As the world grapples with the tragic human cost of the global pandemic and its aftermath, the need for kindness and gratitude has become more important than ever. The Ministry of Flowers is in many ways a book for our times, one that offers hope in a changing world. The poems call into stark relief the brevity of human life, while also emphasizing the urgent need to connect with others and offer acts of kindness as a way of healing and moving forward.
Taking its title from an Emily Dickinson poem, the book explores how flowers, both real and metaphorical, are at the heart of a kinder world. With a strong ecological focus, the poems celebrate nature’s continual ministry in our lives and highlight the need to respect the ecosystems that sustain us. The Ministry of Flowers speaks eloquently to a society in need, in which compassion as well as forgiveness (of both self and others) become the seeds of the gentler, fairer world we seek.
Andrea Witzke Slot is a London-based poet and fiction writer. She is author of two poetry collections: To find a new beauty (Gold Wake Press, 2012) and The Ministry of Flowers (Valley Press UK, 2020). Her short fiction has won prizes with Able Muse and Fiction International, and recent poetry and stories can be found in such places as Stand Magazine, American Literary Review, Fictive Dream, Litro, Mid-American Review, Acumen and Ambit. After teaching for many years (primary school in the UK, community college in Texas and at the University of Illinois at Chicago), Andrea now lives in London where she works daily to capture the strange wonder of our human and natural worlds in words, paints, piano and photography. More about her art and words can be found at www.andreawitzkeslot.com.
Andrea Witzke Slot places her new collection, The Ministry of Flowers, under the aegis of Emily Dickinson, drawing on #905 in particular for her book’s title and for one of the metaphors that shape the book:
Between My Country—and the Others— There is a Sea— But Flowers—negotiate between us— As Ministry.
The poet created the cover image and the line drawings that punctuate the poems, all carefully observed flowers. Dickinson’s language shows up again as the title of one poem very early in the collection and another much later:
Between my country and the others, as ministry I cannot hear your answer, sister, but I know midsummer blooms. The bridge? I’m crossing it with asters in hand— modest gifts of sincere exchange. I’ve come to sprig your country’s paths with forget-me-not blues, all hues of hyacinth tolls and gentian dues. Please open your door. I have changed.
Slot’s poem makes use of Dickinson’s brevity though her voice is very different, and echoes the earlier poet’s idiosyncratic use of dashes and rhyme. This poem reaches out across a divide that may be partially physical, as the poet has left her birth country to live in London, but must also be relational. The speaker begs for the door to be opened not only because she bears flowers but because she has changed in some essential way. In yet another poem, “Letters from Abroad,” she refers to “My Country” in Dickinson’s signature capital letters and reaches over the water to hear
...I LOVE YOU calling back calling back calling falling light as grace….
In fact, many of the poems send their words out to encounter those the speaker may have lost in the ordinary way of things (a grandmother or a friend dying, a child growing into her own independence) or through addiction or illness.
However, we should not take “country” simply as a metaphor for one person’s identity and location within a relationship. In “The Time-Being of Oak, and this too is a political poem,” Slot writes that the Oaks—again, words capitalized as Dickinson would do—are governed by “kindness, a code of ethics.” The book’s other epigraph is from the Dalai Lama: “My religion is kindness.” The kindness of these trees stands in contrast with the “roads and pavements and fields sown with aversion and hate,” and their roots work to undermine that bitter ground. Kindness is an active force in these poems, a political force to restore and protect the net of relationships among us but also between ourselves and the world.
One of the most moving poems in the book is “And so everything must come to a stop,” an elegy for Rhino founder and our dear friend, Helen Degen Cohen. Slot served as a Rhino editor in past years, and collaborated with Cohen to edit the late writer’s novel, which Slot is still working to revise and publish. This long lament ends with language that poignantly recalls the novel:
and from your open hand sheets of paper catch in the wind and I run to them, pulling them close as you make your way over the tracks to a sister who waits at the edge of a field, still and cool and bright—
That is what Slot herself does, not only as a guardian of her friend’s legacy but as a poet of loss and recovery, flying west through time zones to her birth country, back in time to where she might retrieve what has been allowed to slip from her grasp, and from our grasp as well. (review published at Rhino Reviews https://rhinopoetry.org/reviews/the-m...)
