Wild Orchids
by Simon Fletcher
34 poems, 36 pages
Price: £5.95
ISBN: 978-1-739361808
Publisher: Offa’s Press
To order: www.offaspress.co.uk

Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

‘Wild Orchids’ is the latest poetry pamphlet from British prize-winning poet and freelance writer Simon Fletcher. Living in the Oswestry Hills, Fletcher describes in sonnets, villanelles and free verse forms the fleeting beauty of the natural world in his corner of Shropshire, England. All too aware of the ravages of climate change and species decline, this collection makes us appreciate all the more what we still have left to admire and care for in an endangered landscape that is rapidly vanishing from our eyes. Twelve of the poems in this collection were ‘commended’ in the Michael Marks Environmental Poet of the Year Award, 2022.

Over the last few years, Fletcher has taken a keen interest in the wild orchids that grow in the meadows and worked-out quarries in the Oswestry Hills. Most of them were familiar to him only from illustrated floras as he had never lived where orchids grew in any great number before. But the sight of early purple orchids scattered in a wood among wild garlic and bluebells quickly became the inspiration for this collection. As Fletcher says in his blog, ‘What’s close to home is often the most powerful thing we can write about whether it’s coltsfoot in the pavements, a mountain ash in a Welsh lane or a pyramidal orchid in a Shropshire meadow.’

The focus of this collection is on the nature and condition of the local hills and abandoned quarries. The poems show us what we’re doing to the countryside and the wider world, but they also highlight the specific beauties that, unless we’re more considerate in future, we might just lose.

Orchidologists and botanists will be very familiar with the plants that are mentioned within this book. Among the orchids, Fletcher gives us the early purple, which is one of the first to bloom during Spring; the common-spotted, which blooms between June and August; the bee whose velvety lip looks like a female bee and the pyramidal, a small orchid whose pink flower spike mimics the shape of a pyramid, a shape that is reflected in the visual layout of the poem itself.

Orchids aside, many other flora are mentioned in these poems which track the seasons of the year, most notably, wild flowers with their evocative old country names such as Old Man’s Beard and Jack by the Hedge. Small insects such as butterflies, grasshoppers, wood mice and ‘heliocentric lizards’ populate these poems as well. That which could be easily overlooked because it is small in scale but vast in number is brought to our attention, not least, because of its importance in the overall scheme of things.

Small birds are celebrated here: the nuthatch, blue tit, dunnock, goldfinch, goldcrest, and wren. Their presence is a reminder of how fragile and vulnerable life can be. In ‘Last Cuckoos’ Fletcher is more aware of their absence than their presence: ‘And now they seem so precious, rare; / I seek them out in cuckoo land, / attuned to them, all eyes and ears, / my bright binoculars to hand.’ The Wyre Forest on the Shropshire / Worcestershire border was formerly a great resort for cuckoos but is not so anymore.

Dutch elm disease and the more recent phenomenon of ash dieback are touched upon in ‘A passing thought’ and the absence of hedgerows and all the bounty that they used to contain is brought to our attention in ‘Hedge’. Something of the destruction of nature is brought home to us in ‘Only Connect’ where the gap between plant and butterfly is all too clearly conveyed to us visually on the page. Something similar is achieved visually in ‘Hare’ but this time the gaps between the lines are used to convey the way the animal, the ‘fleet-footed pugilist.…measurer of margins’ leaps from one side of the page to the other. The alliteration and the caesuras are reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon verse forms.

Several images caught my attention throughout this book: the ‘scruffy toothbrush heads’ of butterburs; ‘sulphurous catkins’; ‘wild carrots’ that are ‘no more than dried-up nets’ in late September and ‘marjoram’ that is no more than ‘a rattle of dust’. In ‘Bee Orchid’ we read about

A pollen-dusted bumble bee
head down embracing a flower;

custard-streaked chocolate buns,
lavender wings on cocktail sticks;

jewelled crumbs of a gaudy picnic,
glimpsed once, then lost to view.

Fletcher’s acute eye for detail which finds its expression in the use of inventive vocabulary is just one of the many strengths of this collection which should be viewed as a rallying cry to action rather than a lament for what we have already lost. In ‘A Greener Song’ Fletcher tells us that ‘It doesn’t have to be like this, / we know the steps we have to take, / the things we can do, with a will, / for nature and our children’s sake.’

This review was first published in Littoral Magazine (UK) and is reprinted with kind permission.


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