Northwords Now Issue 40

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Florilegium -Molly Vogel

Shearsman Books (2020)

A Review by Lydia Harris

Molly Vogel’s collection is a rhetorically inspired gathering of poetry, plants and a collection of extracts. The book is in two parts, the poems followed by an extensive glossary, each entry cross referenced to its base poem. The Glossary catalogues not only flowers but the thinking behind this meditation on flowers. The entries are in alphabetical order, so God, Honey and Rhetoric take their assigned places with Rose, Bluebell and Zinnia.

The mesmeric, questioning poems with their many biblical references, memories of childhood, reflections on time, human passion and God’s relation to the universe, are expressed through the diverse languages of flowers. Students of nomenclature, like Linnaeus, are guests here, alongside Plato and Theresa of Lisieux, the Virgin Mary and Andrew Marvell: a Florilegium of scholars, poets and questing human souls. The poems observe, wonder, respond, mythologise, translate into prayers.

They are allusive; they come at their subjects slant as in ‘Snow Bunting’, where the bird is present obliquely in the delight of the human other, of the divine other.  It is characteristically conversational in tone. This poem, as are many here, is part of an ongoing colloquy.

out on the bird-shore,
our rapine bodies sore
in their longings.

Vogel’s writing is abstract and precise, formal and free, sacred and profane.  Human love is the energy which enlivens the collection. ‘Isle of Skye’ is a wonderfully bold and tender declaration of love.

And then I remember: it is you
I miss in the fetterless body
of every living name…

‘Una Ursula’ is another flower in the bouquet gathered ‘of other men’s flowers’. A beautiful tribute addressed to poet Robinson Jeffers, it moves from his biography to his landscape. The lines flow through life and death to a yearning for the wild world and its rhythms. The movement of the thought replicated in the movement of the lines.

…in your god-like
Thirst for the delicate and the desolate.

‘Definition’ comes early in the Glossary. In it, Vogel discusses the conception of Hamilton Finlay’s garden florilegium, Little Sparta. As his garden depends on ‘juxtaposition and definition’ so the poems and the essays of the glossary ‘describe and dissolve accepted meanings’.

…utopia has many interpretations…

Flowers and their classification are a language for the poet to probe. The collection identifies  all life as sacred. The lover is present, as God is present. Vogel uses the language of flowers and the language of liturgy and Biblical texts to celebrate human love.  The poems are underpinned by curiosity, analysis and prayer.
‘Penny Wedding’ with its half rhyme, elegant couplets and blending of the sea with the land, of flowers for healing with machair,  of St Francis with Calafia, surprises and delights the reader with  skeins of seaweed and fleck of coin,  with movement and light. Here, where thinking, feeling and prayer are woven together in a celebration of human love.

…scattered exchequers of manna.

‘Interruption and Completion of a Thought’ is a reverent, slow love poem. Vogel enriches the language with Japanese and with immersion in another culture. The poem is wonderfully distant and wonderfully sensuous.

The book is inhabited by other tongues. Greek, Latin, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish invite the reader into the vivid experience of unfamiliar words, scripts and mythologies.  Through Ovid, we come to Proserpina and her transformations, analysed with particular attention to Rosetti’s and Swinburne’s response to this character. Proserpina links us to Mary and through her flower meadow, to Eden.

Vogel refers to many voices. In ‘Ode to Neruda’ the poem’s humility is to be like Neruda. Vogel tracks the motions of the mind through the fingers of the poet. The epigraph which opens the whole collection includes Montaigne’s assertion that ‘he gathered the flowers of others’.

One spring of the book wells up in Eden, and this leads to a discussion of the flowers in ‘Paradise Lost’. The poet exercises her own rhetoric to celebrate Milton’s, as she explores the theology of the flower in the scheme of the Fall in the paradise garden.

From here, we are invited to read Dickinson in the light of Milton and Hamilton Finlay. Vogel’s analysis of Dickinson’s Eden is her way of understanding the sexuality and sensuality as celebrated in her poems.

‘Honey’ exemplifies Vogel’s interest in theology and nomenclature. The glossary grows like a repository of potential poems, a store of ideas. The glossary invites us to read the poems in a new way. Having read them we reflect on their words afresh. ‘Ikebana’ offers us insight into the placing of the poem on the page, the poem as flower arrangement.

‘Primrose’ activates the poem it cross references, ‘Child Dreaming in a Poet’s House’. Like the primrose, the poem opens in less than a minute.

Consideration of Queen Anne’s Lace leads the poet to Carlos Williams and an analysis of the techniques of his flower studies which form part of ‘Sour Grapes’.  Thus, we move from the common wayside summer flower to a study of the way poetic language works. The name, the whiteness and William’s poem, inspire Vogel to a discussion of the flower and the female body. The role and nature of woman have been a preoccupation of the book.

The book concludes with the Zinnia, and Vogel’s analysis of Zufosky’s 1976 lines about Zinnias. It is a gesture of humility to close with another poet’s lines on regeneration, of moving from z to a, to close her book.