Introduced by Helen Newdick, MA Creative Writing, Oxford Brookes University
I would if I could choose Age and die outwards as a tulip does; Not as this iris drawing in, in-coiling Its complex strange taut inflorescence, willing Itself a bud again - though all achieved is No more than a clenched sadness,
The tears of gum not flowing. I would choose the tulip’s reckless way of going; Whose petals answer light, altering by fractions From closed to wide, from one through many perfections, Til wrecked, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall, Like flakes of fire they piecemeal fall.
Tulips and irises. Ordinary garden flowers. Yet with her deeply reflective, lyric voice, Scovell shares with the reader the metaphysical here. It is a short, accessible poem, typical of Scovell’s writing. She once said she didn’t have the stamina to write long poems. It is for me, all the more powerful for its simplicity. How in these two short stanzas, has she captivated me quite so much?
The poet uses her close observations about what happens to iris and tulip flowers when they are spent to say how she would choose to age and to die and in so-doing alludes to those human qualities she both repugns (drawing in, hiding away) and admires (opening out, expressing).
Technically, she is clever in letting the idea of the first stanza run on into the second. Continuing with that one extra line of the iris motif, ‘the tears of gum not flowing’ re-emphasises the shrinking away of the iris and contrasts it all the more starkly with the tulip.
The poet uses a gentle, almost genteel language, ‘I would if I could choose’ and this contrasts with the poem’s central focus on death and in so doing strikes a tone which is disdainful, almost glib. This is, for me, the heart of the poem. The poet’s brave, wilful response to her mortality, conjured throughout the second stanza and culminating with the riotous lines ‘Til wrecked, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall, Like flakes of fire they piecemeal fall’. Since first coming across this poem, seven or eight years ago, these lines have become something of a happy mantra for me as I move, all too swiftly, through middle-age!
Like Scovell, I love working in my garden and experiencing up-close the intricate wonders of the plants and flowers there. To come across a poem which immediately moved me, like this one did, and which introduced me to such a wonderful poet was a magical moment.
Paradoxically, Scovell has in a sense contained the anarchy of the tulip, and I think the poem retains a meditative quality. This poem, as with many of her poems, is beautifully poised between the cerebral and the sensory. This means I can think and truly feel her poetry at the same time, which was honestly a bit of a first for me. I don’t want the poetry I read to be overly-abstruse, but I need it to be intelligent enough to genuinely affect me!
Joy Scovell described herself as a strict agnostic, in the sense of believing that the ultimate metaphysical truth is beyond human knowledge. Without affixing itself to a specific religion or creed this poem, with its intensity of gaze, somehow heightens my sense of being human and has the capacity to expand me spiritually.
The poem is reproduced by permission of Carcanet Press, and comes from E.J. Scovell, Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1991). The Poetry Centre is grateful to Michael Schmidt and Michelle Healey.