Garden Physic by Sylvia Legris

Review by Anna Hollingsworth

Imagine all the life crawling in the undergrowth of a garden. In Garden Physic, Sylvia Legris digs it all up and exposes sediments of emotion, science and folk medicine.

I’m very much not the gardening type; I shudder at the thought of de-weeding and fail to see the fascination in growing geraniums and magnolias. It’s a testament to the blossoming of Legris’s poetry that it wants me to get my hands earthy. The collection is a botanical garden in itself with all things weird and wonderful on display, and its ingenuity lies in how it celebrates all the different voices that can come with gardens.

The first section, The Yard Wants What the Yard Wants, is best described as dancing with words. Like flowers in a garden, the words flourish in abundance, a verbal birdbath of kinds:

Nosebleed, staunchweed, sanguinary./ Thousand-leaved root of yellow./ Thousand weed with leaves like feathers./ Small birds flirt herb-of-Venus’ tree./ If my love loves me, nosebleed and yarrow.

Where Horsetail Intersects String imposes more analytical minds on the pure joy of words. In ‘William Morris in His Disappointment Garden’, the speaker’s lack of enthusiasm is tangible:

So heartsunk am I of tusser silk/ and cotton velveteen. Fuffling if nothing this art of color or perish./ Lacking compassion for lac-dye and up to the elbows in vermillion.

One of the most delightful sequences in the collection is the section Floral Correspondences, a series of imagined letters between the garden designers Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Their agonies and delights are delivered in a masterful show of plant terms: in ‘O’ My Love’, Sackville-West writes,

Busy Lizzie. Wink and blink. Touch-me-not.  Impatiens as ever a virtue/ my dear! Enough of this love you perennials and they will love you/ back threefold and several seasons. If you don’t like it, pull it out!

Finally, De Materia Medica is a kind of medical encyclopaedia of the use of plants. In ‘Orchis Hippopotamus’, the plant’s multi-purposefulness translates into beautifully rhythmic poetry:

O stones of the river horse./ Dried and pounded and taken in wine./ Against viper bite and venom./ Against ill-intentioned intentions./ O the wide-mouthed floral displays./ The freshwater yawn spectacles.

The sounds and rhythms are a pleasure to dive into in themselves, but at same time the poems are not simply about frolicking in wordy wilderness. Garden Physic is a treasure trove of detail. Take Appendix A at the end; the lists of all the plants and ailments, complete with references to their sources, is almost poetic in itself. The meticulous background work makes the vocabulary in the poems an adventure; in ‘Root of Scarcity’, “Under Saturn sing the golden-sickled beet./ Under Saturn sing the ringed mangelwurzel./ The great turnip (the dick reuben!)./ The pickled paucity-strick stew.” This botanical exploration goes beyond any classic use of nature in poetry, and marks Legris’s work out as something unique.

Those afraid of a lesson in biology, fear not: all of this is executed with wit and playfulness. A pomegranate tree is “a tree that promises to explode”; and in ‘Grime from the Baths’, the speaker’s explosive excitement is in comic contrast with the grossness of the subject matter: “Jupiter Vesuvius! this/ Herculean accretion/ of volcanic mineral/ and metallic slag,/ sheep’s tallow boiled/ with cedar ash,/ dust, skin plaster—/ scrapings from the bath.” In ‘Sheathfish’, the fish yelps: “Chuck the zone of alienation!/ Who’s the bottom-feeding top predator now?”

Garden Physic offers a refreshing take on nature poetry in full bloom. In one of the letters, Sackville-West asks, “How to write about flowers without the nauseating sentimental/ phraseology? No quaint, no winsome. This smells good, that/ smells bad, my hands rank with manure. This at least is pure.” This is exactly what Legris does.

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Anna is a journalist and linguist.

Sylvia Legris, Garden Physic (Granta, 2022). 978-1783788279, 112pp., paperback.

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