Allotments are magical places. You put shiny piebald beans in the ground and then up come more in fat green purses. Then you put some black dots into the darkness and lettuces emerge. Then there’s rhubarb – dump a ton of manure on it in the autumn and green fig-leaf shapes as big as aprons rise on rude pink stalks as early as January.
And if it’s not over-extending the metaphor that’s sneaking up on us from behind the sweetcorn, poems are like that too in many ways. Actually, I’m not sure how garlic fits into this as it doesn’t grow from seed, but still, you put a clove into soil and it turns into a head there. Also the beds are like verses, carefully dug line by line. Heavy feeders such as cabbages or potatoes go in one bed, medium feeders such as carrots go in the next, and light feeders such as peas and beans go in the third. Each year they move up one bed. This rotation makes the whole plot practically a villanelle.
Maybe that’s why, on this particular plot, it’s not just veg that comes up out of the ground. As you may know, we’ve had all sorts of dead poets visiting, mostly not suitably dressed or very well versed in horticultural practice.
Some have been, though. Emily Dickinson certainly knew her onions. She had a lovely voice, and it was quite soothing going round with her comparing British and American varieties. She asked some very perceptive questions about potatoes and was especially interested in the Pink Fir Apples. To call her ‘down to earth’ is a bit obvious, but she really was. She was well aware, for example, of the propensity of rats to get in the compost bins. Or as she put it:
The Rat is the concisest Tenant.
He pays no Rent.
Repudiates the Obligation –
On Schemes intent
and, I would add, scrabbles about under the shed.
William Wordsworth was hopeless. He didn’t know one end of a spade from the other, and his shoes weren’t up to the job in any case. To be fair, he was as responsible for the centrality of nature in English language poetry as anyone. The following are the opening lines to the Childhood and School-time section of The Prelude.
Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear:
Much favour’d in my birthplace, and no less
In that beloved Vale to which, erelong
I was transplanted.
It’s difficult now not to see such language as archaic and the imagery as very familiar, but well over two hundred years ago his use of what was in many ways plain everyday language was revolutionary, and the idea of the soul or person as a plant would have been shocking to many. But then it was his sister Dorothy who was the actual gardener. When they were in the Quantocks with the Coleridges it was she who grew any food. When they went on their long walks it was she who took notes. And when she visited our plot she was full of very sound advice. She seems to have been content to walk in her brother’s shadow, but she was the observer and it was she whose hands were in the soil.
Allen Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas were both more fun than the Wordsworths, but they weren’t great gardeners. It was baking hot when Ginsberg showed up, but he took an interest, particularly in the poppies (which incidentally seed themselves, and in our climate are only psychotropic if you are dead). It was dripping wet when Thomas came and he showed little interest at all and was somewhat disparaging about the shed (which admittedly is a bit untidy and creaky). William Carlos Williams did help plant the potatoes, although he kept wanting to eulogise the wheelbarrow.
I think Sappho turned up once. It was hard to know, I can’t remember how long ago it was, and listening to her was a bit like trying to reassemble the bits of pottery you dig up from time to time. It was disturbingly catching.
DF: How far have you –
S : Leave Crete and come to us
DF: I’m sorry, did you –
S : I hear that Andromeda – has put a torch to your heart
(translations Mary Barnard)
Perhaps the strangest so far to come up out of the ground in the middle of the raspberries was Fernando Pessoa. He was an early twentieth century Portugese poet whose surname translates as ‘person,’ or into French possibly as ‘no one,’ who split himself into several poets. These alter egos of his he called ‘heteronyms,’ one of these being himself. One of his heteronyms was a Frenchman Jean Seul, and another an English poet he called Richard Search. Fortunately, Pessoa arrived in person rather than as Search. Search’s work is not, I think, as good as that of the others, being written in a mannered and antiquated English. All the same, and luckily for me, Pessoa’s English was excellent. My favourite persona of his is Alberto Caeiro, who for someone who arguably never existed is very interesting on nature.
What a medley of Nature fills my plate!
My sisters the plants,
The companions of springs, the saints
No one prays to …
And they’re cut and brought to our table,
And in the hotels the noisy guests
Arrive with their strapped-up blankets
And casually order “Salad,”
Without thinking that they’re requiring Mother Earth
To give her freshness and her first-born children,
Her very first green words,
The first living and gleaming things
That Noah saw
When the waters subsided and the hilltops emerged
All drenched and green,
And in the sky where the dove appeared
The rainbow started to fade …
(translation Richard Zenith, 2006)
[*confusingly ‘Salad’ seems to be the first verse and not the title. Caeiro’s work didn’t have titles]
And rising up out of the clay and humus in the long evenings are other fragments, invented poets, inventions of poets by the same poet, and poets who never existed. There are pieces of the ghosts of poets, vapours and misquotations of them, and poets no one has heard of – some who have stars singing in their bloodstreams, others simply printer ink. Neighbouring plot-holders think it’s my compost bins, and that I talk to myself, but then so do they.
It’s a wonder any work gets done. But the alchemy of sunlight and compost brings salad out of the dark nonetheless, carrots, parsnips, and pumpkins.
- Sappho translations by Mary Barnard from The Penguin Book of Women Poets, 1980
- Pessoa translation by Richard Zenith from Fernando Pessoa: A little Larger Than the Entire Universe, Penguin Classics, 2006, © the translator