A Poet’s Book 2: Nettles and Printers

White Dead Nettle

As a grownup, I can’t say I’m fond of nettles – even their roots sting and nettle soup is awful. But as a child I had a love-hate relationship with them. Could you catch hold of a nettle and not get stung? (yes, if you pinch the middle of a leaf); was there a dock leaf nearby to ease a sting? (yes! amazingly, they do like to grow together); was there a nearby parent to make a dock bandage? (yes, definitely); did the sting hurt? (yes, always). But it’s the dead nettle that I have remained attached to – the harmless, flowering variety in white or purple – easy to miss, easy to mistake. It was one of the first flowers my dad taught me to identify and although, unlike him, I’ve never been able to remember its latin name (lamium album and lamium purpureum – not even in the same family as the stinging sort) I still like to pick it for a table-top vase of wild flowers. I like its square hollow stem, its star-shaped sepals, its flowers like open mouths.

This drawing is in pen and ink – my art teacher banned me from using an actual pen, so this is drawn with a broken cocktail stick! Very hard to control, but then I think that was her aim. The paper is made of layers of tissue and paint, which I’ve then scored like school writing paper. The printer objected strongly to printing a poem on this thick, lumpy excuse of a sheet of paper. But eventually it did oblige.

The poem? Well, that’s trying to hold my ambivalent feelings about both nettles and families. Love, with a bit of a sting.