Weeds and Wild Flowers, Alice Oswald & Jessica Greenman (Faber & Faber) £14.99
Weeds and Wild Flowers is not a strict collaboration, as Alice Oswald writes in her brief introductory note, but “two separate books, a book of etchings and a book of poems, shuffled together,” connected by their assertion that “flowers are recognisably ourselves elsewhere.” Oswald is right: these are two separate arts, two distinct books, but decidedly intimate with one another. Jessica Greenman’s etchings are beautiful companions to the poems. They’re uniform in grammar like the Aztec Herbal Pharmacopoeia of 1552, both contemporary and classical. Oswald’s own poetry is lush with descriptive sounds; it contains a repetition that reflects the fractal patterns of leaves, flowers, and their respective plants. She employs loose rhyme and drops pronouns like Romance languages. Some poems are from the obvious point-of view of someone interacting with plants, as in “Daisy,” which ends:
I will not lie small enough under her halo
to smell its laundered frills
or let the slightest whisperiness
find out her friendliness
because she is more
summer-like, more meek
than I am I will push my nail
into her neck and make
a lovely necklace out of her green bones
Often she chooses plants with ugly names, like “Bastard Toadflax” and “Bristly Ox-tongue” for more descriptive poems with less human interaction. Two of my favorite poems, “Fragile Glasswort” and “Narrow-lipped Helleborine,” sit en face, written from the point-of-view of a very invested gardener, beginning with concern and ending in attentive description.
This book’s two halves are certainly the most independent of those featured here, but they still interact quite closely. Faber’s made a beautiful book, and I look forward to their future collaborations. (Bernard O’Donoghue & Damien Hirst? Daljit Nagra & Banksy?)
Timmy the Tug: A Story in Colour, A Story in Rhyme, Jim Downer and Ted Hughes (Thames & Hudson) $19.95
A collaboration fifty-two years in the making, Timmy the Tug began as an idea hatched in Jim Downer’s Rugby Street flat, where he lived and worked with Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Peter O’Toole, and Jacques Tati. Hughes writes about that same period in “18 Rugby Street,” from Birthday Letters. In an effort to impress Wendy Craft, at that time Tati’s film editor and Downer’s eventual wife, he painted the panels of Timmy, reprinted here in beautiful facsimile. After having written his own “rather amateurish,” accompanying verse, his friend Hughes asked to try his hand at it. Downer writes, “Ted, always generous, was kind about the verses, and then quietly asked if I would like him to provide his own version.” Though they continued to spend time together into the mid-sixties, it wasn’t until 2008 that Carol Hughes found Ted’s Timmy the Tug in her late husband’s archives and returned it to Downer.
Downer’s art is bright with bold lines, clearly period but not limited in appeal. Thames & Hudson have produced a facsimile edition, which includes mild foxing and a three-hole-punched, yarn-bound spine. Hughes poems match Downer’s drawings with both whimsy and technical skill. Early in the short book he describes Timmy leaving port, with the drama and humor that streams through the entire story:
Like a weight-lifter Tummy then
XXTook one tremendous breath,
Drew the ropes till he felt the strain,
And then heaved with the strength of ten,
XXWhile the harbour churned beneath.
He would escape! At his fierce look
XXThe gulls hid in a cloud,
The quays trembled, the harbour shook.
He would escape! Or he would pluck
XXThe quays from where they stood.
Then with cracks like the shots of a gun
XXThe ropes snapped suddenly.
His paddles whirl, — the last rope’s gone, —
The tall cranes dance to see it done, —
XXTimmy the Tug is free.
Certainly the most exciting children’s book I’ve seen in 2010, Timmy the Tug is a must have for the young family libraries of NPR listeners or Harper’s subscribers: literary and fun in perfect combination.