Process parallels

The weather warmed and got windy, and that bodes reasonably well for garden prepping even if the last frost date is still almost a month away. I got digging, sowed more spinach and carrots, cheered on the lettuce sprouts, and–with some help from Best Beloved–pried most of the winter weeds out of the veg patch and set up a raised bed or two.

While I was out there pulling creeping charlie and clover and reviewing my garden plan for this year, it occurred to me that my process in gardening parallels my process in writing. My approach to each has similarities, probably due to my temperament though perhaps due to the way I go about problem solving. The process is part habituation or practice and part experiment, with failure posing challenges I investigate with inquiry, curiosity–rather than ongoing frustration. And sometimes, I just give up and move on without a need to succeed for the sake of winning.

I have no need to develop a new variety of green bean nor to nurture the prize-winning cucumber or dahlia. My yard looks more lived-in than landscaped; on occasion, we’ve managed to really spruce the place up, but it never stays that way for long. I admire gorgeous, showy gardens but am just as happy to have to crawl under a tree to find spring beauties, mayapples, efts, rabbit nests, mushrooms. My perennials and my veg patch grow from years of experimentation: half-price columbines that looked as though they might never recover, clumps of irises from friends’ gardens, heirloom varieties I start from seed. The failures are many, but I learn from them. Mostly I learn what won’t grow here without special tending I haven’t energy to expend, or I learn which things deer, rabbits, groundhogs, and squirrels eat and decide how or whether to balance my yearning for food or flora with the creatures that live here and the weather I can’t control. There are a few things I’ve learned to grow reliably and with confidence–ah, the standbys! But the others are so interesting, I keep trying.

Writing poems? Kind of similar. After so many years of working on free-verse lyrical narrative, I feel confident in my control of those poems and can usually tell when they’re not operating the way I want them to. Then I wait and revise and rethink, but there’s a familiarity to the process. Whereas I am far less confident with sonnets–nonetheless, sometimes a poem really works best in a form like that. So I know I have to expend more energy on it. Other times I find myself needing to experiment. I try mimicking another poem, tearing apart my line breaks, or revising in a form I barely know. I play with puns or alliteration, alter punctuation to stir up the rhythm or surprise the reader (or myself). Breaking my habitual approach to starting or revising a poem leads to curious results, sometimes intriguing ones.

But, like my garden ambitions, my writing ambitions exist more as a means to learn and experiment. I do not set out to produce the decade’s best poem or to develop a unique style or form that academics will admire and study. (I just made myself chuckle.) Heck, most of my work has not yet seen print–and with good reason. Not every rose is an RHS Garden Merit award winner.

For now, here’s a poem I wrote over a decade ago, one that will be appearing in a forthcoming chapbook. More on that when I know more myself.

~

STILL LIFE WITH WOMAN

Loose sleeve envelopes her brown hand
which rests upon an apple or a secret 
cupped beneath; only the stem shows,
fruit’s oblate body intimated by
the solidity of her skin against
the table’s plane.
This is a moment undiscovered,
a painting by Vermeer—
blue, white, quince-yellow, poised—
her palpably-dimpled wrist sloping
toward the precise, thumbnail shadows of
her relaxed fingers. We know
blood imperceptibly alters the shape of her veins
every second her heart beats, we know her womb
continues its cyclical pulse, that she inhales
and exhales, a living form, yet—
still: an inclination of the white, loose sleeve,
half an eye open, she covers some promise.
This is only one second before
surprise or boredom, a miniature:
one of those moments we find ourselves
in parity with every other thing,
equal in being to quince, fan, mirror,
that pitcher of water on the sideboard,
that window, full of light.

~

Weather weirding

We just passed the vernal equinox, and here in the Lehigh Valley (the Lehigh is our resident river, though the Delaware is awfully close) the early jonquils are blooming. As are crocuses, forsythia, ornamental plums; the magnolias are starting to burst their fuzzy, cocoon-like bud scales. These vernal events seem somewhat ahead of schedule–not by much, but enough for a nature-nerd like me to notice.

I also notice the redwing blackbirds arrive earlier than they used to. Twenty-five years of keeping a garden journal provide evidence of that.

We live 340 feet above sea level in zone 6A, or what used to be zone 6A–we’re definitely trending warmer, despite occasional fierce storms that drop deep snow unexpectedly, despite weeklong stretches of winter temperatures below 15 degrees F. Summers linger longer and are either much wetter or much drier than “average,” and overall degree days for the past 15 years are above historical averages. Indeed, 2020 was the warmest summer on record here; I checked. Told you I was a nerd.

