Week 502: Flowers, by Frances Horovitz

This week another elegiac poem by Frances Horovitz (1938-1983), foreshadowing her own early death (see week 80).

I have tried to figure out if the particular flowers mentioned, soapwort and figwort, are meant to have any special symbolic resonance for the poem, but nothing obvious comes to my mind. Soapwort yields a vegetable saponin used as a laundering agent by mediaeval fullers, figwort is so named not because it had anything to do with the fruit, but because it was used as a curative for the ‘fig’, or piles. So possibly one has to ascribe their particular appearance in the poem to happenstance: these are simply the flowers the poet picked that day that stuck in her mind, perhaps because they are not especially well-known or celebrated.

But the poem as a whole surely does have a resonance, and a mythopoeic one at that. That final image of the poet holding up the flowers ‘as torch and talisman/Against the coming dark’ – just so, one thinks, might the flower-gathering Persephone have held up her blooms in a last affirmation of life and springtime before dark Hades carried her off to his underworld.

(for Winifred Nicholson)

a dozen or more,
I picked one summer afternoon
from field and hedgerow.
Resting against a wall
I held them up
to hide the sun.
Cell by cell,
exact as dance,
I saw the colour,
structure, purpose
of each flower.
I named them with their secret names.
They flamed in air.

But, waking
I remember only two
– soapwort and figwort,
the lilac and the brown.
The rest I guess at
but cannot see
– only myself,
almost a ghost upon the road,
without accoutrement,
holding the flowers
as torch and talisman
against the coming dark.

Frances Horovitz


5 thoughts on “Week 502: Flowers, by Frances Horovitz

    • I’m afraid I don’t know any details – whether Frances and Winfred were actually friends, or whether Frances was just paying tribute to Winifred as an artist who may have influenced her own intense way of seeing the world, as evidenced in this poem. I know many poets would be pleased to think they have a painterly eye, even if like me they have difficulty drawing a stick man.

    • Supposed to be gentle on the complexion, I understand. I just remember big red blocks of carbolic soap which always felt a bit gritty. A powerfully nostalgic smell!

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