The Garden Genre; A Few Good Books

ImageThe Lost Gardens of Heligan reclaimed

 

I love to garden. In fact, if I had to choose a favorite second creative outlet I would choose gardening. It’s an artistic medium unto itself. I began my foray into gardening, and the rocky New England soil, with a small vegetable plot about twenty years ago in my mom’s back yard, and have grown vegetables almost every year since. But I’m not talking vegetables here. It’s not the thought of gargantuan squash plants that gets my heart beating faster in the middle of January. Vegetables are well and good, and necessary, but the challenges and beauties of creating a perennial garden are what have me prematurely planning and plotting in the midst of deep winter. I have a few favorite books to recommend if you also suffer, or would like to suffer, from this affliction, which I think is more acute for us northern dwellers, hampered as we are by the pestilence winter.  By the end of summer I am usually pretty well done with gardening, especially if I’ve built new gardens as well as growing and preserving vegetables, but come December I’m ready to have at it again. Unfortunately in New England we can’t even have gardens with “winter interest” as the Brits do because the snow inevitably comes and crushes everything, melting around late April and revealing garden beds that look something like a room ransacked by a group of toddlers. Speaking of Brits, three of my suggested reads are by British writers/gardeners and two are specifically about British gardens. I’m a bit of an Anglophile when it comes to gardens. Let’s face it, they’ve been doing it longer than we have and they respect tradition. You’re not going to find a plastic Home Depot rose trellis in Sussex or Corwall. I’m sorry but it’s true. The Brits make those things out of sticks! It’s called wattle. That’s how seriously they take their gardening; they sit on their stone “fences” and weave their own garden ornaments while we inter a pot of marigolds and call it a day. Okay I’ll stop now. As you can see, I aspire to be a British gardener. 

The List

ImageThe Lost Gardens of Heligan by Tim Smit

If you like the abandoned castle genre, you’ll love this book. Located near Cornwall in fact, Heligan was once an ambitious and sprawling garden that included jungle plantings, ponds and extensive greenhouses with exotic fruits which serviced a large manor house. After the loss of much of its male staff in WWI, the garden fell to neglect and essentially suffocated in its own growth: think the Downton Abbey where-is-it-now 70 years later TV special. The gardens were rediscovered in the 1990s and a long period of reclamation began. Do a google images search to see more photos of the garden today. It’s astounding. The Lost Gardens of Heligan is the story of the gardens’ discovery and reclamation, but there are other Heligan-themed books out there. With pictures!

ImageThe Morville Hours by Katherine Swift

This one is set outside Shropshire in the dower house of Morville. The book takes the form of a Medieval book of hours, ticking off morning, noon and night, as well as seasons of the year by the progress of Swift’s plants and garden. Swift focuses on creating garden ‘rooms’, another peculiarly British tradition that most American gardeners haven’t adopted, or don’t have the space to adopt. This is a calming, poetic and meditative sort of book. I found it inspiring but not too agitating to read in winter. Some other gardening books can be too much of a ‘call to arms’ to pick up in February. And as many gardeners know, armchair gardening is akin to daydreaming about food during a diet.

ImageFounding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf

Written by a British woman but all about the gardening habits of our Founding Fathers. It’s been a while since I read this one. From what I can remember, Thomas Jefferson was quite a plant hoarder. He was responsible for bringing a variety of vegetables into the country, cultivating them and distributing seeds or cuttings. What struck me most about the story of our gardening origins is kind of obvious: they were all farmers back then. Everyone had to be a pretty serious farmer if he wanted to survive. We’ve wandered so far from those origins and we’ve lost so much of our plant diversity. This is one area in which we haven’t progressed. Our American ingenuity hasn’t been equal to cultivating a broader range of carrots, tomatoes and lettuces. There are some dedicated people and organizations working around the edges to distribute heirloom varieties and keep seeds in circulation, but I fear the powers that be in this country simply don’t find food security that compelling. Why else would they be so laissez faire about GMOs and Monsanto. Oh yeah, money.

I’ll give the titles of two more books I found inspiring and helpful:

Heirloom Flowers by Tovah Martin is an encyclopedia of sorts with beautiful color photos and descriptions. Martin is a New England garden writer who also worked on books by our doyenne of New England gardening: Tasha Tudor.

Leading me to: Tasha Tudor’s Garden by Tovah Martin and Richard Brown. Although Tudor didn’t have a hand in writing this, you’d think she simply called it into being with her creative magic, that’s how imbued this book is with Tudor’s spirit. She died a few years back in her 90s, but her legacy in gardens, paintings and picture book illustrations lives on. You have to experience Tudor’s gardens and lifestyle in the photos and writing to really understand her world. Check out her dollhouse book too.

My shelves are filled with many more gardening goodies but I’ll stop for now and leave you with a garden poem, of sorts.  If there’s no snow on the ground where you are, do a little garden clean-up with me in mind.

