A Secret History of Rhubarb is a short pamphlet of seventeen poems published by Mariscat Press in 2004. Some of the poems later appeared in the Peterloo collection Punk with Dulcimer (2006).
“Existing floras exhibit only one moment in the history of the earth’s vegetation.” Sir William Turner Thiselton-Dyer: ‘Plant Distribution’, Encyclopaedia Britannica
A moment that you might fathom, you’d think,
reciting names like adderstongue and moonwort,
coralroot and yellow birdsnest,
listed in Tentsmuir’s resonant flora.
But then an owl at Morton Lochs disgorges
a pellet packed with fieldmouse fur
and tiny bones from a neighbouring parish,
and seeds that will grow into another moment.
And there are days when haar drifts in from the sea
and settles like drops of mercury on rhubarb leaves,
when you step out into the garden,
into the moment before; digging, you unearth
bits of clay pipe, the bowl inscribed with
Masonic symbols: a pair of compasses
like a Pictish V-rod; in shifting light
your fossil-heap a shellfish-midden.
Moments washed by Forth and Tay; Fife
a mesopotamia of silts and erosions;
a kingdom stretched between its firths
like a hide from the scriptorium at Balmyrnie,
barley-fields the colour of vellum.
Earth you may as well be fathomed in, you think,
instinctively at home, peninsular,
putting down roots almost by accident.
You heard a story about a plant that sprang up
when a ship from Tierra del Fuego sank
at the mouth of the Tay; how Patagonian fleeces
hung for weeks on Tentsmuir’s barbed-wire.
Wind was combing the wool with weavers’ fingers,
as you remembered the Huguenots who fled
here in an earlier wave; loosened seeds
of Norwegian Lamb’s Lettuce taking root.
the colour of seaside-rock;
rude as a seaside postcard,
a music-hall joke,
it stages every year its outrageous comeback.
This glistening, priapic bud thrusts snow aside,
and out of a torn, brown paper-crown
pokes a moist Saturnalian tongue.
When they were children (and sweets were few and rare),
their mother would give them a rhubarb stalk,
my grandmother said; with a paper twist of sugar
they clutched to their pinafores;
dipping and nibbling,
sucking in their cheeks
as they crunched sweet crystals into that sour flesh.
Wherever it’s cut, sourness is what it spells;
and yet, the skin will peel in ribbons
of rose-jade silk, sibilant, whispering to itself
the names of home—Shan-se, Shen-se, Tsing-hai.
This stalwart of the vegetable-patch, backbone
of wet allotments glimpsed from the train,
is an exotic: Rheum barbarum; “Rhubarb,
rhubarb!” Language as babble, alien noise.
Strange and familiar, the garden’s Chinese
takeaway; fetched from Kan-su, near Tibet,
and from Mongolia’s salt lake, Koko-nor,
it adores our island’s rainy climate.
Crossing the Indus, rhubarb’s an ancient tourist,
its travel-log seductive with romance,
a camel-string of names: Ulaanbaatar,
Tangut, Turfan, Smyrna, Aleppo
(sailing to Scotland in a witch’s sieve).
Suffering ordeal by skewer at Kyachta
at the hands of a homesick Russian
Government Inspector; extremes of cold
and heat, and depredations of insects,
rhubarb, when it reached our coasts,
was four times costlier than saffron,
ten times the cost of cinnamon.
When Parson Woodforde dosed himself
and Nanny and Ben, his servants, after
“a great purging”, rhubarb root in Norwich
cost him sixteen shillings a pound
(ten shillings more than opium).
The Pen-King herbalist recommends
tempering rhubarb’s costive properties
with ginger—advice we still observe
almost five thousand years later,
slicing that honeyed, lemony stem
with rhubarb and sugar, to boil up for jam,
or sifting its powdered fragrance into flour,
to bake as rhubarb clafouti or crumble.
I weigh all this while listening to the news:
a small earthquake in eastern Turkey; a seizure
of cocaine from a boat off the Suffolk coast;
a visit to Scotland by the exiled Dalai Lama;
another sound-bite on the war with Iraq
in Washington’s inarticulate babble.
Out in the garden, a gathering of exotics:
a cock-pheasant struts like a gorgeous mandarin
among the rhubarb; head held high, ablaze
with news of what is doing on our borders.
an epithalamium for Mike and Sue
Built of squared, dressed sandstone, the pier
belongs to the land but ventures sturdily
along the line of the skerries, out to sea—
just far enough for its arm, bending at the elbow,
to fend off breakers from the small harbour.
In the channel the burn makes, flowing out
to meet the tide, two sycamore leaves are floating;
below the bladder-wrack’s rubbery frills,
in the clear water, bright green seaweed
lets its soft hair drift, this way
and that, stroking the sand.
Over the years, in spite of battering storms,
mussels and whelks have attached themselves
in bristling buttresses; and olive-green crabs
whose ancestors scuttled away
from the preaching of John Knox
shelter in crevices and cracks.
You can sit with the high wall at your back,
in out-of-the-wind recesses—so snug,
a spider has spun some threads and caught four
white scraps of down; two ochre stones below,
another has spread her web across the angle,
a two-inch doily dredged with grains of sand.
Small boats, like visiting friends, tie up alongside,
casting a mooring over a weathered stanchion,
pocked and upright as a standing-stone
(a flight of slippery steps climbing mysteriously
from under the water). Most days, a cormorant
uses the breeze at the pier’s end, perched on railings,
wings half-opened like a clerical umbrella;
and at night a red lamp burns in passionate answer
to the Bell Rock’s faithful pulsing on the horizon.
After a warm day the haar steals in,
bedewing railings, feathers, noses,
hanging with crystal drops the spider’s web,
hiding the town and all its walls and towers.
Out on the pier you’re in a white, vaporous room
where all you can see are the nearest waves—
those bales of grey-green silk unrolling
and flowing on like tireless music.