Featured in Capital #51 Subscribe to get the real thing here.
An Office Cyclamen
By Ruth Dallas From Collected Poems, University of Otago Press (1987)
Frankly, when you were first placed in my care I did not want you, leggy stems, white underwear, Hanging exhausted over the edge of the flower-pot, Like a seasick traveller over a ship’s rail. I thought, ‘You are so near death You will not recover.’
I did all that I could for you, Which was not much – loosening your pot-mix With a cracked pen, sharing my Speedee jug, Removing your insupportable goat-faced children, Setting starved leaves near the light they craved.
Dry-tongued voyager, I did not expect you to speak to me. But now you spring like a quick fox, ears back, and say, ‘The same life-force drives me that hound-hunts you.’
About the poet
Ruth Dallas (1919-2008) children’s author and poet was born in Invercargill, lived for many years in Dunedin, and published more than twenty books during her lifetime. She was the winner of several major literary awards and received a CBE in 1989.
About the poem
There is so much I love about this poem.
Firstly, that it takes place in an office, an unusual setting for poetry. Which goes to show there really is poetry everywhere if you only look hard enough.
There’s the spot-on personification of the unwanted, extremely unwell cyclamen “hanging exhausted” over the edge of its pot “like a seasick traveller over a ship’s rail”. The spent blooms of a cyclamen absolutely do resemble “insupportable goat-faced children”, don’t you think?
I love the world-weary tone of the speaker, fully expecting the worst. Yet despite their low expectations, in the final stanza their small interventions prove enough to turn the tide, the cyclamen springing forth again with renewed vigour “like a quick fox, ears back”. Where there’s life there really is hope.
Above all I love the way the cyclamen’s recovery reminds me that, even when facing a seemingly hopeless situation, an individual who decides to try doing something constructive can make a difference to how things turn out.