I love the frame of this collection and that each poem includes a gentle pencil drawing of a flower. Her words are eloquent and delicate and yet at the same time evoke a quiet strength. One of my favorites is “To my daughter who came into my bedroom last night” because it so perfectly captures what my struggle is as a parent - how to know when to stop watering.
Here is what I wrote for my book blurb for this wonderful book:
One might predict from this book’s gentle title that the contents would be a tidy garden, small in thoughts. But like the Dickinson whose line inspired it, this book is a forest, a wild meadow, and the centering astonishment too of a singular open bloom. I’d begun to think that no poetry could reach me this year. I have had a little fence around me. These poems – their deft form, extraordinary titles – are so intimate in their griefs and passions, exhaustions, tendernesses, so distinctly womanist, that I am, gratefully, shaken.
I ordered this book as soon as it was available on this "side of the pond," and Slot's new collection doesn't disappoint. I opened the book and read "Remember When We Thought We'd Live Forever?" and literally cried. It took me a few minutes to compose myself. That's how powerful it is. I highly recommend this intensely personal and breathtaking poetry.
This collection of beautifully crafted poems comes like an unexpected bouquet that brightened the room and lasts for weeks. Each poem sings and then echos long after the book is closed. It is such a gift in these difficult times.
The Ministry of Flowers invokes Emily Dickinson as it imagines a world in which ministry and caregiving are a form of exchange between nations, people, and all living creatures. These lyric poems exquisitely recall the urgency and passion of youth while showing the reader how to age gracefully and find both “new fire” and “time to rail.” Hope is “the thing with feathers,” but memory is “more a wren / that is / hardly noticeable / rarely catchable.” Slot notices, pays keen attention to, and captures the small moments and “muddled compost” of everyday life. This collection holds out its hand with “forget-me-not blues, all hues / of hyacinth tolls and gentian dues” in a heartfelt appeal for kindness that opened my mind and heart to the beauty of this “rough world.”
Fasten your seatbelts! From the first poem to the last you are in for a thrilling ride. Don’t worry, you’re in the hands of a skilled driver. Not one to race heedlessly, Andrea Witzke Slot knows just what pace to take on dangerous curves.
The book takes its title from Emily Dickinson’s poem #905. She invokes her muse with the second poem in the collection, “Between my country and the others–a sea.” One of the last poems is called: “Between my country and the others/As ministry.” This poem is about the painful process of finding forgiveness and forgiving: one of the main themes of the book. The flowers offered as she crosses a bridge to her “sister” stand for the work of the poet. This is no dozen carnations purchased at the grocery, these flowers represent an opening of the self to extreme scrutiny. “Please open our door. I have changed.”
Reconnecting with loved ones who’ve been wronged requires dealing with ghosts. Slot converses with the patients of the psychologist who formerly owned her house. Her stairway reverberates with the steps of those who creaked up and down them. In “Disguises” a deceased friend comes to visit after midnight “in your absence, we talk/ and, sometimes, we laugh.”
The poetry shares very intimate moments as Slot speaks of her annual breast exam or of sitting at a truck stop with truckers who awaited their turn to shower. As she waits for the tow truck that never arrives, she observes the truckstop with startling images: “The odour of stale hotdogs coils/Around this truck stop of quiet men.” She writes about her baby in “The Incubator.” It has “sapling lungs” and is an “unwrapped bundle of earth, bone, flesh.” There are sensual poems about making love and about carrying a sleeping three-year-old to the toilet. Direct address to the reader heightens the intimacy in poems such as “Remember when we thought we’d live forever?”
Despite the serious tone of the collection, there’s lots of humor. In “Self-portrait, Desk,” a persona poem, the desk hears a piano upstairs and “wonders how wood can make such a noise.” A narrative poem in epistolary form, “Dear Police Officer,” tells how the poet got a parking ticket in Chicago when she couldn’t drag herself away from Sonia Sanchez’s poetry performance.