When my daughter lived in Asheville NC about 12 years ago, I noticed the rain, as well as flourishing vines, and lichen, on so many of the trees. She said that the Blue Mountains in that area are a temperate rain forest, but the humidity bothered her less than here in eastern PA because of the higher altitude: Asheville’s at about 3000 feet elevation. In the last 8 years or so, I’ve noticed the same tree-clinging lichen in my region–a new development. I have lived here over 30 years and had never seen it before. Another thing I notice is how much more vigorous the vining plants, many of them non-native, have become and how rapidly they shoot up into the overstory, choking off the tops of tulip poplars and oaks and pulling down the trunks of dead ash trees. The growing season has lengthened a bit, which is worrying from an environmental perspective even if it means I may eventually be able to grow camellias and figs.

And I can’t deny finding some of the milder weather pleasant, especially the sounds of tree frogs filling the nights earlier in the year. They soothe me at the end of day. Yet these crucial amphibians are very much at risk as the world warms. I may have little choice about whether we can return to cooler, damper summers, but I can make choices about how I live in the world and about what matters. It bears keeping in mind as I work the soil for another season in my garden.

~

witch-hazel’s yellow threads // flung by warming gusts // where crocuses emerge

~

oh! they cheer me : jonquils emerging : green leaves spearing brown leaves

Conventional

It’s been a long time since I attended a convention, concert, or any large event. Thanks to covid, longer than usual. This year, I’m braving the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual conference–in person, next week–since it’s being held near me, in Philadelphia, this time. Never one for large crowds or rooms full of strangers, given my natural inclination to internalize or curl up in a corner with a book, I have nevertheless attended AWP in the past and have found it supplies me with creative energy in the form of writers I need to read, intellectual ideas I want to explore, and reasons to keep writing.

~

The conference provides a good place to meet up with fellow writers I know mostly “virtually” via social media or email, and to see folks who live far from me; it also features well-known writers in readings, panels, and conversation–always an excellent experience. I’ve blogged about past conferences (if you’re interested, type “AWP” in the Search form on this page, and a bunch of posts will come up). Attendees do not have to be academics or involved in creative writing programs to attend. I’m excited!

Meanwhile, the month of March does its typical lunge and feint, volt, and passe arriere as it heads toward springtime…I never know what to expect, weather-wise. Today: mild and almost 70 F. I’m hoping we get a string of 50-degree days that permit some garden preparation. But then again, that’s always what I hope for in March.

New in the outdoor garden this week: the first bumblebees have emerged. There’s one in this photo, amid the iris reticulata–

bumblebee, just left of center; iris reticulata

~

My tomato seeds have sprouted in their little seed-starting pots by the sunny window. Gardeners must be optimists. I guess I learned that from my dad.

Synthesis

“The current moment” has a way of inserting itself into poetry I write, not just these past weeks but always. I look at my poems written in the wake of the 9/11/01 attacks and can see reflected in their pacing, tension, or imagery some aspects of the anxiety of those days. Not that I wrote much poetry that employed that current moment as a topic or narrative…just that the numb dread, surprise, and confusion managed to enter in. Poetry can contain and convey those hard-to-describe emotional tensions. Ambiguities. Conflicted feelings. Multitudes.

Poetry, by its nature, requires synthesis. For example, metaphor is one type of synthesis. In Carl Sandburg’s poem “Good Morning America,” he famously says that “Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.” (But then, he also says “Poetry is a pack-sack of invisible keepsakes./ Poetry is a sky dark with a wild-duck migration./ Poetry is the opening and closing of a door,/ leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen/ during a moment.”) Make of it what you will.

A few posts back, I mentioned my dad has been showing up in my poems recently. That’s still occurring. This one doesn’t have a title yet, as I’m still mulling it over and will probably revise the whole poem down the road. The initial impulse for the poem had nothing to do with my father or the war in Europe, and we do not have any daffodils in bloom right now. But there they are.

~

[Verge]

On the road’s verge, geese stand looking unctuous,
	vaguely irritable as I pass them
going 50 on the route I’ve taken for decades
and this time I recall two years back, when my dad
	was failing, how eagerly I sought any sign
of seasonal change—
	early-flowering witch hazel, or crocuses, quince,
swells in daffodils’ green emergence 
while inside myself the slow emergency of his dying
	began to open from probable to imminent.
I drove south idly; through the windshield I 
	looked forward to nothing, as my mother
talked of nothing when he floated in his haze of pain
and Dilaudid while holding one hand over his head
	as though he could, with his fingertips, pull
the ache from his left ear over his head and into the room
	where it might exit.
Now, the exodus occurs elsewhere, in refugee waves
of people whose minds and bodies lug their different pains
	across other kinds of borders.
My father’s experience of earth has ended,
	his baptism complete. His birthday was in April.
	See there, along the roadside? Daffodils.


