Book Review: Ophelia: A Botanist’s Guide

Ophelia: A Botanist’s Guide by Emily Alta Hockaday

Illustrated by Sam Hockaday

Pages: 24

Publisher: Zoo Cake Press

Released: 2015

At turns an academic and emotional collection, Emily Hockaday’s chapbook Ophelia: A Botanist’s Guide is fascinating. The collection is told from the point of view of Ophelia, from Hamlet, as she is taken for granted and abused by nearly every one, and it highlights the many plants mentioned throughout the play. There is a lot of depth within, adding the scientific names for the mentioned plants, along with their historical uses, in addition to a clear and nuanced knowledge of Hamlet (the play and the character).

Nicely, the collection can stand on its own well enough without relying too much on the play, which had been my initial fear when I approached the work. None of the characters are named in the poems, save on the cover and the dedication lines, so the narrative could apply to many women who feel unappreciated and disabused in their lives. When taken as such, another powerful level is added — that is how you know a collection has staying power, when it can be read and appreciated in many levels. Obviously connecting the poems with the play, as the poet intended, is the way it probably should first be read, but there is something timeless in the way that the same emotions can translate into many other situations.

To accompany each poem there is an artistic depiction of each plant along with it’s scientific name. The art is a nice touch that isn’t seen often enough in poetry. If you keep in mind that this is a botanist guide, done by Ophelia, the inclusion of the art work helps to make the world created by the poems more real. It is as if Ophelia herself is detailing her thoughts, feelings, and histories about the plants while intellectually analyzing them and the roles they have played in her life. The combination of the two will leave readers a little smarter, and a little more emotional, than when they started.

You don’t have to be a botanist, or a Shakespearean scholar, to see the craft and beauty in these poems. I personally would love to see more lovely poems along this line, maybe pulling similar inspiration from other plays, since 12 poems and illustrations over 24 pages just couldn’t satisfy me enough. Hockaday’s chapbook does add so much depth to the short life of Ophelia and helps widen both readers perception of the play, along with the use of plants in literature.

Dog Eared Pages:

2, 4, 6, 14, 20, 24

Originally published at thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.comon February 11, 2016.