Hoary Alison by Jo Bell

In my last post I mentioned Hoary Alison, a poem by Jo Bell, recently published in the Morning Star.

When I emailed Jo to say I’d like to look at Hoary Alison here, she emailed me straight back to say “of course” (because she’s kind like that) and to send me a new version of the poem, edited with help from her friend “the hawk-eyed” Alan Buckley. She added that the poem was some years old and had been reworked over time before finding publication now.

Compare the Morning Star published version to what I might call “the Alan Buckley 2014 Mix”, below. I shall look at the specific details of the latter, rather than the newspaper version.

Hoary Alison uses what some might describe as invading, foreign plant species as metaphor for the recent furore over the impending Slavalanche* when “the entire population of Transylvania” would arrive to “pitch their tents” in The City as London Mayor Boris Johnson rabble-roused a few weeks ago.

The poem title is superb: the play on the plant’s common name: “Hoary” sounding like “Whore-y”; reminding us of prurient media interest in women trafficked for the sex trade.

Denigrated, feared, blamed by some for all our ills, refugees and, now, legal Eastern Europeans are pushed into the cracks of society, surviving as best they can.

Hoary Alison is structured partly as a found poem: the italics are purportedly from a botanical scientific paper. Googling “Hoary Alison [images]”, the plants are exactly as described. (I should say here I struggled through a field botany course as part of my degree; the biological lingo is just as I recall – but this is the first time I’ve enjoyed it.)

I have a friend who thinks found poetry is cheating. I disagree. Noticing the way a found text can be sampled askance to make something completely new is just as much poetry as finding a poem in fingernails. (Besides, one of my own poems was found in a LinkedIn CV and I am rather fond of it.)

“Precision has no gallantry” Hoary Alison opens, warning us that the dry, exact specifications of botanic jargon will not be kind – or unkind; “disinterested”, might sum it up, in the same way that Government agencies are disinterested – to any humanity offered by the additional narration linking the botany.

“[O]ur heroine” defines Alison as the central character in this drama but she is “An extremely common weed” and “Casual of waste ground, docks, rubbish heaps”: outcast, desperate and rough, more hints at how she might survive “as she can”; more oblique references to the sex trade: “often introduced with foreign seed”, “Behaves in Britain as in Europe.”

Determined to survive – who isn’t? – she “throws down roots like gauntlets, settles…”. The is excellent dark humour in: “…the British climate may be / sub-optimal to long-term survival.

The same sort of fuss was made when the Windrush docked, and long before that when starving Irish arrived. The Celts weren’t keen on the Saxons and the Romans, Vikings and French have all invaded in the proper sense of the world. (“What have the Romans ever done for us?” in the words of Monty Python.) We are a mongrel nation and always have been. “We must all start somewhere.” “[T]here is no reason why populations should not be part of our cultural heritage.” But she will have to start with, “our gutters, bitter earth.”

Hoary Alison is in neat, spare (like the botanical information) three-line stanzas. Easy on the eye, easy to read (useful for publication in a non-poetry-specialist outlet). There is no overt rhyme nor meter but the language is understated, deliberately non-“poetic”, in keeping with the botany script (and, perhaps, accessibility, again).

How many people have read about Hoary Alison over the years? It’s taken Jo Bell’s poem to take her out of botany (and undergraduate sniggers) and bring her to life.

[edit: the next morning] I missed a line from my notes. That’s what comes of hurrying to post when tired:

“Hoary” brings us back to the “Hoary (old/thorny) question” of immigration; a debate as old as these British hills and vales.
[end of edit]

*Slavalanche – a portmanteau neologism seen on FaceBook shortly after Borris Johnson’s recent Rivers of Blood (= invading vampyrs) speech. If the owner would care to step forward I would be glad to credit them.

Hoary Alison by Jo Bell

Geographical and Temporal Distributions
of Alyssum Alyssoides and Berteroa Incana
– Karran and Rich, 2003

Precision has no gallantry. Medium,
grey with hairs, sometimes obscurely
An extremely common weed;

our heroine is often found on roads
and railways.
Casual of waste ground,
docks, rubbish heaps, etc.

To be fair, the derelict simply offered
habitats in which she could establish
We all must start somewhere.

She thrives in bare places, takes hold
as she can. Sometimes casual
for one year only: sometimes persistent.

She moves on, little noticed; Eastern,
often introduced with foreign seed.
Behaves in Britain as in Europe.

She throws down roots like gauntlets,
settles with a degree of permanence
in some cultivated areas;
seeks better habitat.

We understand the British climate may be
sub-optimal to long-term survival.
Given its historical occurrence here,

there is no reason why populations
should not be part of our cultural heritage.

Welcome to our gutters, bitter earth.

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5 Responses to Hoary Alison by Jo Bell

  1. Jo Bell says:

    Lovely to see the poem discussed like this, thanks so much. [NB WordPress has lost the line breaks as it often does – the poem is in tercets or three-line stanzas, so do please see it like that in your mind’s eye]. Incidentally the quotes are from a real text, and are lifted absolutely verbatim with the exception that I changed ‘it’ to ‘she’ whenever the pronoun appeared. I too am generally suspicious of found poetry, thinking it just bloody lazy a lot of the time – but was converted by the wonderful site verbatimpoetry.blogspot.com which has very fine examples, and takes a completely purist approach. Thanks again Fran!

    • Myfanwy Fox says:

      Thank *you* Jo. I love verbatimpoetry blog, too. I loved doing this. If I have time before work tomorrow I shall attempt to sort out the poem’s formatting. In the meantime, apologies for the mess from copy n paste. (WordPress can be so aggravating with formating.)

  2. Very good analysis Fran. it is also interesting to compare the Morning Star version with this one which is tighter, feels more poetic and smooth. focusing solely on the Hoary Alison rather than including the narrator’s internal voice.

  3. Pingback: A Journey with Dragons’ Breath | Fox Tales

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