For years I’ve been starting my writing practice every day by walking to the woods (when I lived near the woods), the meadow (when I lived on homestead in the prairie), or the community farm (when I lived in the city), on the lookout for a plant that lit a spark in my mind. I’d come home and research the plant and then poems would start to happen. (If you’d like more details on this creative practice, I wrote a post about it here.)
Even though I can’t imagine writing poems about plants again after writing about them so much for RUE, I still love the rabbit holes botany research sends me down. Did you know quinine is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, which the post-colonial historian Rohan Deb Roy described in Malarial Subjects as “symbiotic with Empire”? I didn’t, until the day I wanted to know something about liverworts.
I’m a recent convert to Instagram — I missed the pictures-of-food years — but I have loved transforming my private practice of spotting and researching plants into a more public one that incorporates photography into the exercise. This practice has been reminding me how much the craft of poetic imagery overlaps with photographic techniques.
My wonderful teacher from my time in the MFA at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, Nance Van Winckel, used to advise us to do a revision of every poem that focused exclusively on the angles of the imagery — did we have establishing shots, close-ups, long shots, medium and medium close-up shots? What about the bird’s eye view, the worm’s eye view, and the truck shot? Did we roll and tilt and pan?
When I started trying to make the camera see what I see in the plants every day, my friend, the filmmaker Polina Malikin, suggested I try to see the plants from below and also at their eye-level. (Or do I mean leaf-level? root-level? blossom-level?) I spend a lot of time these days contorted oddly in the grass at the park, but it really helps my writing to practice so many different ways of seeing.
Louise Gluck’s “The Silver Lily” is a great example of how this videographic approach to poetic imagery can work. The poem begins with tactile sensations in the body:
The nights have grown cool again, like the nights
of early spring, and quiet again. Will
speech disturb you? We’re
alone now; we have no reason for silence.
Then she moves on to an establishing shot of the moon over the garden:
Can you see, over the garden—the full moon rises.
I won’t see the next full moon.
We get a sequence of close-ups — snow drops opening and closing, maple seeds falling. There are daffodils in the crook of a tree trunk which the reader sees as if peering over the shoulder of the newly risen moon:
In spring, when the moon rose, it meant
time was endless. Snowdrops
opened and closed, the clustered
seeds of the maples fell in pale drifts.
White over white, the moon rose over the birch tree.
And in the crook, where the tree divides,
leaves of the first daffodils, in moonlight
And then we return to the sensations in the body — fear, trembling, longing:
We have come too far together toward the end now
to fear the end. These nights, I am no longer even certain
I know what the end means. And you, who’ve been with a man—
after the first cries,
doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound?