A fragile dance: Mark Roberts reviews ‘pressed specimens’ by Moya Costello

pressed specimens by Moya Costello, Beir Bua Press 2022

I first came across Beir Bua Press when they published Thrills and Difficulties: Being a Marxist Poet in 21st Century Ireland a pamphlet by the late, great Kevin Higgins (the essay had earlier appeared, in an earlier form in issue 32 of Rochford Street Review. It was a pleasure, therefore, to discover that the Tipperary based publisher had published Moya Costello’s latest collection.

pressed specimens is a unique chapbook. Costello has taken images of dried, pressed plant specimens from the collection of the Medicinal Plant Herbarium at Southern Cross University (Lismore Campus) as inspiration for a series of prose poems. As Costello says in her introduction there is an element of Ekphrastic poetry to the work in the collection. In ancient. Greece, the term ekphrasis was applied to the skill of describing a thing with vivid detail, and this can be seen in this collection with each finely crafted poem being presented along side the pressed specimen which expired it. We see this in the second prose poem ‘flung’, which is in response to a pressed specimen of the Dusky Coral Pea (Kennedia rubicunda). The opening imagines how the specimen was found:

 The Dusk Coral Pea found clung around a Banksia on the headland of coastal bush, Crescent Head.

 This is recorded information, partially captured on the specimen sheet itself. But from this point Costello imagines the scenario that lead to the static pressed image. For her there was a dance leading up to this moment:

To cling, it has (re)constructed a dance – a ballet circle. Its audience: furred baby pods, and their matching-coated offspiring – furred baby pods, spear-tipped for full-length growth – standing around/mid dance.

 This almost suggests that there is a parallel natural world that springs to life when we are not watching, or when we return to the artificial shelter of of our houses. As in the best Ekphrastic poems the words provide another way of reading the art work, or in this case, the pressed specimen. Here we look back on the curved stems of the Dusky Coral Pea, reaching out to the edge of the paper and imagine the movement and dance of stem, leaves and flowers in the wind:

 The principal dancers: the prima-ballerina flowers: thin forms of silken, elongated, soft prong-arms, svelte with torso tall: sirens on the side, away from the muddle huddle, inviting in to the quiet mayhem, co-joining in the curlicue cling flung round.

This playfulness extends through the entire collection. In ‘versus’ for example, a poem in response to Lemon Myrtle, the poem starts with a list:

 young women . young lady . girl . schoolgirl . slip of a girl . girly .
missy . lass .madian . maid . nymphet . belle . baby girl . lassie .
colleen . babe .. chick . bit . bit . doll . teenybopper ..popsy . bird . bint .
poppet ,boad . dame patootie . mot shelia . filly . baggage ..
bobby-soxer . damsel . nymph . wench

the terms start out innocently enough but quickly descend into the offensive and condescending. All these terms form an initial response to the flower head of the Lemon Myrtle, and the poem, in its middle sections, returns to a more descriptive analysis of the specimen. Before the last line shakes it all up and makes us wonder how we got here:

sternish tree like a foreign affairs consulate

 In ’not unlike’ Costello returns to the factual and the descriptive. This is poem about the White Cedar and we learn that it is:

Picked from the ‘rare plants’ section of the Lismore Rainforest Botanic Gardens. But the White Cedar is functional as an overstory plant whose caterpillar droppings generate invitational ground for (other) rarities.

But the playfulness of these specimens is never far away and once again there is a hint of the dance:

The kiddy leaves share the ballet pink in freckles and thin stripes.

There is a freshness to way these prose poems move between the descriptive and the imagined – often playful. The images Costello responds to are scientific specimens, capturing a sample of a plant and presenting it for examination. Costello accepts this challenge and responds in unexpected ways, imagining these plants moving once again in the breeze, bringing new life to these static exhibits.

In her introduction Costello refers to this cross over between art and science, of cooperation and collaboration between scientist and artist. But she also refers to the political act behind these prose poems. The plants she is working with are dead, preserved but not alive recorded “in an era of extinction”. This is an important understanding as these specimens could easily become. over coming years, one of the only record of extinct, or increasingly rare plants.

 pressed specimens is an important work. It is both a detailed and beautiful response to art and science and manages to bring the static plant specimens to life and allow them to dance off the page. But above all it reminds us of the fragility of the ecosystem which we are continuing to attack and the need to use whatever means at our disposal to protect it.

 – Mark Roberts

Moya Costello reading from pressed specimens


Mark Roberts is a writer, critic and publisher based in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. He is a founding editor of Rochford Street Review and, along with Linda Adair, runs Rochford Press. His latest poetry collection, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in 2016. He currently has a number of manuscripts looking for a publisher.

 pressed specimens is available from https://beirbuapress.com/2022/02/16/pressed-specimens-prose-poems-from-the-southern-cross-plant-science-herbarium-by-moya-costello/