~~

Minor snow

We had a mild autumn that seemed to stretch longer than usual. Today, a dusting of snow and temperatures not much above freezing, gray sky, a meadow in beige-brown hues and the trees mostly leafless. According to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, the next few weeks are 小雪 xiǎoxuě, or “minor snow;” it is already winter. The jiéqì seasons follow the agriculture of northern China’s plains, and it’s striking to me how closely they resemble the agricultural seasons here in eastern Pennsylvania.

Lately, I feel the seasonal transitions physically. My body responds to the changing weather–not always a good thing, but not necessarily a bad thing, either. It connects me with the environment, reminds me of my necessary relationship with the world and its many beings and aspects: seasons, weather, water, plants, insects, bacteria, trees, other humans…

More than ever, I recognize the value in those relationships and treasure how varied they are. And I am just another part of the things I love and experience.

I also recognize my humanness as being “part of the problem” here. I use energy systems, I drive a gas-powered car, my house pumps water from the aquifer, I cleanse my house with disinfectants, my trash goes to a landfill, my income’s derived from an elite system of higher-education institutions. All that stuff that has materially altered the Earth for the worse and been unequally distributed among people? Responsible for my part in it. Trying to make changes.

I went out, wearing my robe and slippers, to the porch this morning to appreciate the barely-frosted landscape and breathe in the scent of minor snow. Sparrows and finches flitted through the bare shrubs, alive with activity. Tonight is the dark of the moon and soon the solstice will arrive. Times of transition. What will they bring?

Moment(s)

Very small pear.

~

It was delicious.

After last year’s complete dearth of pears, this year both trees were laden with fruit so that the boughs drooped, making things easier for the deer, who love to eat them. We were happy to share, as I haven’t got time these days to make pear butter or prep fruit for canning. We gave pears to friends, made pear cobbler, ate pears for breakfast, and enjoyed them immensely. And we liked watching a doe and her twin fawns nibbling around and under the trees at dawn and towards dusk.

The summer heat broke at last after the “remnants” of hurricane Ida crashed over us. If those were just remnants, I have deep respect for the people of Louisiana, who felt the initial force. We got 7″ of rain in less than a day, and the flash floods affected many of our friends. My basement office on campus is drying out during the 3-day weekend–our building’s drainage system was not quite up to the task of directing water away from our doors. Now, the brown crickets are noisier than the katydids, the grasshoppers have grown large, the days are shorter. Tomato harvest has slowed, and gardening consists mostly of pulling up weeds and dead plants. It is as though the downpour swept away summer, despite my knowing that the hot days will return. (September can be steamy here in my valley.)

I’m reading A.E. Stallings‘ collection Like and relishing her new takes on traditional poetry forms as well as her facility with establishing a sense of place in the poems. I appreciate her images and thought-provoking ideas, too. Her work does the things that I think poems are supposed to do.

Finally, I have been drafting a few poems, or at least hoping these drafts will turn into poems. I’ve also begun examining some older work for revision and, maybe, collection into another book. But that’s looking perhaps too far ahead. After a challenging couple of years, maybe just living in the moment serves me better.

The taste of fresh pears. The sticky sweetness of fresh local peaches. The smell of basil.

Cycles & theories

The Chinese lunisolar calendar puts us between 立秋 lìqiū, or start of autumn, and 處暑 chùshǔ, or limit of heat. Certainly the heat here lately has felt limiting, but the term more likely refers to the end of the hottest days of the year. My backyard world fills with haiku imagery for waning summer and impending autumn: katydid and annual cicada calls, birds starting to flock, morning glory and goldenrod, ripe pears, apples beginning to redden, hosts of butterflies. I watch as a hummingbird visits sunflowers, cannas, buddleia, corn tassels, and zinnias. Ripe tomatoes and zucchini weigh heavily on their vines.

Yesterday, a doe nibbled pears while her late-born twin fawns wove between her legs and the Queen Anne’s lace beneath the tree. The air hangs so humid, even the monarch butterfly’s wings seem to droop. A sense of waiting.

And I prepare for the fall semester. Cycles continue: that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

~

Therefore, to engage my intellect when my expressive ability with words seems sparse, I’m reading about theory. Specifically, the theory of the lyric in Western poetics, which turns out to be abstract and scholarly (no surprise, really–theory tends to be scholarly). My guide for this outing is Jonathan Culler’s book Theory of the Lyric. This text manages to be relatively readable despite its terminology; and as the terminology for the lyrical poem encompasses a long history of definitions, rhetoric, explanations, subgenres, and antiquated jargon, the going occasionally gets tough. I’m learning a great deal, however, about poetic experimentation over the centuries.

