I’ve never been much of a poetry person. A natural skeptic, I assumed for years that interpretations of symbolism and imagery were mostly projected onto texts by academic readers, people who couldn’t just let themselves enjoy a piece of writing without analyzing it to death. At the same time, I’ve often struggled to access the balance between giving myself over to a poem and researching the context of it well enough to understand it fully.
Given this admission, it might surprise you to learn that I was an English major, and I have a tattoo on my left wrist that’s a visual representation of my favorite poem.
I discovered the poems of Matthea Harvey during the swan song of my poetic skepticism. I was in a Poetry 101 class, and in trying (and failing) to write good poems I’d developed a better understanding of the mechanics and skills involved. I respected the craft, but I still frequently felt overwhelmed by poems. Impatient. Adolescent.
Harvey was giving a reading for grad students at my university, and my teacher recommended we all attend; I had little else to do and an intense crush on the instructor, so I went. But when Harvey stepped up to the podium and began to read, I forgot all about my crush and my skepticism about poetry and became mesmerized by her words. Every poem was like a knotted, fine gold chain, the elements immediately recognizable but the whole a beautiful tangled thing I wanted to spend hours teasing apart.
I bought two of Harvey’s books that night, but I was too shy to ask her to sign them. (I regret that now, having loved them for nearly fifteen years.) I read the poems over and over, delighting in Harvey’s use of language even as much of her symbolism went over my head. I learned to enjoy the poems even as I didn’t “get” them perfectly, coming to them as I would to a magic-eye painting: relaxing my brain and letting the poems take shape without being hindered by my efforts to analyze.
When, a year after Harvey’s reading, I met my first love, a British medical student with a deep love of literature, I shared my favorite of Harvey’s poems with him: ”In Defense of Our Overgrown Garden.” I told him it was the only poem I’d ever accidentally memorized, and that was true, although I’d actually only memorized the opening line: “Last night the apple trees shook and gave each lettuce a heart.”
The poem goes on to describe the shared home the speaker’s partner has left behind, in terms that clearly portray the intimacy of their relationship. The poem refers to “our espalier pear trees bowing out of shape” much to a neighbor’s chagrin, and the story is relayed to her partner with an almost-visible wink of shared dislike for their persnickety acquaintance:
They looked like candelabras against the wall but what’s the sense
In swooning over pruning I said as much to Mrs. Jones and I swear
She threw her cane at me and walked off down the street without
As our relationship progressed from Skype calls and emails punctuated by romantic visits to the blissful mundanity of living together, the poem felt more and more like a blueprint for our love. Like lovers do, we shared minute details of our days, talked about our dreams when we awoke beside one another, told each other the kinds of things we’d never have said to anyone else, less because they were secrets than because they were dull, inconsequential. We spent hours thinking aloud, sharing the kinds of random thoughts that true intimacy breeds, much like Harvey’s speaker musing to her partner that “It has always puzzled me that people coo over bonsai trees when / You can squint your eyes and shrink anything without much of / A struggle.” I expressed my confusion about the British obsession with using the French word for eggplant and zucchini but not arugula (which they call “rocket”) he shared his irritation with the illogical fact that the pronunciations of Kansas and Arkansas don’t overlap.
We settled into our shared home, a basement flat in London with an oven so small I had to buy special quarter-sized baking sheets to make his favorite chocolate oat cookies. I bought potted flowers and put them on the ledge outside our bedroom windows, and on lazy Saturday mornings we lay in bed and watched the sunlight infuse lavender into the lace curtains, and I thought about Harvey’s lettuces being “no mix of seeds and soil but of pastels and light.” In the evenings, when he was late coming home from classes or went to the pub with friends after a hospital rotation, I put on an apron and baked things I thought he’d like—snickerdoodles and brownies and other American treats—filling the flat with smells that would make him glad to open the front door. I came to understand in a new way Harvey’s speaker’s wistful tone, her desire to update her absent partner on their shared world, her promise that “If there is no fog on the day you come home I will build a bonfire / So the smoke will make the cedars look the way you like them.”
