and in the process purged a lifetime of paper – fifteen large recycling bags full. I got up at 6 am to scurry up and down the street, stuffing grad school essays, teaching notes, drafts of old poems, every journal I’d ever been published in, and who knows what else into the neighbours’ blue bins.
I am not precious about my work; I reckoned the world already had more than enough of it. I also assumed that I had copies of anything worth keeping on my hard drive or in my archives.
This proved to be quite wrong! Many poems, stories, and essays didn’t make the long migration from my first computer and the large floppy discs to a later, smaller generation of floppy discs to the hard drive of my current machine. Of course, it took me quite a while to realize how much I’d mislaid – only when I tried to gather together all my prose for a potential book did I understand how reckless I’d been.
I was able to recover some lost essays online; others at the library. But what I will never ever recover are the poems – poems in all those little magazines that no longer exist anywhere, magazines I had copies of that I tossed so casually into my neighbours’ bins. Poems that never made it into my books for one reason or another. I had assumed that this was because they were dreadful but some were really not that bad, they just didn’t fit in with whatever the overarching theme or style of my current book was, or they needed revision I wasn’t inclined to do just then but might have done another time IF I STILL HAD THEM.
But I don’t.
Periodically something turns up, waving “Remember me?” Like today, when I went on Google to see if there was any mention of What We Carry, just published this week, and in the process stumbled on the following poem, and some questions I answered about it in Canadian Literature! Here they are now, before I lose them again.
Envy: A Botanical Description
ferns cooing protectively “There, there,
next time it will be your turn”
filtering swamp scum
not parasitic not
a clinging vine
charming really, if a little excessive
trying too hard
and certain tiny blue caterpillars we’ve never seen unfold
as butterflies or moths
predictable, though the effort
not entirely unappreciated
useful for filling out a bouquet
perennial, in other words
Questions and Answers
What inspired “Envy: A Botanical Description”?
I’m a passionate gardener, so horticultural imagery frequently finds its way into my work. I think here what happened is that Shakespeare’s characterization of envy as “The Green-Eyed Monster” in Othello conflicted with my sense of green being a positive force, so I imagined a way in which the “greenness” of envy could be seen as not such a bad thing, but—as all green things are—“natural.” “Perennial” in the sense of happening all the time, everywhere, and therefore perhaps not to be seen as a deadly sin but an ordinary aspect of human nature, since everyone feels overlooked and under-appreciated from time to time.
At the time I wrote it, I had dropped out of academic and literary life to raise children. So I often felt this way, and was ashamed of my feelings.
What poetic techniques did you use in “Envy: A Botanical Description”?
The poem is built up of a series of negative statements which are highly concrete images of something abstract. It’s a kind of a game. If you didn’t have the title to guide you, you would have no idea what the speaker is trying (and ultimately failing) to describe.
I’ve always loved Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, which generates tremendous psychic tension by the use of negative statements. After all, anyone who has to declare “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ admit impediments” had already admitted that he is well aware that impediments exist! In the same way, the speaker of this poem manages to suggest a great deal of ambivalence about what she’s saying.
As well, by using the strongest language to say what it is not, rather than what it is, the speaker ensures that we are likely to carry away an image of envy as “screwed,” “stagnant,” “root-bound,” “swamp scum,” “parasitic,” “a clinging vine,” “excessive,” and “trying too hard.”
Finally, the poem pretends to reach a conclusion but doesn’t—there is no final period.