Before I begin, I’d like to take a moment to freak out: Whoa. The posting interface of WordPress has changed significantly since the last time I logged on (which was definitely less than a week ago).
Back to the subject of this post.
I’m working on a long, multi-sectioned poem consisting of smaller, (semi-)found poems (I say only “semi-found” because I’ve mixed up word and phrase order irregardless of sense, according to my sonic/rhythmic aesthetic) which use words and phrases plucked directly from the Botanical Manuscript of an 18th century American botanist named Jane Colden. Miss Colden’s work was actually quite important in her day. Working under the aegis of her father, who was himself a respected botanist and naturalist, Jane Colden identified and sketched hundreds of plant species, and even discovered a new genus. Her work was eventually circulated in European science circles and much praised by her father’s colleagues. Not much documentation of her life remains today, aside from her manuscript and a few letters written to her family when she was a newlywed. Colden hung up her field notebook for good after marrying.
I am intrigued by the idiosyncratic wording and spelling of her manuscripts, which read almost like a kind of poetry in themselves. To see what I mean, consider this excerpt from her work (I’ve had to change the formatting a little to get it to work on WordPress):
With flowers in Branches on the top of the Stalk
Flower 6 very small lanced shaped Leaves
Chives 6 of the same shape et colour with the Flower Leaves
& but little smaler, Caps are roundish, remarquably large, extended
farther out than the flower Leaves
Pestle Seed Bud roundish, Style none, The Tip is the top of the Seed
Bud drawn to a point
Fruit is a Berry, spoted red et white before it is ripe, when ripe
it is all red & juicy, containing 3 Cells, mark with 3 Lines
Seed sometimes there is but a single seed in each Berry, never
more than one in each Cell, when single it is globular, when
two or three they are corner’d
The Stem rises single is ridged and without branches, making
an angle at every joint from which the Leaves grow, Leaves
are ovally sharped, sharp pointed set alternately on the Stem
without foot Stalks, they are very thin & smooth, with
3 small fibers along the back of hte Leaf, the Edges
The Flowers stand on short foot Stlaks, placed alternately
on the top of the Stem & from a kind of branched Spike
on the top of the Stem
The Leaves are ovally shaped, sharp pointed, with 3 or 5
Ribs along the back of them extended, from one point of
the Leave to the other
Flowers in May & are of a pale yellow colour.”
* * *
My poem, which I’m provisionally calling “Botanical Variations” (and which, incidentally, will probably be the longest poem I’ve ever written when complete!) takes dribs and drabs of her original language for selected plant description and recombines them into something that seems rhythmically and imagistically interesting to me. There is a strange resonance that emerges between the sexuality of the language she uses to describe her plant specimens, and the context of her story — female botanist, operating in a world that is impenatrably male. Some scholars have rather astutely pointed out that her work was probably only accepted as it was because she was not seen as a “threat” by her father’s colleagues. Rather, because she was an unmarried daughter operating under a father’s patronage, she was seen more of an curiously talented young amateur who produced tidy, novel work that spoke more of her father’s indulgent tutelage than of any professional ambitions on her part (indeed, Jane went on — not to great scientific fame, but to the obscurity of maritial bliss and domestic undertakings; apparently, she was much admired locally for her superior butter).
I’m not sure whether or not I’ll eventually write a couple of other Jane Colden pieces (of the more “standard” persona variety). But “Botanical Variations” is eventually going to be part of a small series of poems about various women scientists that I hope to include as my thesis. Ideally, I’d like them to form either the bookends or the center of the work, with more personal poems weaving in and out of them, so that the one kind of poem informs and is reflected reciprocally in, the other. Currently (not including my Jane Colden work), I have drafts at various stages of “polish” for poems about Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Sally Ride, Rachel Carson, and Barbara McClintock. I’m not quite sure who I’m going to look at next (interestingly enough, Beatrix Potter – who did some mycology work – is a possibility). Would eventually like to include some women of color, as well, perhaps, as a couple more physicists (currently, there’s only Sally Ride) amidst my sea of biologists and chemists…
I’m not sure if anyone besides myself really cares about this project, but I thought it’d be nice to put it out there. So that I can look back at it later and laugh at how naively ambitious I was. And so that I have some record of my actual (written) creative process on here. Just in case you were wondering if all I do is take photographs and make bento all day… ;-) Despite all appearances, I really AM putting work into getting this degree!