Wednesday, February 29, 2012

`With the Rub of a Dock Leaf'

“Edward Thomas’s Poem” is from the Irish poet Michael Longley’s Snow Water (Cape Poetry, 2004):

“I couldn’t make out the miniscule handwriting
In the notebook the size of his palm and crinkled
Like an origami quim by shell-blast that stopped
His pocket watch at death. I couldn’t read the poem.”

“From where he lay he could hear the skylark’s
Skyward exultation, a chaffinch to his left
Fidgeting among the fallen branches,
Then all the birds of the Western Front.”

“The nature poet turned into a war poet as if
He could cure death with the rub of a dock leaf.”

Longley has long been a student of Thomas and the other Great War poets. His wife, the critic Edna Longley, has published two editions of Thomas’ poems and another of his prose. Thomas was killed April 9, 1917, during a shelling at Arras. The notebook described by Longley was found on Thomas’ body, and contains a draft of the poem he was working on at the time of his death.

“Origami quim” is a disturbing and complicated image – a vulva, emblem of fertility, fashioned like a Japanese paper sculpture, on which is scrawled a poem Longley is unable to read. Thomas, born in 1878, started not as a poet but as a naturalist and meditative essayist. His early works, all in prose, include The Heart of England and The South Country, both published in 1906.

Skylarks, Shelley’s bird, show up in Thomas’ “Good-Night”: “The skylarks are far behind that sang over the down.” Chaffinches appear memorably in “The Lane”: “It is a kind of spring: the chaffinch tries / His song.” “All the birds of the Western Front” is a horrific reverie.

Longley’s concluding lines are heartbreaking and memorable. Dock is the common name for plants in the genus Rumex, consisting of some two-hundred species. Dock leaves have been eaten raw in salads and cooked as greens, and the seeds have been boiled into mush and ground into flour. As a folk remedy it has been used to treat constipation and anemia, and as an astringent. Rubbing the leaves on the rash caused by stinging nettles is said to soothe the pain and itch. Thomas no doubt knew this and more. In Flora Britannica (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996),  Richard Mabey reports a mother in Hexham, Northumberland, telling him:

“A new name invented by my son when he was three is `doctor leaf’ for dock, which is what he thought we were saying because it makes nettle stings better. The name has been used by us ever since.”

Longley knows both books and plants have leaves.


Tim Murphy said...

I once took an academic to Trois Rivieres, the site of the original trappeur post on the Red River. He waded into stinging nettle in his shorts. I promptly found some jewel weed, crushed the juice from its stem, and cured him. He couldn't believe a Yalie could do that.

Sarang said...

Possibly this is too obvious to mention, but I read "all the birds of the western front" as a direct allusion to the last line of "Adlestrop."