pressed specimens – prose poems from the Southern Cross Plant Science Herbarium by Moya Costello


Moya Costello has two collections of short creative prose and two short novels published (Kites in Jakarta, and Small Ecstasies; The Office as a Boat, and Harriet Chandler). She has critical and creative work in scholarly and literary journals and anthologies, and exhibition catalogues. She taught writing in the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Southern Cross University for nine years, and the School of Business and Tourism for five. She has been awarded Australian federal and state government writing grants and fellowships, has been a guest at the Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Bellingen, Yamba, Gold Coast, and Bryon writers festivals, and judged many writing competitions. She has also taught writing at Flinders, Canberra and Adelaide universities and been a Writer-in-Residence, Churchill Campus, Monash University. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Adelaide. She wrote this collection while living in the hinterland of Bryon Bay (traditional lands of the Bundjalung nation), and teaching writing at SCU as a lecturer, adjunct, and member of LabX, SCU’s Environmental Arts and Humanities research cluster. pressed specimens was longlisted for the Laurence Sterne Prize.  She currently lives on the lands of the Punnilerpanna/Palawa people (north coast of Tasmania, Australia).
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Introduction On writing with plant specimens: a ‘poetic collaboration’ or an ‘interspecies dialogue’ Moya Costello

The prose poems in this collection are work with another species. ‘We share biology … common genes’ with plants, but when we encounter them we ‘are seeing another possible outcome of our own evolution, one that branched off some two billion years ago’ (Chamovitz 106).  With either my ‘naked’ eye or a dissecting microscope, I attended to a selection of Northern Rivers plant specimens pressed on paper in the Southern Cross Plant Science Herbarium, Southern Cross University (SCU), Lismore Campus, New South Wales, Australia. The SCU Herbarium’s main focus is on ‘medicinal plants – used in either traditional or contemporary medicine’ – of which it has ‘voucher specimens’, held ‘for future reference of taxonomic classification or identification’. The Herbarium is ‘closely linked with the Analytical Research Laboratory and the Medicinal Plant Gardens’ on campus and shares in the scientific work of the SCU Faculty of Science and Engineering, in which one focus of Environmental Resource Management is the conservation of flora….


(Smilax australis family Smilacaceae. Native Sarsaparilla.)
Shrunken Spanish olives, with green snuck in out of place. Dented aniseed balls to blacken tongue and teeth, but no teeth-chippers here; rather, they sedate and anti-spasm. Drying red wine grapes, or they could just be currants. Or Pluto-blue balls on a Mars-brown bramble. A rosie ring. A star attenuation. A pronged spiral. We all hold hands. Or black-capped synchronised swimmers as non-drupaceous vivacious. Funereal black becoming cocktail-hour frock. Communities, classes in their holding-together via vine stem, and string or leg-arm spiral-hold. Their pond-lily leaf pontoons, mother-ships – always accessed and ring-string anchored alongside circular-stemmed, airy-spinning dervish-dancing altering favourably the course of any ailing. Restoring. Restoring. 

Praise for the Author

“Moya Costello’s highly inventive writing in pressed specimens engages imaginatively with the global herbarium tradition predicated on the conservation of pressed plant specimens. Dense and fecund, much like scientific description itself, her prose poetry alchemises multisensory impressions of – and empathetic identification with – pressed plants with the technical lexicon of botanical classification. Her, at times, playful writing brings specimens to life through an appreciation of plants’ medicinal, healing, ecological, and relational virtues. Images of pressed flora from the Southern Cross Plant Science Herbarium anchor the poet’s creative process in the scientific realm, signifying poetry’s capacity to transgress long-standing disciplinary boundaries. Costello’s work joins other phytopoetic classics with this absorbing collection of prose poems.” 

John Charles Ryan: poet; Adjunct Associate Professor, Southern Cross University; Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Nulungu Institute, Notre Dame University. Books include The Mind of Plants (Synergetic, 2021, with M. Gagliano and P. Vieira).

“Through the vehicle of ecocritical prose poetry, Costello’s work distils the knowledge and experience of art and science in a truly unique way. Her words dance on the tongue – they have exquisite mouth-feel, they touch and taste like nothing I have ever spoken, drunk or spat.”

Grayson Cooke: media artist, Associate Professor of Media at Southern Cross University and founding member of LabX. Exhibitions include Blinman Slag  (Lismore Regional Gallery, February-April 2020).

