as holly’, ‘spiked’ and ‘prickly’). The effect is magical; both like and exceeding the exactness of field-note observation. For me, the parachute simile is marvellous because of its link back to ‘survive’; to the sense that this is a plant that is clinging on grimly to its existence in the face of ‘the elements’ which it not only endures but actually ‘loves’. That sense is reinforced by the word ‘expose’, and by the placing of that word so that it protrudes at the end of its line farther than any other line in the poem.

Having walked back from Bexhill to Hastings a few hours after arriving at the gloriously ahead-of-its-time
De La Warr Pavilion, I can attest to the fact that the petals of the yellow horned-poppy can, and do, last longer than an hour, even in fierce squalls coming off the Channel at Bulverhythe, where storms have sunk mighty vessels in days of yore. Whether Feaver saw the petals blown off a poppy within an hour of their unfurling or she is just using poetic licence here is largely irrelevant; what is more interesting is the phrasing of ‘It blooms for at the most an hour’ when it would surely have been more natural to write ‘It blooms for an hour at the most’ – maybe Feaver wanted to avoid an end-rhyme between ‘dust’ and ‘most’. Since what follows is one long sentence, it might also have been tempting to insert a stanza-break after ‘loves’ to make two stanzas of 10 lines each, but I’m glad Feaver chose not to, because the single-text-block format somehow reflects the fragility of the solitary flower in the teeth of the ‘salt gale’, as she memorably puts it later in the poem.

The image of the pistil – the flower’s female organs – phallicly extending to ‘feel between the shingle's / sharp-edged flints for a moist bed / to lay its seed’ is intriguing, and wholly in keeping with Feaver’s exploration of female sexuality as a key concern throughout her oeuvre.

The poem ends in a surprising manner: one wouldn’t expect the flower to end up ‘in [the] kitchen / drying in the heat’. One can only guess at why Feaver, or her persona, has removed the poppy from its ground. Whatever the explanation, though, the change of scene within the poem facilitates a beautiful ending, of the flower futilely resembling ‘a long thin hand / summoning a salt gale, a tide to roll in / over the flat land, roaring / through the open door.’ Here, as elsewhere in the poem, Feaver’s enjambment is expert, with the imagined volume of ‘roaring’ carrying out into the distance at the end of its line.

an interview with Sheer Poetry in 2006, Feaver articulated the reasoning behind her poem:

"Horned Poppy" is in a way a parable about this poppy which is destroyed by the elements it loves; it puts itself in this position where it's going to be blasted by the waves and the wind. And it survives; but it is a little parable about what we do when we love we don't always love wisely. It is very much about the poppy; but it is also about global warming. 

Whilst I can intuit the parable fairly easily, the “global warming” angle is much more shadowy to me, to the point of invisibility. What I like most of all, is Feaver’s unshowy, almost forensic examination of the flower and her implicit marvelling at its circumstances.

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