 

Taking Leave

 

The first family settled here, 1850.

He built stonewalls to contain

a flock of sheep. She tended the tiger

lilies and daffodils in the dooryard, growing leggy

for the sun. The farmhouse burned.

No one built new on the old site.

 

Sometimes you have to let a place go.

 

In our time we found a forest, trees

cracked through the hearth stone.

You ran the saw, I flagged

the wells and cellar holes, excavated

relics we could use: rusted tools;

and those we couldn’t: eyelets

from a woman’s shoe.

 

Who will collect the broken bottles I heaped for later?

 

The rough pencil sketch creased and dated

in your hand is all that remains of our cabin.

Fallen on better times we left

and arranged for its deconstruction. 

The sheathing and the steep pitched roof, the porch,

its three steps, the windows, the windows’

frames: all gone, to one who would take

the time to hammer out bent nails.

 

We’re the kind of people who have to let a place go, so

 

I scattered seeds for flowers first. Flowers

have minds of their own: cosmos, aster, sweet william

nicotiana. My bee balm spread rampant as fever.

Sowing seed is like whispering to the wind

                                                                 I’ll be sorry

                                                       to go

 

Publishing in Stone!

ImageEdmands Park; Newton, MA

Exciting announcement: my poem “Learning My Name”, which is included in my upcoming collection Church of Needles has been selected as one of 12 poems for the Poetry in the Park installation in Newton, Massachusetts (just outside of Boston). The plan is to permanently affix, by photo transfer, each poem onto a stone pillar dating back to the 1930s WPA project. The pillars surround a marshy area of Edmands Park and are intended to meld nature poetry with the landscape that inspired it.  The poetry installation will blend nicely with its surroundings, offering joggers and hikers a few sparse lines to ponder as they enjoy the park’s trails. Currently the right stone for my poem is being chosen. The project is slated to be unveiled this spring. I’ll post an update when the date and time are set. A big thank you to the judges and the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs in Newton for offering me this unique opportunity to publish in stone.

Library Love

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If you’re a writer, book lover, or both, chances are you’ve spent a fair amount of time in libraries. We’re lucky here in New England in that most of our libraries are still housed in their centuries-old buildings, albeit with new wings and appendages to accommodate growing populations. I don’t think I could patronize a library located in a strip mall or a double wide trailer. And I’m not being a book-snob here, it’s just that atmosphere matters. I would hazard to guess that many library lovers and multiple card holders also love the feel of old libraries, the distressed wood of the stacks and the feeling of being cosseted by books while also set loose on a vast store of relevant and irrelevant information, curiosities and lost knowledge. Ever peruse a dictionary from the mid 1800s? One of those tomes you could use for a step stool? The amount of words that have fallen out of use could fill an average-sized dictionary. Here in western Massachusetts our libraries are on the C/W Mars system, which connects libraries throughout the central and western parts of the state. I can own a card at one C/W Mars participating library and instantaneously become a member of every other participating library. As a collector of libraries and library cards, this seems almost like cheating. The photos below of stunning libraries are guaranteed to make your heart beat a little faster. Perhaps in a future post I’ll give a little photo tour of libraries I frequent or have visited in my neck of the woods. Enjoy.

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A Simple Poetry Writing Prompt and A Poem

Today’s writing prompt is deceptively simple. Deceptive because it can result in a more weighty poem than you’d think. The rules are: take a song, preferably from your youth, and weave a few pivotal lyrics into a poem that doesn’t have to reflect the song’s theme or intent. In the best cases, the lyrics you choose will dialogue with and fuel the engine of your own lines. I gleaned this prompt from one of my own poems, first published in BlazeVOX. I use bits of the Simple Minds song Don’t You Forget About Me but you’ll see, if you know the song, that I invest the lyrics with my own meaning for the poem, one not intended in the original song. If you want an additional challenge, you can take a song that is also the theme of a movie and work with both the song and the movie. I did this in my poem, but wasn’t consciously working with that challenge at the time. Let’s call it double ekphrasis, sounds really learned and difficult. 

Send your resulting poems along and I’ll include a few in the next post.

Good luck!

 

Don’t you forget about me

I was sixteen, a hot July night at the drive-in, watching The Breakfast Club

with my mother and her boyfriend. He was fun, he was young,

he would become obsessed and want to kill us

but torched our car while we slept, instead. This night was before the burning.

The three of us in the unlit car, eating popcorn. If I had to choose,

I’d say he was the line don’t you forget about me in the Simple Minds song

while I took will you stand above me and worked it into nightmares:

a dark figure at the door, a dark figure in an idling car.

I was murdered in myriad ways: knife, fire, gunshot to the head. Maybe

he didn’t realize that a daughter is housed inside her mother

like the smallest Matryoshka doll, the pea-sized one; the way she looks out

from the same eyes, how a threat to one is a threat to the other.