“Alongside images of plants that surrendered themselves to their colonial flattening, Moya Costello’s poetry deftly evokes their lives and liveliness. In the traditions of Peter Larkin and Louise Crisp, and with echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Costello creates a lush language, melding close observation with inventive conjunctions of imagery, in relationship with the plants themselves.“

Anne Elvey: poet, Adjunct Research Fellow, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures & Linguistics, Monash University. Books include Obligations of Voice  (Recent Work Press, 2021).Praise for Costello’s other books: John Hanrahan, The Age on Small Ecstasies: “There is wit, irony and comedy in the writing, but also an assured seriousness and high intelligence”. Katherine England, The Advertiser, on The Office as a Boat: “The writing is beautifully clear and visually precise”. Nicholas Jose, Sydney Review of Books and The Australian Face: Essays from the Sydney Review of Books on Harriet Chandler: “This bold, uncompromising author …. this brilliant, beautiful book”.

Works cited
Note: some of the content for the Introduction came from an essay I had published in Transformations: Journal of media, Culture and Technology, issue no. 30, 2017. 

Atherton, Cassandra and Hetherington, Paul (eds) 2016 ‘Submission to Cordite 56.1: Ekphrastic’ Cordite Poetry Review 13 January. [URL no longer available: <>]

Bradley, James 2017 ‘Writing on the Precipice’ Sydney Review of Books 21 February. <> 22 February 2017.

Brophy, Kevin 2002 ‘The Prose Poem: A Short History, a Brief Reflection and a Dose of the Real Thing’, TEXT April. <>. 16 February 2017.

Buell, Lawrence 2005 The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Malden: Blackwell.

burns, joanne 1989 ‘joanne burns’ Poetry and Gender: Statements and Essays in Australian Women’s Poetry and Poetics. Eds. David Brooks and Brenda Walker. St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press, pp.28-29. 

Chamovitz, Daniel 2012 What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. Melbourne: Scribe. 

Cooke, Stuart (ed) 2017 ‘What Are the Animals Saying?’, Plumwood Mountain 6:2 August. <>. 10 December 2019.

Cooke, Stuart 2019 ‘Toward an Ethological Poetics: The Transgression of Genre and the Poetry of the Albert’s Lyrebird’, Environmental Humanities 11:2 November, pp.302-323. <>. 21 December 2019. 

Costello, Moya 2005 ‘”Irrigorous Uncertainties”: Writing, Politics and Pedagogy.’ Text 9.1. <>. 8 January 2017.

Gibson, Prudence and Brits, Baylee (eds) 2018 Covert Plants: Vegetal Consciousness and Agency in an Anthropocentric World, Santa Barbara, CA: Brainstorm Books. 

Harrison, Martin 2013 ‘The Act of Writing and the Act of Attention’, Text Special Issue: Writing Creates Ecology and Ecology Creates Writing no. 20, October. <>. 10 Feb. 2017.

Haywood, Ashley 2014 ‘”Harlequin Blue” and “The Picasso Experiment”‘ PhD thesis. Southern Cross University. [My personal copy.] 

James, Erin 2017 ‘What the Plant Says: Plant Narrators and the Ecosocial Imaginary’. The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature. Eds. Monica Gagliano, et. al.. Minnesota: U of Minnesota Press, pp.253-272.

Ley, James 2005 ‘The Tyranny of the Literal’ Australian Book Review April. [URL no longer available: <>%5D

Marder, Michael 2013 Plant-thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Marder, Michael n.d. ‘Plants, Art and Writing: P. Gibson in conversation with M. Marder’, The Philosopher’s Plant: Los Angeles Review of Books. <>. 27 October 2020.

Mathews, Freya 2007 ‘An Invitation to Ontopoetics: The Poetic Structure of Being’, Australian Humanities Review: Eco-humanities Corner 43, December. <>. 9 February 2017.

Muecke, Stephen 2008 ‘Momentum’, Cultural Theory in Everyday Practice. Eds. Nicole Anderson & Katrina Schlunke. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, pp.287-295.

Rothwell, Nicholas 2016 ‘What Lies beyond Us’, Quicksilver. Melbourne: Text Publishing, pp.131-166.

Ryan, John 2017 ‘Poetry as Plant Script: Interspecies Dialogue and Poetic Collaboration in the Northern Tablelands Region of New South Wales’, Transformations: Journal of Media, Culture and Technology 30, pp.127-149. <>. 30 January 2020. 

Southern Cross Plant Science Herbarium n.d.. ‘Medicinal Plant Herbarium’. <>. 6 August 2019.

Stengers, Isabelle 2015 In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Lüneburg/Paris: Open Humanities press/Meson Press/Editions La Découverte.

Université Libre de Bruxelles 2008, CFP ‘Poetic Ecologies: Nature as Text and Text as Nature in English-Language Verse’, 14-17 May. <>. 24 December 2016

Wark, McKenzie and Jandaric, Petar 2016. ‘New Knowledge for a New Planet: Critical Pedagogy for the Anthropocene’, Open Review of Educational Research, 3:1. <>. 20 December 2016.

Wheeler, Wendy 2006. The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

White, Jessica 2019 ‘Arboreal Beings: Reading to Redress Plant Blindness’, Australian Humanities Review. <>. 21 December 2019. 

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