A Collection Nothing Like “The Svalbard Global Seed Vault” by Nancy Lazar, with Critique by Brendan McEntee

 

A Collection that is Nothing Like “The Svalbard Global Seed Vault”

I make packages for seeds out of old envelopes,
their cellophane windows cut in half and taped on one end.
My collection will never see a cold underground vault.
I keep them in a basket on top of my bookcase,

scant carapace for my pocketed prospects, like the Chinese
Princess Flowering Tree
I brought home from Longwood Gardens.
I don’t know if I labeled it for the species, origin,
or the way the flowers made me feel. The purple pods

flew like paper dancers, and I just had to have some.
Another treasure from that day is marked Atlas,
a cone from the conifer that towered over us.
You said forget it, I could never grow such a beast in our yard.

But I had bonsai in mind for the sprig that might spring
from its tightly wrapped fist, something to make small
and to keep. I buy seeds too; I still have a few California Poppy-
sunset mix,
and Mammoth Sunflowers.

But the ones I cherish most come from my garden:
Dan’s big tomatoes and Nancy’s most juicy
slimed on paper towels ready for the next time of planting.
Two packs from my mother’s garden read:

Red with tall flower, and Jewels of Opar. These Florida offerings
grew for a season and then died. I’m sure Svalbard has the expertise
I lack; when the winter night of humanity has passed
some good gardener will know how to bring their seeds to life.

Nancy Lazar

Critique by Brendan McEntee

What makes this poem most satisfying is the interconnection between the narrator, the memory of the seeds and the potential for another growth cycle. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is just that, a repository of seeds to crop the world in the event of catastrophe (http://www.croptrust.org/main/arctic.php?itemid=211). The collection described by the poet, and by default the poet herself, is positioned as being humbler, smaller than the grand scheme of the seed vault, but therein lies the magic: for while the seed vault protects humanity in the abstract, the poem is concerned with the cycles of being human: growth, death and memory.
The reader is never presented with flowers, just memories of blooms and the promise and pleasure at watching the future growth (“The purple pods/flew like paper dancers, and I just had to have some.”) The narrator however, isn’t the only character present: there’s “you,” the tempering practical person (“You said forget it, I could never grow such a beast in our yard”), and a mother, the direct progenitor, who provides seeds which have joined the narrator’s collection. There is a nice allegorical read in this, however, the practical read, the mother provides “these Florida offerings/grew for a season and then died.” It isn’t the plants, or even the seeds which are important here, rather, the memory of the mother which lives on in the packets. The seed hold the promise, and the narrator laments on her inability to grow these seeds that her mother has given her:

I’m sure Svalbard has the expertise
I lack; when the winter night of humanity has passed
some good gardener will know how to bring their seeds to life.

The narrator identifies herself as being a bad gardener and as such, the seeds become keepsakes for the life that she leads. There’s no lamentation over this inability to create, as her mother did, but rather an acknowledgement of circumstance. In the end, the poem fulfills the title—this collection really is nothing like the Svalbard seeds—these are singularly possessed, awash with personal value. There is a life lived behind those memories and the poet provides us with a glimpse of that which makes living more than a biological imperative.

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