My Favourite's the Hawthorn Blossom

A Year of Flowers, John Barnie (96pp, £9.99, Gomer)

Were my neighbour still alive, I'd give her a copy of John Barnie's book. With no interest whatsoever in the who's who and what's happening in the poetry world, she liked the poems she liked so well that she wrote them out into notebooks - painfully, and not very legibly, towards the end of her life. They were on the kitchen table, and often revisited.

I wonder now whether any of my own poems made it into her personal anthologies? Unlikely, I think, though she did once quote back to me some (unpublished) lines which she said 'got' something so right, she could see it exactly. She'd have rejoiced in John Barnie's encounters with flowers, many of which, lightly and succinctly, get something just right: you can see both the blue of distances and their brief lives in '...bluebells travel / from blue to obscurity'.

All the poems in A Year of Flowers
are short, and short-lined. They refer to the short lives flowers - not leaves, the plants as a whole, or their histories - so they're essentially visual, brief moments of recognition. How about this for sea holly:

     Spiked samurai of the sand
     holding a pale blue brush

     a lady powdered her face with

or (I'm quoting the whole poem here) this characterisation of daisies:

     Dressed in whites with
     innocent eyes, tennis-
     player girls from the '50s

     squealing 'game!' and laughing
     as they crowd across lawns
     on a summer afternoon

Her (adult) grandchildren gave my neighbour notebooks with 'starter' poems in them. She'd been the sort of grandmother who led adventures down to the river and into secret corners of the valley, and made sure all the plants and animals of this landscape were known. They'd all recognise straight away that this procession of flowers through the year, starting with snowdrops, comes from a landscape which shares some soils and plants with ours, but not others: it's a flora specific to its own place - coastal and inland Dyfed.

We'd all recognise the common flowers, though maybe not those from more specific places, like the yellow horned-poppy of a shingle beach. But John Barnie has paired his own photograph of a flower on the verso facing its poem - with plenty of elegant white space around both. (It's a beautifully designed book.) These little images (about 4cm x 5cm) are the equivalent of plant 'mugshots'; like the poems, they're of the flower, not the plant as a whole. They're clearly not intended to be used for identification (indeed my sharp-eyed neighbour might have complained you'd only know what sort
of buttercup it was if you could see it's leaves), because there's no common scale to small and large flowers. Rather, the photographs point up a quality that drew the poet's eye. The tiny pale toadflax positively billows across its portrait, announcing

     ...I expect you couldn't

     see us before in our
     silk pyjamas delicately
     striped, peeling off a yawn,

     taking things easy,
     while humans hurtle
     past in the cars

I could nitpick about lineation which doesn't help the flow of my reading, or about some of the photographs looking as if a bit flattened by flash, or about shiny paper (which is one of my pet hates even if it does make for sharp images) - but that's not what this book is about. It's a book of small delights, and one you can't fail to delight in. My favourite's the hawthorn blossom. I think my neighbour might have copied out the bird's-foot trefoil poem.

     © Jane Routh 2011