I started with the image of a joy ride. But after that experience, you might feel the adrenalin rush but not remember many details. With Slot’s work, the images linger: a body collapsing like the circus tent billowing down or her grandmother finding her husband asphyxiated in his car. The plate with what would have been his last lunch waits on the table. Andrea Witzke Slot probes moments of terror and tenderness. There is so much to find in this short book: poems about social justice, poems about llamas and slugs in the garden. Readers, start your engines and race to the bookstore, or perhaps it would be safer to order from this website.
Andrea Witzke Slot’s The Ministry of Flowers is quiet and composed, full of grief and yearning for what we must leave behind. This longing, however, is not without hope. And though hope is “the thing with feathers,” Slot turns us to another of Emily Dickinson’s poems as we navigate motherhood, illness, love, and how time grips each. The name of the collection grew from a Dickinson poem, which also serves as part of the book’s epigraph:
Between My Country—and the Others— There is a Sea— But Flowers—negotiate between us— As Ministry.
Slot, herself a transplant to the U.K. from the United States of her birth, is no stranger to the Seas and Countries that negotiate between speaker and reader, but it is, instead, the flowers she offers us in her gift of these poems. These flowers are the buds that bloom from loss into acceptance and anticipation as we grapple with time and how it changes us.
As we navigate time, it feels all too appropriate that we begin at the end. The last line of the first poem of the collection reads, “All around you, people are / slowly waving goodbye” (13). In a sense, this prepares us for the speaker’s grappling with change. And it is the poet’s skilled hand and voice that transports reader through this ending to another kind of beginning, one in which she finds strength in change. This acceptance is manifest (and well-titled) in the collection’s closing poem, “Bookends,” in which the speaker answers back with her own “Goodbye, darling. / Goodbye—“ (111) as if she has made peace.
As we gather these poems throughout the text, we see, too, the writer’s tenderness and care for her subjects as she navigates the departures in her life, departures often rooted in the dirt, much like Dickinson’s wild bouquets: an apology to a slug (21), a “stringbean daughter,” she has learned to “stop watering” (75), and mud that “soften[s] like grief” (19).
Though time stamps forward and brings with it the grief of age and the journey to acceptance, the speaker also implicates herself and the role she has to play in these goodbyes in poems like “Regret,” in which she quietly navigates the grief of missed opportunities to connect with a loved one (35). We see this regret again in “Disguises,” in which the absence of a loved one hovers over the laughter and wine bottles of a New Year’s Eve celebration (52). And it is here that we cling to the honesty and vulnerability of the speaker in the march toward acceptance and moving forward.
At times lyrical, as in “Addiction: a definition,” the poems here meditate often on kindness: “(Kind people / think help / is / kindness.)” (57). This theme appears again in “The Time-Being of Oak, and this too is a political poem”: “surely this too is / kindness, a code of ethics, a way of saying, I / am here, and here I will remain” (19). This kindness is echoed in the poem’s postscript, a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”
And Slot’s book takes this to heart. It is, itself, a kindness, especially in a year of such grief. As we navigate personal loss and our own goodbyes of 2020, this kindness is a needed gift. Aptly named a Ministry, Slot nourishes us with each petal-poem.
I had the good fortune to be able to attend the book launch for The Ministry of Flowers and listen to a variety of poets performing these poems out loud to an audience over zoom. It was incredibly powerful, and reminds me how important is is to be able to receive poetry like that, how it changes everything. The poems came alive for me even before I had my hands on the book and was able to savor them for myself. There's so much to say and I know nothing of poetry, but these touch on and eloquently articulate so many aspects of my own life and bring such depth and greater understanding and appreciation to them. Thank you!
Some poetry collections are marching bands, some a cat walk of designer thoughts. Others are sad halls in which you wish you could escape. Some are churches - a tintinnabulation of emotions rung like hand bells.
The Ministry of Flowers is a book of rooms. Knock on the door of Regret and you will lie in your own bed of 3 am wake up calls - that is, a bed where the body lies and the mind races. We all know the room we cannot quiet no matter how quickly or how deeply we sleep. Some thought will whisper in your ear, call you to the window of memory where you cannot look away.
There are so many intriguing rooms - the room of Prayer and just down the hall "When the man I love asks me to dance." Bring your body, bring your soul to this ministry of flowers. You will awaken, changed.