“what there is to love about collaboration”

Pharmapoetica: a dispensary of poetry, Chris McCabe and Maria Vlotides, Pedestrian Publishing, £15
reviewed by Kathrine Sowerby

pharmapoetica
Recently shortlisted for The Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, Pharmapoetica: a dispensary of poetry is a collaboration between poet Chris McCabe and medical herbalist and artist Maria Vlotides.

Originally intended as an art installation, ‘a medical cabinet of poems’, Vlotides commissioned McCabe to write about 10 herbs from a choice of 20 that she presented to him along with her descriptions of the herbs. The constraints that McCabe then added – 10 poems in 7 days, the search for an extract of each herb and the length restricted by the size of a label – lead to economical yet potent poems imbued with the love and strains of parent/child relationships and the practicalities of family life.

I ask at the bar : do you have any absinthe?
Answer : No. We are parents. We have a boy.
The last drug we took was at his birth.

[‘WORMWOOD’]

Written during a week spent on a Cornish campsite, the poems, simply titled after each chosen herb, are intimate and honest in a way the scaffolds of collaboration often permit. His wife and son, who he calls ‘the boy’ as he did in THE RESTRUCTURE, an earlier collection, feature in existential poems that smell and taste of the seaside.

…The Boy tends
the earth in yellow wellingtons. With the
wisdom of seasons : he plants what he knows.

[‘SAGE’]

Despite, or perhaps because of the transient quality of the poems, I found them moving. They flit in unexpected directions, underpinned by references to McCabe’s own experience of mental illness and its cures.

When the boy was less than one
I lost my mind in the holiday camp.
I lost it with the plastic eggs on the sand dunes.
I lost it with an elephant called Anxious.

[‘ST JOHN’S WORT’]

Two books, the poems by Chris McCabe and the notes & photographs by Maria Vlotides, are bound in a wraparound cover, with the option of reading the poems on their own, printed in a fragile grey or, as I preferred, on the labels of apothecary jars in the notes & photographs with Vlotides’ descriptive history and usage of each herb on the opposite page.

With introductions and a foreword by Mario Petrucci there is a satisfying amount to read around the project. The enthusiasm of the collaborators is infectious and illustrates what there is to love about collaboration in all its forms; work born out of passions shared, that would not have existed otherwise.

Kathrine Sowerby
http://kathrinesowerby.com/

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