He was young, closer to my age than my mother’s. He was fun, when he wasn’t

harming us. I kept the memory of that night long past its usefulness:

summer’s short heat and the three of us singing don’t don’t don’t don’t. 

Edith Wharton’s Haunted Mansion (and Work Ethic)

Image Edith Wharton 

Though fully dressed and productively upright at her desk in the above photo, Wharton, of The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence fame, was one author fairly well-known for writing in bed. After breakfasting in bed she would take pen to paper for a few hours of work, dropping each finished page onto the floor to be retrieved by her personal assistant.

ImageWharton’s bed with arranged pages

I don’t think this vision has to be as decadent as it sounds, she just didn’t want finished pages in the sheets like so many cracker crumbs. It all leads me to wonder where her tiny dogs were during this process as Wharton was also known for her fondness for small dogs.

ImageEdith Wharton; 1889

I visited Wharton’s former home The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts last Halloween for a special “Haunted Tour”. The tour began at dusk in the stables and then wound through the darkening, though manicured, woods toward Wharton’s Italianate mansion. But first our little group stopped at the pet cemetery, a small mound on a little rise of a hill. We were told that the spot was visible from Wharton’s bedroom. That’s how much she loved her dogs! We were also told to watch out for orbs flitting between the trees and to take random pictures into the darkness. Just in case. The Mount was sold several times after Wharton relinquished it in the early 1900s. It was used as a girls’ school and the home of Shakespeare and Company from the mid 20th century on. Apparently all inhabitants through the decades reported their own tales of ghost sightings, noises, and voices. The television series Ghost Hunters even weighed-in on The Mount’s hauntings.

ImageThe Mount at dusk just before the haunted tour

The candlelit, haunted tour focused on Wharton’s strained and troubling relationship with her husband Teddy, who suffered from depression and perhaps more severe mental illness. The Italianate style mansion has a long corridor with grand rooms leading off to right and left. The common rooms are all situated with doors onto the veranda, which overlooks the grounds, formal gardens and a good-sized pond. At the time of its construction, Lenox was just becoming popular with the Rockefeller set and New York’s new money, as a respite from Newport, Rhode Island’s amped-up social scene. But still, the little town in western Mass would have been considered the boondocks to Wharton and was certainly so to Henry James, Wharton’s lifelong friend and expat, who chided her for The Mount’s rural locale. But without the local color and humble environs of Lenox, Wharton likely never would have written her classic story Ethan Frome. The lives of the characters in that small story juxtaposed with Wharton’s life at The Mount or in NewportImageWharton’s dining room at The Mount

 

demonstrate the very European class disparity in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the grandeur of Wharton’s homes, the luxury of writing in bed and taking car trips around New England with Henry James, the woman had a work ethic. If she didn’t, we’d likely not be taking pictures of her former home at dusk on Halloween night or looking for the ghosts of her dogs.

Check out this Vogue article written by Colm Toibin and photographed by Annie Leibovitz. A beautiful, full-color view of The Mount as it might appear with guests in attendance. 

Atlas of Remote Islands and a Poem

 

 

 

 

 

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The Atlas of Remote Islands written by Judith Schalansky is a great little book, a great book for poets especially. Each beautiful map of an island is accompanied by a few paragraphs of information; some technical, some scientific, some anecdotal. I wrote the following poem based on a story of one island in the book. But I used the name of a different island in the title. My copy of the Atlas is not in easy reach right now, but here are a few photos from the book and my poem, written years ago when I first received my copy. One of these days I’ll have to compile all of my sea-themed poems into a chapbook. Problem is I only write them occasionally. 

Imagelove the shape of this one

 

Imageand this one.

Shipwrecked; Passion Island

The women had no choice but to fashion

a family, name strewn rock a trail

they could follow home. They dressed

each other’s wounds, sewed cormorant

feathers into garments with needles

of bone. Each carried a two-note whistle

from the keeled sternum of a gull.

 

The initial survivors numbered in the hundreds:

prisoners and their soft-fingered keepers,

clerks, botanists, orphans; the violent and the meek.

A microcosm of society foundered on the rocks;

the jagged south spit skewering their vessel.

 

Let’s reckon the rescue in decades.

The ship, when it reached them, no more

than batten boards taunting the sea, weather

congealing into dark eyes above and beneath.

By that time, there were seven women

and one baby, not yet weaned. A bright day

on the Pacific, 18th century. Legend says

the men diminished rapidly to five

and then to one, after a makeshift escape

boat capsized just outside the bay. Whereupon

the lone man declared himself king

and set about raping every woman in turn.

 

No one recalls the names of the women,

the babies born and buried.

The final seven we know only as a slim majority:

a steel blade and six knives made of shell.

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