Garden Physic by Sylvia Legris

Apr 14, 2022

Sylvia Legris’ highly anticipated sixth book of poetry, Garden Physic, provides a welcome tonic to the apocalyptic bent of much current ecopoetics. Rather than producing a state of self-loathing and existential panic in readers, the collection works towards a nuanced awareness of the floral world and our dependencies on it, both imaginative and material.

While the word “physic” has passed out of common usage, its historical valence of being a “medicinal substance” (Oxford English Dictionary) that can heal our physical selves serves as a central trope throughout Legris’ collection. In her copious, and frankly fascinating, notes and appendices, we learn that Legris was directly inspired by ancient works that intimately combine gardening and medicine, such as Pedanius Dioscorides’ de Materia Medica and Nicholas Culpeper’s The Complete Herbal. The connection between the pharmacopeia of nature, the cultivation of gardens, and our bodily health that was so intimately bound together in the historical past of the Western tradition is brought to the fore in Legrís’ collection.

All this connective work is done in Legris’ inimitable style of accumulating layers of linguistic play. The first of four sections is entitled “The yard wants what the yard wants.” With this title we see Legris blithely re-work the well-worn Dickensonian phrase “the heart wants what the heart wants.” In this, Legris decenters human desire, so intimately bound up with lyric poetry, through the embodiment of the garden as a desiring entity with a living body.

In “The Garden Body: A Florilegium,” Legris sketches out the imagined corpus of this living garden, beginning with the garden’s opened “pupils” and ending with its “crowning heart,” a heart that desires it all: “leaf, steam, root, the whole shooting match shoot system…” Taking her structural cues from the Herbals—those venerable anthologies of medicinal plant lore—Legris clusters individual plants through the archival record of linguistic and imaginative association:

What a commotion! Wild rocket, a racket
of wake robin, cuckoo point, the clear
caroling rise & fall. Volatile dog’s mercury.
Dog’s grass. Dog rose. Hot fits and cold
metallic blue. The indecisive indigo.

Here, by grouping together plant species named for their associations with noise, Legris exposes the human poetry of translating visual sense impression into that of sound. This initializes an extended, improvised riff that flows directly from noise to music to volatility and planetary influence (Dog’s Mercury, or Mercurialis perennis) and then on to the emotional-floral spectrum of hot fits and indecisiveness. Through all the movements of this long poem, we witness Legris’ love for word etymology, linguistic accumulation, pun, and connective chiming.

Floral Correspondences, the third section in Garden Physic, consists of a series of imagined conversations between Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson. While Sackville-West is probably now best known as Virginia Woolf’s lover, she was not only a successful novelist and poet in her own right but also an avid gardener, who with her husband founded Sissinghurst, one of England’s most beloved gardens. The dialogue between the couple consists of a yearlong exchange of diary-like gardening records. For instance, in early spring, H. imagines:

Under your gumboots a grumbling of over-the-top-bulbs.
Pale noses yet to surface.
Slug bait at the ready.
The ground rumbling.

It is through the act of sharing these details of plant life that a kind of knowing intimacy grows between the pair as their garden grows.

The final section, De Materia Medica, pays a full, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, homage to Pedanius Discordes’ seminal text of the same name. Alongside her elaborate descriptions of medicinal plants, Legrís in “So Blooms the Garden of Creatures of Land and Creatures of Sea” includes poems on the animal body as a repository for garden physic. For instance in “Hare,” “The land hare eats the hare’s-foot fern for lunch. / A hare both herbaceous and herbivorous. / The rabbit’s foot is a plant in prayer.” Here, Legris breaks down the denotative and imaginative walls of our conception of what an actual “garden” constitutes. If what eats medicinal herbs becomes medicinal in turn, then we through the process of ingestion come to embody the garden pharmacopia. Through this linguistic play, the barriers between the natural world and the human open and become mutually permeable—the garden becomes not other but self.

Unlike many poets who write about the environment, Legris’ collection eschews the approach of the personal lyric, preferring instead the experimental floribundia of reinvented language and image. Macbeth once advised that we “throw Physic to the Dogs!” I counsel instead that we eagerly ingest Legris’ novel approach to writing nature for all its linguistic delight and herbal stimulus.

Garden Physic
by Sylvia Legris
New Directions Publishing, Fall 2021, 112 p.p., $16.95
ISBN: 9780811229906

D.S. Stymeist’s debut collection, The Bone Weir, was published by Frontenac in 2016 and was a finalist for the Canadian Author’s Association Award for Poetry. He continues to publish widely in both academic and literary magazines. A long-time former resident of Winnipeg, he now teaches creative writing and crime fiction at Carleton University. He grew up as a non-indigenous member of a mixed heritage family on O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation; these formative experiences continue to guide and shape his identity. As president of VERSe Ottawa, he helped to organize VERSeFest, Ottawa’s international poetry festival.

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