In our seventh year, just before we got engaged, I made the decision to mark myself permanently with a representation of our love with a tattoo, and I chose Harvey’s long-memorized opening line to do so. I’d always loved how clear the visual is, how colorful, the bright, snow-white-weapon red of the apple against the cool, “ever-so-slightly green leaves” of the lettuce. How I could hear the rustle and thump of the falling fruit and the shaken leaves in my mind’s ear. There was something immediate about the image, even as it spoke to something hard to capture in words, particularly as our relationship had deepened: the way a foreign heart can force its way in and nestle at the center of a thing as if it belonged.
The morning I got the tattoo—green leaves with yellow highlights vivid against the pale, thin skin on the inside of my wrist—my new fiancé and I had an argument. We’d been arguing a lot those days, but I felt certain we would make our way through the rough patch as we’d done so many times before. After the tattoo session, we went out for pizza, and he stroked my inner forearm and grinned down at my cellophane-wrapped tattoo, the flesh inflamed around the bright green head of lettuce, a candy-red apple peeking out over the tops of the leaves.
Two months later, he admitted he’d cheated weeks before I got the tattoo. Of all the reasons I wished to rend my skin from my body in those first months, removing the image of our love was surprisingly low on the list. It was painful to see the tattoo flash past the corner of my eye as I gestured, the green fading almost into teal and the round shoulders of the apple dancing as my wrist flicked, and I spent many hours staring at it as the chambers of my heart twisted around each other. But I never considered a removal, or even a cover-up. Breathing was my priority, and removing the visual reminder from my wrist wouldn’t erase the constant clash of memories against revelations in my mind.
The worst memories were the ones that infused my wretched heart with reminders of the mundane happiness I’d felt, the safe cocoon of our relationship: the light on the lace curtains; the landscapes we’d traveled over together, or as Harvey’s poem has it: “how the castles [we] flew over made crenellated shadows on / The water.” That we’d made our crappy little flat a home, not caring about how “the neighbors [might] frown when they look over the fence.”.
It took a few months of therapy before I could look at the tattoo without feeling fury or devastation. Once I could, I began to realize something: the tattoo was never really about him. It was about her, about Harvey, and me—it was about my relationship to poetry, and my ever-opening mind. I’d gone from thinking poetry was pretty but indecipherable at best, and willfully obscure at worst, to seeing this one poem reflected in my everyday life, and being open to others in a way I hadn’t been before. One evening, early for a date, I walked over to a nearby used bookstore and bought an old copy of Best American Poetry to read while I waited—and I wasn’t doing it for show.
I read poetry for enjoyment now, to feel seen, and to see the world differently. I’m less cynical, less defensive: just because I don’t understand a piece of writing immediately doesn’t mean I won’t absorb anything from it or understand it differently given time. Part of the beauty of a poem is in how it shifts over the life of the reader.
Yes, to a large extent the tattoo was about my relationship to my partner. But who that partner was mattered little to the meaning of the poem. Just as I don’t need to know the speaker’s partner to understand her love for him and the life they share, my tattoo doesn’t have to only represent that first love. It can also represent my understanding of enduring love and making a home together. Through that relationship, and by continually revisiting Harvey’s poem throughout it, I came to understand the beauty and joy that can be found in the mundane everydayness of long-term relationships, the way an unruly landscape can bring its own kind of peace and contentment when it’s experienced with someone who makes you feel safe.
“So after untangling the two,” as Harvey’s speaker says of the strawberry nets and the starlings caught in them, I let my starling heart love this poem, and my tattoo, unfettered.
I live with another man now, my husband, in a home with a frustratingly overgrown garden, and our love confirms my inkling that my affection for Harvey’s poem didn’t have to die along with my attachment to my first love. I hope to look out at our garden in a decade or two and see it as a reflection of our shared life, in all its beautiful messiness, an embodiment of the way small quotidian truths illuminate huge life-altering ones. Or as the last line of the poem puts it: “To close I’m sorry there won’t be any salad and I love you.”
I am always awed by the resonance of that line, the way it states clearly what the poem has shown us throughout: that the entirety of the piece is about the concrete and tangible (the garden) and the more ephemeral (their love and history together). The way “I love you” reverberates like a rung bell in the silence of the white space that follows.
I am still not an expert on what a poem means, but I know when a writer’s words have wormed their way through my mind and deep into my heart. In this case, they happen to live on my skin as well.