Poetry review –THE MINISTRY OF FLOWERS: Emma Storr is pleased to have encountered this new collection by Andrea Witzke Slot
I hadn’t read Andrea Witzke Slot’s writing before and am delighted to discover her now. She is a multi-talented poet, artist and photographer who has not only produced a highly original collection, but also illustrated it with delicate pen and ink drawings. The Ministry of Flowers was many years in the making, and this reflected in the variety and quantity of the work. There are sonnets, concrete and prose poems, poems that rhyme and those that sing with assonance or half-rhyme.
The book is prefaced by two quotes. The first is a four-line poem from an Emily Dickinson manuscript that evokes many themes in a few words – separation, oceans, flowers and ministry. The other quote is from the Dalai Lama who said ‘My religion is kindness’. These ideas of self and other, distance and closeness, giving and receiving kindness, permeate the collection.
Slot has taken the lines of the Dickinson poem as inspiration for “Between my country and the others – a sea”. Separation, time and regret resonate. The second half of the first stanza reads:
If I cannot see your distant lands, blame it on arcs of salt-strewn mistakes, time’s water-logged pastures and roads, my sad country of sand-packed pitch.
The spacing and rhythm of these lines recall the lap of waves on a beach and the ‘arcs of salt-strewn / mistakes’ suggest tears as well as the flotsam and jetsam left behind at high tide. The poem moves on to offer hope in the form of flowers, renewal and travel:
Spring arrives. Seedlings sickle upward along drying roads,
‘Sickle’ is an unusual and effective word to use for the crescent shape of these growing plants. The poem ends:
Love, I’m on my way, flowers in hand. Please beg me to come, to travel well.
I’m not usually a fan of prose poetry but the thirteen included in this collection were a pleasure to read. Each one explores the fabric of life from a different perspective, several describing the anatomy and physiology of the human body in gorgeous language. In “Panoply”, the speaker considers the skeleton and the inevitable disappearance of bone cells as we age. She writes:
We are all unrehearsed vanishing acts, a case of self thinning out until, one day, we too are hunched over sidewalks, only able to see our own feet moving in front of us.
Perhaps surprisingly, she claims this is a cause for celebration and urges us not to ‘miss the fanfare. Look up and see. All around you, people are slowly waving goodbye’.
Many of the poems in this collection explore the transience of human life, what remains when we die and our relationship to the natural world. The writing is contemplative and appreciative, encouraging us to be more mindful of our environment and of our brief role within it. One prose poem explores the concept of transgenerational trauma and reinterprets it in a positive light. Slot conceives the brain cells, the neurones and dendrites as communicating excitedly and providing a ‘dreamtime narrative’ to ‘keep you company’ even if they whisper ‘Do not forget. Please do not forget.’
An original way of remembering is also explored in the poem “An autobiography called skin”. Each couplet ends with a half or full rhyme, which emphasises the durability of skin and our connection to others through skin contact. It starts:
Small, red, rinsed, held. Fleshy folds in tiny fists shaken. Something like blessings dress the pleats of infant skin.
The poem moves swiftly into adulthood, a failed relationship and children. There is a reference to addiction, poverty and loneliness. Regrowth and redemption arrive with a new relationship and the poem ends with a link back to the passing of time and the way our lives move along in parallel with different times of the year:
A hand rests on my back in the night as trees shiver in autumn’s wind. We are all seasons, dear Andrea. Just rings of skin upon skin upon skin.
Preceding this poem in the book is “Addiction: a definition”, written in broken lines of free verse, reflecting the fragmented self, the desperation of the addict:
do- whatever-it- takes- gotta-have-it- at- any— cost now.
The poem ends with a terrifying metaphor for the destructive nature of addiction – termites silently eating away at the ‘foundation / of everything you are’.
The joy of relationships with others, family and friends, features often in this collection. I particularly liked the tenderness of “One Night in September, Love” and the poem facing it “When the man I love asks me to dance”. The first is a busy, glorious concrete poem in the shape of a bee in which love is overpowering and irresistible. The speaker concludes:
….and what choice did we have but to tick ourselves into the thriving evening thrum of a million honeyed a cappella heart- songs ?
The accompanying poem on the opposite page is self-deprecating and humorous. The speaker is the subject of adoration, a state she slowly and gracefully accepts:
and if love is blind. I adore its excusable delight – for even if I rise with a roar this one is hard to scare –
The rhyme and rhythm of the lines add to the praise song quality of this poem.
I can’t do justice in such a short review to this rich and varied poetry collection that speaks of our shared humanity, vulnerability and connection to others in beautifully crafted poems of great depth and resonance. I keep returning to the book to read them again. I can only recommend that you get yourself a copy and enjoy them for yourself.