Browsing the occasional poem or two every now and then found in a magazine or tripped over somewhere online is a different experience from reading a handheld book of poems straight through as if it were a novel. Even if most books of poems are collections of pieces previously published in magazines or journals, added to those poems a few new ones, so the purchaser of poetry feels he’s getting his money worth. Not always; some books of poems appear like a wildflower meadow suddenly erupted bloomed in one’s untended backyard.
A friend of mine, a true lover of poetry, a man of poems, who believes in transcendence by the word and the divine mystery at the heart of the rebirth of all things, but is not, therefore, make no mistake here, necessarily a poetry churchgoer, recently gave me a large bin and a bag of books, most of them poetry books. He and his wife are culling, a new pandemic leisure pastime.
Around the same time, I watched some neighbors carrying two of what appeared to be bookcases out to the curb in front of their house. In our neighborhood, such culling is a call for first come first served of items no longer of use or interest to their owners but with such value still probably somebody will swing by and pick them up.
One couldn’t, or shouldn’t, do such with an old couch or bed mattress, of course. Someone would call the local no-dumping-here police and you’d soon have a ticket for littering and who knows how many other violations of municipal ordinances one might be prey or heir to.
In any case, the neighbor’s bookcases didn’t last long at the curb. I mentioned to Susan the new development, and the next thing I knew I was carrying the two said bookcases into our house. One was temporarily temporary, because another neighbor also had had an eye on it, and it seemed only fair to share a giveaway, but it was subsequently decided she had no room for it, while Susan wanted to give it to Eric. So it sits empty, in Eric’s old, empty room, awaiting removal to his new digs, a change of venue which might have to wait out the pandemic.
The other of the two bookcases is now fitted snugly up against the back of the living room couch, waiting to see what will appear on its shelves. Not, necessarily, books. Recently, Susan asked me what she should do with my books after I die, “burn them, or bury them with you”?
I’ve another friend who claims to dislike poetry. He doesn’t understand poetry, he says, and, anyway, poems don’t do anything for him. Why anyone would feel such a statement necessary I don’t know. Something about a bad teacher he once had. Of course, only a very few like poetry. But poetry is such an easy target for the meanstruck cynic bent on pulling the weeds from the suburban lawn of literature. But such blanket statements are made with a sentiment similar to the neighbor who covers his lawn with chemicals to kill the weeds, the moss, the quackgrass. I hate weeds, he might say. Of course, only a very few like weeds. And those, not trying to cultivate a lawn.
I’ve decided to let our yard grass grow. When we moved in, but that was over thirty years ago now, the yard might still have had what might have been called a lawn. Then came the successive summers of drought when the municipality banned the watering of lawns. The grass returned to its natural habit of turning brown like hay in the late summer, dying back, but quickly recovering its green when the rains returned in the Fall. I continued to go through the motions of mowing as the green stuff reached a certain height during the Spring, but it would be presumptuous and pretentious to call what it is now a lawn.
In any case, the pandemic strikes us individually, it seems, such that some of us cull while others let stack up. