Thursday, August 04, 2011

`So Many Exquisite Variations'

I learned of Clive Wilmer from a poem by his friend Edgar Bowers, “On Clive Wilmer's Visit to the Wildfowl Refuge” (For Louis Pasteur, 1989). With other young English poets – Dick Davis, Robert Wells, Michael Vince – Wilmer had befriended Bowers and championed his work in the nineteen-sixties and -seventies. Bowers was enduring a barren stretch as a poet, publishing no new collections between 1973 (Living Together) and 1989. In the essay “Edgar Bowers and England,” Davis suggests his English admirers may have buoyed Bowers’ spirits and helped rekindle his poetry.

One hears traces of Bowers’ influence in Wilmer’s work – his tone of civilized reticence, rationality and devotion to meter and rhyme. Like Bowers, he observes the natural world but is not, mercifully, a “nature poet.” Here is “Wild Flowers” from Of Earthy Paradise (1992):

"Ragwort and mallow, toadflax and willow herb
Trick out the wasteground patchwork that I thread
To no end, not for delight, but with a passion
Such as they feel who are obsessed with death--

“Though this is not death. I linger here
Where rot assumes these terrace-house cadavers,
And brick-rubble, riven paving slabs, puddled ruts
Are cordoned off by bindweed tapestries

“On looms of fence-wire. One might think neglect
Cultivates that for which it has made way--
The minor glories idleness in passing
Names: `wallflower,’ `dogrose,’ maybe `traveller's joy.’”

Wildflowers, especially the humbler, uncultivated, “wasteground” sort, and even their Latin and common names, are sufficient to dispel the lassitude of the terminally ennervated. English is blessed with a vast wildflower lexicon, one a poet ought to study and know as well as he knows his metrics. Cordelia says of her father (Act IV, Scene 4):

“Alack, ’tis he! Why, He was met even now
As mad as the vex’d sea; singing aloud;
Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With bur-docks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.”

Wilmer, too, catalogs the wildflowers of England, but weeds are hardy and bountiful, and some variant of most of the species he mentions are also residents of Texas – ragwort, mallow, toadflax, willowherb and bindweed. Of Convolvulus equitans (Texas bindweed, in the morning glory family), Lashara J. Nieland and Willa F. Finley write in Lone Star Wildflowers: A Guide to Texas Flowering Plants (Texas Tech University Press, 2009):

“Bindweed’s flowers are lovely to look at, but it is a detested invader of gardens and croplands, where its twining habit strangles other plants and deprives them of light, water, and nutrients…[It] comes in two color forms: one is pure white, and the other, the one no doubt preferred by Texas A&M fans, is white with a maroon center.”

Wilmer celebrates nature’s gratuitous diversity in another poem, “The Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara” (Of Earthly Paradise), dedicated to Edgar Bowers:

“All the birds of the region in one room,
Condor to humming-bird! Only a glance takes in
Pelican, golden eagle, blue-jay, wren…
Two hundred maybe, stuffed, posed, poised for flight.
What need (you say) has nature for so many
Exquisite variations? She selects
Each kind, are we to think, by fine distinction—
In the whole country, say, some forty species
Of warbler, each a different intersection
Of colour, music, mass, texture and form?
Or was it some such randomness as jars
Through the San Andreas Fault, which will in time
Shatter this state of high prosperity
To nameless this and that: did some such flaw
Cause these named rifts, that branch in plenitude?”

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