It’s hard to write about a garden. From a Western standpoint, there’s no escaping the long shadow of Eden and original sin. Even outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, the major world religions all have the trope of the garden as paradise: a place of escape and revelation. This persists in a post-Industrial Revolution culture which fetishes the pastoral.
If the garden bears the weight of our expectations, the writer has to negotiate this burden. Poetry of place needs to be about more than description, however accomplished; it is also about people in relation to the place. When I arrived at Riverhill, I read Abegail’s poem, ‘How to Walk in the Garden’. Her approach is to adopt a beguilingly didactic tone, assuming the role of guide. The first line of the poem pulls us in: “Here’s the key to the garden”, and the imperatives continue, both inviting and commanding us to “Squander your touch”, “Trace paths”, “Brush lichen”, as we are led through a sensory evocation. This is garden as meditation and poet as guru, and by the end the reader identifies wholly with the garden as both await enlightenment: “as if you’re/the only garden in the world waiting to be born”.
How to walk in the garden
Here’s the key to the garden; stiff-locked gate eases
with a gentle shove, sun-bleached frame hangs −
a distraught lower lip. Dip your head to pass.
Squander your touch on swags of ivy, be the wind
sift sky for its clutter of starlings, hurtle sycamore
seeds like spinning-tops. Trace paths that creep
through sunlight, slackening fruit − let the cool drag
of summer clutch your heels – catch the red flash of vixen
as she sneaks home. Read leaves like they’re faint
black ink on skin-thin letters, cobwebs cornered
in glass, listen to plants germinate in many languages.
Brush lichen with your shoulder as if it’s your first
ever touch, as if today sun rattles in its own heat,
snags air, a distant fire growing older, as if you’re
the only garden in the world waiting to be born.
Visiting with my 3-year-old, my experience was less meditative. He didn’t want to wander and think; he wanted to run about and explore, which is an equally valid way of engaging with a garden. We spent a lot of time in the woods looking for the elusive yeti (there is another poem to be written about the poor soul who roams the woods in a furry costume). We were too early to see the bluebells, and it occurred to me that here was a metaphor for parenthood. You think you’re training your child to be patient, but your own patience is being trained. You learn to compromise: you can’t have the experience you’d ideally like, but you can enjoy what you’ve got. The woodland way is harder than the formal path, but the budding bluebells promise a wilder epiphany. And, much to my son’s delight, we did see the yeti.
I go into the garden. There’s parterre
spicy with boxwood, cool fountains,
paths to follow. But I leave
walled surety, strike up the steep hill,
woodwards. There may be views,
strange creatures. The trees
keep their secrets tight-furled
in leaf buds, summer’s tongues
poised to blurt truth. I ask
the first willo-wisps of bluebells.
Not yet, they promise.
Stop. Wait. Open your eyes,
and we will ours.
Suzanna Fitzpatrick has been widely published in magazines and anthologies, including Furies (For Books’ Sake), and forthcoming in Birdbook III (Sidekick Books) and The Emma Press Anthology of Slow Things. She has been commended in a number of competitions, won second prize in the 2010 Buxton Competition, and won the 2014 Hamish Canham Prize. Her pamphlet, Fledglings, will be published by Red Squirrel Press in 2016. She lives in Kent with her husband and young son.
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