Pleasures of plants play with patterns


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Garden Physic (New Directions, 106 pages, $17), by Sylvia Legris, is the former Winnipegger and Griffin Prize-winning author’s best book in a so-far stellar career.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/10/2021 (409 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Garden Physic (New Directions, 106 pages, $17), by Sylvia Legris, is the former Winnipegger and Griffin Prize-winning author’s best book in a so-far stellar career.

“The flourish, the fanfare, the febrifugic feverfew,” begins the poem Plants Reduced to the Idea of Plants, and the line serves both as a reduction of Legris’s core approach and an excellent example of her writing’s mouthfeel.

Legris’s project in recent years has centred on constructing complex poems that delve deep into technical and scientistic language for its precision and sound, and playing with the patterns of their sounds. Garden Physic hones in on the pleasures of plants, botany and gardening.

The book includes a book-within-a-book that shifts styles radically and recalls ancient tomes on plant science and medical discourse around plants. “Pharmacy begins in plants. / Plants are the flesh of the Gods. / In the Kingdoms of Nature the final authority is earth.” Publishes Nov. 2.

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Similarly, Frost & Pollen (Invisible, 126 pages, $20) by Helen Hajnoczky delves into the discourse that surrounds plants, especially flowers and how they operate culturally, in day-to-day society. Hajnoczky connects the language of plants to how we talk about our emotions and where they sit in the body: “Your flower bed, my corroded sense … Your shiver, your meld, your seedling.”

Hajnoczky similarly revels in sonic wordplay: “Hardly your hail bent bluster or summer. My beaded now blister, shame or summer. Your harvest, this pummel, this basket, this shover. Pluck or shaken, ready, I am reasonable.”

The latter half of the book retells the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the point of view of the Green Knight, drawing out both the darkness and sexuality that resonates in the original poem. An impressive entry in Hajnoczky’s already quite impressive body of work.

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Winter Recipes from the Collective (McClelland & Stewart, 42 pages, $30), by Louise Glück, finds the Nobel Prize-winning author in fine form, with a small but impressive collection of exceptional poems.

Glück’s best poems, like The Denial of Death, offer small narrative allegories that read like little Kafka stories in poetic form. The speaker loses a passport and the speaker’s travel partner continues on the journey while the speaker must remain behind and take up residence in a hotel.

“Do not be sad,” says the concierge, “You have begun your own journey, / not into the world, like your friend’s, but into yourself and your memories. / As they fall away, perhaps you will attain / that enviable emptiness into which / all things flow, like the empty cup in the Daedejing.”

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Best Canadian Poetry 2021 (Biblioasis, 128 pages, $23), edited by Anita Lahey and guest-edited by Souvankham Thammavongsa, contains a host of outstanding poems.

As always, the collection offers a nice cross-cutting of what has been happening in Canadian poetry recently, although tilted to the tastes of the guest editor. Thammavongsa has preferred poems that “got in and out quickly, that said unusual things, that were clear, spare, and plain” but still insightful and often witty.

One of Margaret Atwood’s better poems of recent years is featured, in which the paradox that “Feet have their own agendas. / They scorn your taste in shoes” helps develop something of a banal body horror. Eugenia Zuroski explores financial paradox: “we have negative money // what does that mean // we have less than zero money // so we are poor / no, we are fine. we are better than fine. we are fortunate.”

A standout poem by George K. Ilsley collects one-star reviews of an Alice Munro book. “The characters are boring and bland, like Canadians.” Touché.

Jonathan Ball won a Manitoba Book Award for his short story collection The Lightning of Possible Storms (Book*hug, 2020). Visit him online at

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