Why We Make Gardens abounds with… lyricism and in doing so may serve as explanation. We make gardens and poems and art to achieve gentle charms of word and life.
It’s a brave choice, writing poems with specificity, detailing, as is Jeanne Larsen’s choice in Why We Make Gardens (& Other Poems), a multiplicity of flowers; creating a real and imagined census report of of the bright bloom of yard.
Larsen has to know at least some of her readers, like myself, don’t make gardens and that our distance from planting, pruning, weeding, watering is not merely urban. Ten lifetimes ago, twenty, perhaps when I was a glimmer on another planet waiting my turn for a sodden life, I made jokes. I made coffee. Friends. Not gardens.
No matter. Larsen is a reliable narrator or poet-version thereof and beatified by finesse with craft. Titles guide, to say the least. “Garden of Destruction” “Garden of Rhapsodies” “The Garden of Sex (Parts I and II)” “Anger Garden” “Compassion’s Garden” “Flowering Judases” “In a Walled Garden, as Fall Begins.”
The titular “make” has staked a claim in art’s history (Frank Bidart’s Star Dust has much to do with making and art, for example) and that her gardens make much of our world. So what are we to make of this collection, and what does it want to make of gardens and flowers, which shadow our world and make of themselves a metaphor? The book’s divided into five sections, one of which, (Generations), dwells in the gardens of the lords and ladies of literature. From “The Garden of Age.”
Fearful, with little to fear. Dust-purple
asters, the monkshood’s last
campanile, orange suns of bittersweet,
snapdragons sheltered, Chinese lanterns:
it makes cunning poesies. I might keep
a corner where malachite arros
of arum italicum rise. Nearby,
fresh hellebores, foamflower’s tough leaves,
coral-bells, wintergreen heaths:
Emphasis in each line is on the flowers, the sound of each noun, each name. Reading the above and some of the poems is like hearing the Mass in Latin. Something mysterious is happening and I’m not entirely sure what, but I’m sure I don’t always need specifics. For a poem to work it has to stand on its own, without chatty explanation by an overly eager poet at a reading. So what if I can’t envision each bloom. I hear the poem.
And Larsen does step in to quite specifically guide the “…delusory whispers” of our imaginations. “Pods split like hearts.” “New generations promise.” In a different poem, those phrases might be trite but “…Age” they are refuge and signpost. And don’t need my elucidation.
The Garden of Languages
You can’t draw a plan for it,
can’t trace on graph paper how
it lays itself out. In the soil you find
peat, dung, worm-castings, shards
of earth’s mantle. You learn bees’
idiom, how they dance locations:
where floxglove, where bergamot.
You know butterflies’ semaphore graces it
as birds’ war-cries brush past,
& their love-slang. Know it’s been uttered
in all the month’s dialects: from clear leafy-full
to the planter’s subterranean dark.
You can excavate, translate―though
poorly. Can decode a few glyphs
& their grammar. But must know this argot
An ironic payoff for a reader or poet or gardener, to know “this argot/ isn’t yours.” We are of nature but separated from its less thoughtful (than us), less willful (than us) constituency. And is Larsen simply talking about nature or about all thing which we “make”? “You can excavate, translate—though / poorly.” We’re lucky to understand something of ourselves. Is it better to understand life, or poetry, or to experience it?
Like Blake in “Auguries of Innocence,” Larsen sees the “world in a grain of sand,” and, maybe, “heaven in a wildflower.” “Auguries” is poem that wants to be prophetic and a cry against life’s baffling lack of justice (“A dog starved at his master’s gate / Predicts the ruin of the state.”). Larsen’s pain isn’t as accessible as Blake’s nor is her anger as evident.
But both poets know redemptions of beauty, for Larsen in garden and description of garden. Fromm “The Garden of Air”) “It’s always the shapes / around artemisia’s stars, buddleia / spears, a soft fall / of cilantro / Shapes around shape. / It’s evergreen ice glancing off winter’s ginger.” Buddleia, by the way, is a tropical shrub with extravagant drooping clusters of buds. And cilantro’s soft fall is a definite visual, the fragrant green flutter.
Why We Make Gardens abounds with such lyricism and in doing so may serve as explanation. We make gardens and poems and art to achieve gentle charms of word and life. Understanding isn’t what we’re after. We want to return to the garden, don’t we, to life without shame, to naked sport, to some sort of innocence (if it was a place we regretted leaving there had to be at least a bit of cunning and teasing. I mean, come on.). And if poetry, and a poet like Jeanne Larsen, can help us make our way, we can count ourselves lucky.