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The Flower Seeker by Philip Lee Williams

Jeffery Beam

  The Flower Seeker: An Epic Poem of William Bartram.
Philip Lee Williams.
Mercer University Press, 2010.
455 pages, $25.00 (paperback).
ISBN: 0881462217 (Library of Congress).
Buy at Amazon.

In The Flower Seeker, writer Philip Lee Williams easily demolishes any qualms about yet another epic poem by an American. In the 20th century, Pound, Olson, Crane, Zukofsky, H.D., Eliot, Walcott, Merrill, and William Carlos Williams come to mind immediately. Earlier, one thinks of Whitman, Longfellow, and Lanier. Many may not know the surrealist magnum opus The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You by Frank Stanford, or Frederick Turner's The New World. Or the work of William Everson, Edward Dorn, and Richard Grossinger. And probably few adult readers of poetry know of another recent amazing young adult retelling New Found Land: Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery by North Carolina author Allan Wolf. Who hasn't read the Iliad or the Odyssey, Beowulf or Gilgamesh, Ovid, or perhaps the Ramayana? Milton and Blake? One hopes Dante. Neruda's Canto General.

The term epic has stretched through many contemporary poets. Traditionally an epic poem recounts the heroic deeds of its main character or characters—deeds which define a nation or culture's identity, soul, or essence. It might seem unlikely then that American naturalist William Bartram, who in the 18th century explored the wilderness of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and other southern areas, and published a travelogue of his adventure, could possibly have had rich enough adventures botanizing to warrant apotheosis as a national hero. But indeed, he has always been, though perhaps unrecognized.

Philip Lee Williams semi-fictionalized portrayal of Bartram's four years exploring the South accomplishes that task and it's a shame that the book hasn't garnered more attention than it has. It may very well be the most successful contemporary epic of its time. Williams, using his skills as a novelist and poet, brings to the task a deep and life-long passion for Bartram's work, and a well-honed sense of a wide range of contemporary techniques in poetry. He not only creates an "expanded" version of Bartram's famous diary, but doesn't hesitate to take lessons from the Modernist masters to "make it new." The volume starts off traditionally enough in formal verse style, but before the reader knows it Bartram's unique and extraordinary adventures begin to spread across the page as if Pound and William C. Williams and even Ronald Johnson are whispering in Phillip Lee Williams' ear.

Bartram recounts the tale from the distance of old age and Williams uses direct quotes as well as imagined texts to fill in the details. But like Pound and others he embeds ("enriches" as he says in his excellent "Postscript") with "words, line, selections, and excerpts from numerous other sources, none of which I choose to make public." He quotes Joyce, "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries." And there are visuals too, as well as, in the hardcover edition, which was not included in the paper review edition I received, a CD which includes Williams' reading of the poem, original music composed by Williams, and a recording of the Keowee River in South Carolina, important to the tale.

The Flower Seeker has moments of intense beauty, fearsome adventure, personal revelation, and scientific reach. The heat and colors and magnificence of the Southern wilds, Indian cultures, botanical riches, and the urge to discovery set this epic apart from many others. It's a tale that can be read or told aloud around a campfire as easily as from a scholar's seat, and unreservedly asserts itself next to ambitious modern epics and the iconic works of old.

I am the Flower Seeker, happy as the woodlands
And I am the man who collects by eye Quercus rubra
And I am the instrument on which the wind plays

Through Williams' gargantuan task Bartram attains a Whitmanesque, a Homeric stature, and enters finally into the Hall of American Mythic Heroes:

And yet there is still one lovely light
That I would love to shape again and know.
I will be sailing south toward that glow.

. . .