Elisabeth Bletsoe’s Pharmacopoeia (Shearsman Books, 1999) is a work that demonstrates a staggering commitment to the ethics of attention. The botanical is held at tight focus, generating a meditation on the history of herbals, unspoken colonial crossings, and queer addresses that slip out of the paradigm of state sanction. The poet produces a palimpsest of knowledges within which the flowers come to be pressed until the botanical becomes a close approximation of the textual.
The eleven poems in the collection are named after flowering plants in Britain which have a history of medical significance. The titles themselves consist of both the common and the scientific names – ‘Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis)’ or ‘Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)’ – in a twinning that appears to frame the text as a quasi-botanical record and compendium of information that might seek to illuminate rather than subvert. The epigraph to the collection is from Geoffrey Grigson: ‘we cannot emotionally separate a flower / from the place or conditions we find it in’, establishing a manifesto of situatedness that is later queried. Predominantly then, Pharmacopoeia is an engagement with knowledges – medical, historical, mythic, and sexual – and a reading of epistemological histories against the grain to generate a complex poetics of playful desiring.
Pharmacopoeias legitimise and calcify medical knowledge in their mapping of the intersections of human and botanical existences. Bletsoe turns this process of evidence gathering inside out. Hers is a text where flowers function as forensic sites of storytelling that resist the project of human instrumentalisation. I also read in the text the copula between forbidden knowledge and desire through a recovery of the overlapping history of herbal medicine and witchcraft. The collection is an incisive document of margins rendered porous, a cross-talk between plants across the neat taxonomic categories that they appear to occupy, as well as a framework of voicings that pique normative sexual sensibilities. The body in Pharmacopoeia is a site of concoction, not just as a metonymy of ancient and modern witches’ brews but also as an erotic fusing of subjectivity and difference to produce an incoherence in knowledge.
In her discussion of this collection within the experimental ecopoetic paradigm, Harriet Tarlo says, ‘[H]er delicate, intricate poems draw on the traditional association of flowers with love and the sequence can also be read as a love story composed through flowers (The Ground Aslant 15).’ Bletsoe’s evocation of the epistolary function of flowers occupies the contours of a terrain marked and remarked upon by social convention. There is both an acknowledgement of and resistance to the weight of signification reiterated through history and its modification within a late capitalist logic.
In Pharmacopoeia, this composition undoes traditional models of localisation by suggesting that flowers do not consolidate but uncouple signalling between lovers. In ‘Lady’s Bedstraw’ for instance, ‘seductive flowertrails / penetrate the hills where we confront / the ambiguity of wayposts’ unsettling directionality and ultimately rendering language ductile (‘our words pulled out in strings’). Against this backdrop, I would suggest Pharmacopoeia might produce or recover the repressed and truncated queer narratives of flowers and eroticism, and notions of ‘natural’ that a queer ecology might disrupt in reading this collection as an epistolary erotics. It traces an anxious poetics of intimacy through a cross-talk of flowers. Partial knowledges from a cluster of registers – scientific, mythic, lyrical – hover throughout the individual poems, pushing at the edges, contaminating voices, playfully pursuing love objects. Ultimately, the poems themselves come to be located at the interstices of various enquiries and spatial practices, both transitory and sustained. Bletsoe engages in what is an intoxicating speaking to and speaking through flowers, articulating a poetics of desire and abandonment, movement, and location.
Her flowers, like her poetry, appear to be autotelic. She mimics, mixes, and stretches archaic medical languages, intertwining them with a capricious striated lyric voicing that appears through quotation, inter-subjective echoing, memory and erotic proposition. However, it is limiting to read Bletsoe as a corrective to the anthropocentric consideration of floral history. She complicates it without fully undoing it. While her poetry opens up the fissures within this tradition, animating the intrepid wilderness of known and unknown flowers taking root, she never fully succeeds in coaxing her botanical subjects outside the reach of human definitions of utility and self-knowledge. Instead, in drawing attention to its provisionality and poetic limits through its mercurial sites of subjectivity, Pharmacopoeia exposes the futility of imagining the possibility of a complete disavowal of anthropocentric floral linguistics.
Thus, in Pharmacopoeia, we find a complex concatenation of histories. To read them is to consider the possibility of this being a project of partial reclamation of discourse. The inclusion of flowers, or indeed a herbal history of the text, has undergone multiple exchanges of power, particularly in the context of colonialism. The reworking of this silence is a critical project of using multiple modes of speech and text, borrowing, and reconstructing a language of femaleness through one of flowers. Bletsoe’s writing provides a fertile site for queerness, pleasure, and provisional desires and body politics to come together in a dialogue within a framework of florality.
Srishti Krishnamoorthy-Cavell is completing a PhD in contemporary experimental poetics at Cambridge. She is part of the Ledbury Emerging Critics programme, and her critical work has been published (or is forthcoming) in Poetry London, Poetry School, Jacket and the Poetry Society. She is also a competitive British Parliamentary debater for Cambridge and was recently ranked as the best speaker in Europe at the European Universities Debating Championship.