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I presented the following talk at YALE UNION (YU) in Portland, Oregon on October 25, 2012 as part of an series of exhibitions and lectures addressing the printed works of Ian Hamilton Finlay (July 2012 – July 2013).  The talk was co-presented with Reed College.

I want to begin with the idea of citation as a form of reading.  Often we consider citation a purely textual undertaking.  Yet, in the case of Finlay’s work, I want to discuss citation as not only a textual concern, but also as an anti-hierarchical expression of imagination and enthusiasm.  This notion includes, but is not contained by Finlay’s enthusiasm for and imagination of place, history, and language, among many other concerns.

In my discussion, I hope to deploy a type of citational collage in order to move around and into one of Finlay’s untitled works from 1999, which I will refer to as, “Flower Class Corvettes.”

The writers that I will reference in this citational construction, include Guy Davenport, Herman Melville, Emily Dickenson and Susan Howe.

Starting first with Davenport, I want to begin with the opening remarks from his essay “The Geography of the Imagination”:

The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination…Language itself is a continuously imaginative act.

Much of Finlay’s work investigates exactly this concept of the “difference of imagination.”

Following this line of inquiry into the imaginative let us imagine that we are in Forest Park here in Portland, as Tim and I were earlier this week.  Walking down the man-made paths one encounters an abundance of kinds of things—trees, leaves, stones, plants, mosses.  Investigating even one of these natural objects opens up an entire world of inquiry.  Let us consider just the forbs (herbaceous flowering plant) and ferns of Forest Park.  Abundant distinctions can be made in size, shape and color of these forbs and ferns.  Each appears unique and irreducible.  No one definition contains the entire object. Yet, to make-sense of this diversity, each class of forb and fern has been given a name.  In Forest Park specifically, we can see the sword fern, vanilla leaf, starflower (Trientalis borealis), wild ginger, western trillium, redwood sorrel, and maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum).   This act of naming, even at its most scientific, is itself an imaginative act.

Sword Fern

Sword Fern

Maindenhair Fern

Maindenhair Fern

Let us consider one more image before returning to “Flower Class Corvettes.”  This is list of illustrations of species of mosses and lichens found in Olympic National Park.

This list and the list Finlay cites in “Flower Class Corvettes” share many formal characteristics common to the recognizable features of the list of illustrations.  Yet, Finlay’s list does not have an attached referent. The illustrations are absent, at a remove, distant.  Finlay situates the reader in multiple imaginative locations—the place of the card, the place of the book by Preston and Raven, which Finlay is citing, and the place of these actual objects.

To approach these places, we might next ask what is a Borage, Aubretia, or Woodruff?   With basic research we find that each of these names are classifications for both flowers and naval warships. These specific ships, known as Flower Class Corvettes, were used by the allied navies during World War II.  The Royal Navy assigned each of these corvettes or warships a flower name.

With research, we might say of the Aubretia that:

The Aubretia is a genus of about 12 species of flowering plants in the cabbage family Brassicaceae. The genus is named after Claude Aubriet, a French flower-painter. It originates from southern Europe east to central Asia but is now a common garden escape throughout Europe.


In May, Aubretia carried out an operation, which would help to lead the German Navy down the “Primrose” (as the operation was rather aptly called) path to destruction.

Garden escape.

Primrose Path.

Flowers named after a painter of flowers.

These names for boats and flowers saturate or cross-pollinate one another, or perhaps as Emily Dickinson wrote, “A word is inundation, when it comes from the sea.”

Finlay requires of his readers more then just simple definition.  The reader must become in Melville’s terms, the sub-sub librarian of Moby Dick.  Describing his process of the articulation of the characteristics of the sperm whale, the narrator of Moby Dick writes, “I care not to perform this part my task methodically; but shall be content to produce the desired impression by separate citations of items…and from these citations, I take it—the conclusion aimed at will naturally follow of itself.”

Finlay places the reader amongst a myriad of physical, historical, and temporal situations.  We are on walk in Turkey alongside a limestone wall where purple, four-leafed Aubretia blossoms from the stone.  We are also soldiers on the Aubretia in November 1942, deployed at Gibraltor for coastal patrol as part of Operation Torch, the allied invasion of French North Africa.  At the same time we are readers, exploring the illustrations of Preston and Raven’s Flower Class Corvettes, or perhaps we are students looking at this work by Finlay in the Reed Archives.

Through his citation of this list, Finlay illustrates a metaphor or a type of metamorphosis in which the flower becomes the naval ship, the naval ship a flower.   Through this naming, Finlay acknowledges that we live in a world of suggestive nomenclature, where metaphors are often already structured into our way of describing the world.   The world of the boat and the flower was Finlay’s world.  In a letter to poet Ian Stephen in 1994, Finlay wrote:

I sometimes think the things which are most important to me never get mentioned, far less discussed.  Of course it is difficult to know what to say, or more difficult than writing about ‘controversial’ things. A lot of my work is to do with straight forward affection (liking, appreciation), and it always amazes me how little affection for ANYTHING there is in art these days.

Finlay’s enthusiasm for the language and imagery of vessels and plant-life spanned more than a quarter of a century.  Consider this early poem of Finlay’s from 1965, titled Cythera, after the Greek Island, known in myth as the island of Aphrodite:

To further expose both the similarities and differences operating within Finlay’s metaphor of flowers and boats, I want to provide a list of characteristics or concerns from which we can now in the moment or over time explore this metaphor.  As Finlay writes in his “Interpolations in Hegel” from 1984, “Consecutive sentences are the beginning of the secular.”

Of warships and flowers, let us think on the following:



The Natural

The Terrestrial

The Aquatic

What lives on water

Propagation and survival

Pistols and cannon blossoms


Just as Finlay’s work displays an enthusiasm for topics as diverse as the military and plant life, his work concurrently demands a type of enthusiasm from the reader.  As Susan Howe writes, “I am an enthusiast trying to be a critic.”  Let us consider enthusiasm as a type of study—an alternative type of scholarship.  This is the method of the anarchist-scholar—to take up residence beside a work, to be alongside it, or as Howe describes, “not to explain the work, not to translate it, but to meet the work in writing.”

Clarkia in October                        p. 23

A piquant and graceful little flower is the Clarkia, a friendly wayside flower of the spring and summer months.  No other native bloom can claim so strange a combination of varying shades of red, pink and purple colors; in some instances these bright hues predominate even in the foliage and seed vessels, consequently, as one writer humorously expresses it, “suggests a blushing disposition.”


I was taken out of my trawler and sent across the Atlantic to Bermuda to take over my third command—a corvette, H.M.S. Clarkia on loan to the USA. Clarkia was one of the first of the Flower Class corvettes to be launched and was, and still is, the oldest in commission.

Wayside flower of the spring.

Seed vessels.


A Blushing disposition.

Finlay’s writings beget more writing and it is with imagination and enthusiasm that we meet him on his terms.  Often reading Finlay’s works require these initial steps of exploration and discovery, of situating oneself in the contexts he provides.  Yet, as Howe says of Dickinson and Melville, “Their writing vaults the streams.  They lead me in nomad spaces.”  Finlay’s works are inter-dimensional, moving not only from text to text and from the textual to the spatial, but also from language into the realm of imagination.