REVIEW: The Book of Feral Flora by Amanda Ackerman

by Scott Russell Morris

You’re not supposed the judge books by the cover, but I totally judged this one by its title and partially by its minimalist cover. “Feral Flora” is just very fun to say. The idea is delightful, and a book that can delight linguistically and idea-wise in just one title is worth picking up. (The cover is neat, too).

Inside the book, things get much more complicated, even as they continue to delight both by the sheer genius of the idea and the linguistic play. The first things most readers will immediately notice—and probably get thrown off by—are the multiple tables of contents. The first is a straight- forward Table of Contents that accurately and in a standard format tells us you what to expect in the rest of the book. Then there is a Table of Contents “written by Iris” and one written by “Morning Glory” and one written by Iris “later in the day.” These latter Tables of Contents are jumbles, unrecognizable, practically unreadable remixes of the original. Flipping through the book, you also find other such remixes, all written by trees and flowers, all unreadable in the conventional sense.

But not without delight. There is a certain delight in the randomness, the feralness of the floral prose. My favorite—based purely on my aesthetic, because by what else can poetry written by flowers be judged?—is a stanza in “Feral Iridium Animate Matter:”

STRUCTURE

written by Iris (later in the day)

 earth, else, you, interim? husband did and you B, and and husband and homes of of homes husband and of and what you and and forth between she was and A and do When When she in When When if B, did you, interim? […] If wished well, If the world to be would ars bare My ay bare appear apear of fists petals. of flowers. flowers. petals. of of with flowers. of arms would arms with appear of wished Buried flowers. I wished to to be

A note at the end of the book reveals that these poems, “written” by Iris and Maple and Mulberry, were generated after hooking the plants to sensors which recorded their reactions to Ackerman reading her poems allowed. Ackerman says,

In the composition, I used several somatic devices, such as altering my body through the scent of orris root, physically touching the plants, or ingesting irises. I wanted to alter my own sensory capacities through direct encounters with the iris plants themselves.

The result, is that about half of the book is attempting to bring us into “direct encounters” with the plants themselves, altering our perception and our definitions of poetry. There are passages, like in the chapter “Short Stones”, where the page does nothing but repetitively list types of trees. It is hard not to skim over these passages. It is also difficult not to want to read them aloud repeatedly. There is something both engrossing and gross about the way the plants have (de)composed these pieces.

The first chapter—which is more like lyric essay than prose poem—says of the narrator’s garden, “I wanted to call them pretty but they were weeds.” You might think the same thing about many of the poems in this book. They are pretty, but not in a way you feel comfortable with. It is tempting to think these poems written by plants may be a trick of some sort. But you also can’t deny that there is a certain wonder in the thought of plants writing poetry.

However, the flower-written poems are only portion of the text, and though it is the most showy part, and I think the part that will likely get the most press, it isn’t the most enjoyable part for the reader. Ackerman has other tricks up her sleave that are just as frustrating and delighting, but more rewarding. Most of the other works are somewhere between prose poetry and narrative. As mentioned, the first chapter reads like essay, as do portions of “Short Stones.” Most of the other chapters, however, lean heavily towards magical realism or even fairy tale. In one, two sisters wait out their time in the belly of a whale. In another, the chapter reads like an essay about minimalism, household items, and the narrator’s uncertain love life. In another, a witch tells a girl she has the power to heal, but the girl doubts that gift. In my favorite of the chapters, Ackerman retells the story of Hansel and Gretel, weaving it with the story of a dissatisfied business man who ends up turning into the witch who eats the children. The chapter is called “One Heart Is Better than No Heart: Emerging Buds” and starts with the tantalizing line, “It is time the story changes for good because it is an old story.”

Then, the next chapter of the book is titled “One Heart I Better than No Heart: (To be Read Separately): Regeneration. The Stalk Re-buds.” This second story starts with the same line: “It is time the story changes for good because it is an old story.” And then proceeds to tell the exact same story as the chapter before it. Word for word the same. Or close enough—it becomes a tedious game to check every sentence, but I didn’t find any that were different. The only difference comes because the first chapter starts on the right page and the second on the left. The effect is disorienting, but pleasantly so. Phrases you didn’t remember reading you go back and check, only to find them there. Details you’d already forgotten feel odd. You realize that you remembered the details in the wrong order. Like all the chapters in the book, you can’t help wondering if it is a luxurious trick. But you also wonder if it is the highest form of art, which makes you question everything you knew about how narratives should be told and how poetry is shaped.

In brief: Amanda Ackerma’s The Book of Feral Flora is a wild ride across genres and styles, a reading experience more than just a mere book of poetry or narrative. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely worth a read.

Buy if from Les Figues Press for $17.00

Scott Russell Morris is an English PhD student at Texas Tech University and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. He is currently working on a memoir-in-essays about food, family, and travel. Visit him at www.skoticus.com

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