Alec Finlay: The Poem Garden

Alec Finlay, our artist in residence, talks about the inspirations behind the poem objects he created for the renovated Psychiatry of Old Age ward gardens at the Murray Royal Hospital in Perth

These poem-objects, made from garden tools and nest-boxes, were commissioned by Paths for All and the Tayside Health Fund, for two gardens adjoining wards for patients at Murray Royal Hospital, Perth. The photographs, by the writer, dry-stane dyker, and photographer Kristie De Garis, were taken in October 2023. The poems were painted by my long-term collaborator Chris Ellis.  

Some of the tools are permanently installed, others are intended for use by patients and staff. I chose this family of objects for their practicality and the associations they hold, especially for the aged and those with dementia. I have memories of my mother, Sue's, trug–no handbag for her!–which she lugged around the garden, with secateurs, twine, and thick gloves; of watering cans around the rainwater butt; and the rake sleeping against the wall. 

Among the poems there is a short suite for watering cans composed in remembrance of G.F. Dutton (1924-2010), gardener, poet, mountaineer, and Professor of Biomedicine at the University of Dundee. These are inspired by his writings on marginal gardening, which have long influenced my thinking on the relationships between ecological remediation and human recuperation. 

I wrote many of these short poems last summer, inspired by a garden in Ruchill, in a cottage that was part of the old hospital grounds; call it a 'convalescence garden', somewhere to watch different species of finch feeding, and rest from Long Covid. 

There's more information on the wider hospital project here. I think it's important that Paths for All are showing how the creative arts of design, poetry and landscaping can combine to enhance these environments, within which people have to spend weeks, or months, away from their homes and family. 

Rather than poems being hidden in books and brought into the light when we fall in love, someone leaves, or dies, or for weddings, we could live with a poetry of things.