Power: A Poetry Playlist
Some biologists will tell you that the beautiful ecosystems plants create are really war zones, but this is not true. The power of plants lies not in animosity, but in their love of the sun. They spread this love into every other organism on Earth, no animal would survive without the energy of the sun as transposed by chlorophyll. Plants have the power to nourish, protect, heal and kill us. I have selected some poems that reflect this intrinsic, ancestral link between humans and the power of plants.
This first poem by Judith Wright speaks of the kind of quiet, affecting power that plants, especially those native to our homeland, have over us. So linked are we to plants, that we feel a part of them.
Child and Wattle Tree
Round as a sun is the golden tree.
Its honey dust sifts down among the light
to cover me and my hot blood
and my heart hiding like a sad bird
among it’s birds and shadows
Lock your branches around me, tree;
let the harsh wooden scales of bark enclose me.
Take me into your life and smother me with blossom
till my feet are cool in the earth
and my hair is long in the wind;
till I am a golden tree spinning the sunlight.
Strong as the sun is the golden tree
that gives and says nothing,
that takes and knows nothing;
but I am stronger than the sun; I am a child.
The tree I am laying beneath is the tree of my heart…”
The Lotus Eaters by Lord Alfred Tennyson stems from Greek mythology, in which the lotus-eaters lived on and island where the plant was abundant. The lotus itself is a potent narcotic and the people of this island fed almost exclusively on it, living in a dreamy trance. The origin of the word ‘drug’ actually means ‘dried plants’, which goes to show just how important and effective plants were in treating humans and in filling us with a dangerous bliss.
The Lotus Eaters (Excerpt)
Lord Alfred Tennyson
The charmed sunset linger’d low adown
In the red West: thro’ mountain clefts the dale
Was seen far inland, and the yellow down
Border’d with palm, and many a winding vale
And meadow, set with slender galingale;
A land where all things always seem’d the same!
And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.
Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave
To each, but whoso did receive of them
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
Far far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake,
And music in his ears his beating heart did make. (lines 19–36)
This poem by H.D shows a power of plants as hard as stone, but in another way, a different kind of strength.
You are clear
O rose, cut in rock,
hard as the descent of hail.
I could scrape the colour
from the petals
like spilt dye from a rock.
If I could break you
I could break a tree.
If I could stir
I could break a tree—
I could break you.
This poem I loved for the way it follows these thoughts like roots extending from the tree. This one is more about the power of plants in affecting us emotionally, how they implant themselves in our memories and lives and the lives of others. Mulberry trees are rooted in my own memory, I used to know where every mulberry tree was in my area, now they’ve all been removed because of how messy they are.
You have towered here
leaning half over the wall
all my awareness
years before I knew
what silkworm was or China
I felt your berries
pulp under my feet
tracked your purple all over
a sapling planted
by some sea captain to make
shade for a future
This winter you lost
one of your long low branches
to a backed-up car
and the old woman
who has known you all her life
wept at the split wood
Your bark is wrinkled
more deeply than any face
you live so slowly
do our voices sound
to you like the fluttering
of paper moth wings
do we seem rootless
holding fast to the anchor
of the saddest things
Pablo Neruda is one of my favourite poets; he used to write with green ink because he felt it made him more creative. This has a lot of sense in it, as scientists have shown that even looking at a picture of a natural landscape increases our creativity.
Translation: Jack Schmitt
I see a rose beside the water, a little cup
of red eyelids
sustained aloft by an ethereal sound:
a green-leaved light touches the headsprings
and transfigures the forest with solitary beings
with transparent feet
the air’s full of bright vestments
and the tree establishes its dormant magnitude.
Sylvia Plath has a trove of poems about plants, always detailing her relationships with them. This poem is another one about narcotics, the power of flowers to reap our pain.
Poppies In July
Little poppies, little hell flames,
Do you do no harm?
You flicker. I cannot touch you.
I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns
And it exhausts me to watch you
Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.
A mouth just bloodied.
Little bloody skirts!
There are fumes I cannot touch.
Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?
If I could bleed, or sleep!
If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!
Or your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule,
Dulling and stilling.
But colourless. Colourless.
The Rock Lily’s Pale Spray
The rock-lily’s pale spray
like sunlight, halts my way
up through the unpierced hush
of birdless blue-grey bush.
The rocks crouch on their knees
in earth, torsos of trees
and limb-boughs lead up where
the cliff-face scales the air.
Out from you, rock, my friend,
I lean and, reaching, bend
the scentless pale spray back
to me and see the black
spots in each orchid-flower.
O, my love, what power
keeps you curled and bound?
Tormented, the Earth’s round
begins again. What rock
holds you where you lock
yourself from me? Alone
this spray breaks from the stone.