Envy: A Botanical Description

Not in some shady corner, screwed down into the moss,
ferns cooing protectively “There, there,
next time it will be your turn”

not rootbound, no, nor stagnant
filtering swamp scum
not parasitic not
a clinging vine

in full sun on the south wall
charming really, if a little excessive
trying too hard

not green
but red

oddly unvisited by bees, though aphids like it,
and certain tiny blue caterpillars we’ve never seen unfold
as butterflies or moths

its annual exhibition by now
predictable, though the effort
not entirely unappreciated

a stalwart in the garden
useful for filling out a bouquet
perennial, in other words

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Envy: A Botanical Description”?

I’m a passionate gardener, so horticultural imagery frequently finds its way into my work. I think here what happened is that Shakespeare’s characterization of envy as “The Green-Eyed Monster” in Othello conflicted with my sense of green being a positive force, so I imagined a way in which the “greenness” of envy could be seen as not such a bad thing, but—as all green things are—”natural.” “Perennial” in the sense of happening all the time, everywhere, and therefore perhaps not to be seen as a deadly sin but an ordinary aspect of human nature, since everyone feels overlooked and under-appreciated from time to time.

At the time I wrote it, I had dropped out of academic and literary life to raise children. So I often felt this way, and was ashamed of my feelings.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Envy: A Botanical Description”?

The poem is built up of a series of negative statements which are highly concrete images of something abstract. It’s a kind of a game. If you didn’t have the title to guide you, you would have no idea what the speaker is trying (and ultimately failing) to describe.

I’ve always loved Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, which generates tremendous psychic tension by the use of negative statements. After all, anyone who has to declare “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ admit impediments” had already admitted that he is well aware that impediments exist! In the same way, the speaker of this poem manages to suggest a great deal of ambivalence about what she’s saying.

As well, by using the strongest language to say what it is not, rather than what it is, the speaker ensures that we are likely to carry away an image of envy as “screwed,” “stagnant,” “root-bound,” swamp scum,” “parasitic,” “a clinging vine,” “excessive,” trying too hard.”

Finally, the poem pretends to reach a conclusion but doesn’t—there is no final period.

This poem “Envy: A Botanical Description” originally appeared in New Directions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 158 (Autumn 1998): 108-108.

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