I now recognize that I have subsumed the idea of lyricism as it came down to American writers through Romanticism (see Hegel). It’s just that the concept of subjectivity in the lyric, and inward-turning emotion and the poet as speaker, has been so pervasive in Western poetics and pedagogy that it seemed a basic premise. Yet it was not always thus, and certainly other cultures employ lyricism differently and view it differently. It’s never an easy task to view from outside what is inherent in one’s own culture, but that’s where books like this one enlighten and challenge.

Besides the theory and historicity of poetry and the task of poetics, however esoteric and abstract, theory texts often elicit from me the urge to move to something more concrete, more creative.

I can only hope.

Fallow me

Blogger/poet/bookmaker Ren Powell recently suggested going fallow for awhile “to see what comes of it.” I tend to go through fallow periods quite accidentally. Used to call them writer’s block, but I don’t view them like that anymore. Fallow strikes me as a more accurate term for a number of reasons, some of them etymological. In current agriculture, a fallow field remains uncultivated purposely, to rest and improve the soil’s fertility. That seems more accurate to my current state of mind than “dry” or “blocked.”

Consider the field left fallow: plenty goes on there. Weed seeds germinate and sprout, annelids and arthropods, insects, and beetles, in their various life stages, multiply and move about. Voles, mice, toads go a-hunting. Bacteria do their thing. It’s not a lifeless place, the fallow plot.

But I haven’t been writing.

The publisher of my next book (The Red Queen Hypothesis) says yes, it’s still on her docket and will see the light of day–and print–next year, but that heartening news has not kicked me into gear on the writing front. And yet, by the time that collection comes out, the newest poem in it will be 6 years old. Some of the poems are almost 20 years old; it will not feel like a “new book” to me! Where, then, to put the newer work? What to do with the two half-completed, partially-revised collections of newer compositions that lie next to my desk and languish on my computer’s hard drive? Where is the motivation to finish the work or to start fresh?

I don’t know the answer to that just yet. But here’s an off-the-cuff haiku I dreamed up this morning that reminds me a bit of Issa’s poems.

~

fallow field
even a bird's dropping 
contains a seed 
painting by Jack FIsher

Naming names

A friend sent me the link to this NY Times article and asked my response as a gardener and as a writer who teaches writing. She wondered whether the flower-name Mexican hat (a type of coneflower) is racist, and if a flower resembled a beret and were called French hat, would that be racist?

“This Moth’s Name Is a Slur. Scientists Won’t Use It Anymore.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/09/science/gypsy-moth-romani-entomological-society.html?referringSource=articleShare

She has given me much to think about. I suppose people ought to use the botanical name to identify such things, but most people aren’t going to refer to gypsy moths as Lymantria dispar. Though if you look at the botanical names, those too bear some consideration as Eurocentric or white supremacist, given their inherent background: so many plants are named for their (colonizing) European “discoverers” or have names that mean “ugly” or “stinky” or, in the case of Lymantria dispar, “ill-suited and unlike.”

The reason Mexican hat (or French hat, for that matter) might be considered racist is that they are inherently stereotypes. Mexico is a huge and diverse place, and not everyone there wears a sombrero any more than all French people wear berets. I suppose we could call them sombrero flowers. That would be naming them by what they resemble. And we could call Dutchman’s Breeches pantaloons flowers. That’s a whole lotta name-changing going on, and the likelihood that everyone will take to the new names? That, only time will tell.

As to gypsy moths, the name was dubbed in a derogatory way–as in, “We don’t want those traveling gypsies around (and that’s what these moths are like).” So, it is a slur. A verbal aggression against Romani people who were already tagged with a name someone else gave them (the etymology of the name is here: gypsy).

Hypothetically, we could continue to call the moths gypsy moths; but when we use the term, we can tell our children (for example) it used to be considered a bad thing to be a gypsy, but the Romani people aren’t bad and neither are the moths–the moths are just being moths and doing what moths do. It’s people who brought them to a place the moths could end up being so destructive that we now have to kill them or discourage them from breeding here. [BTW, it was the white European people who colonized the American continent who brought the moths here.]

Yes, that’s complicated. Most people don’t want to go to the bother of subtle explanations. So sometimes a name change is actually simpler. People complain about “politically-correct language” and changing English into something it shouldn’t be…it can be difficult to keep track of.

But because English is a living language, I expect and generally accept changes to the language as there are changes in our living culture. Am I always happy about “verbing a noun” or use of the words “impactful” and “relatable” or mixing up “lie” and “lay”? Um, no. Does the speed of change make my job more difficult? Why, YES! But if a person makes me aware of sensitivity in language, such as stereotyping, I respect that. It makes me reflect on language and culture.

The beauty of the world in which we reside. Here’s Ratiba columnifer (the flower formerly known as Mexican hat).

https://www.highcountrygardens.com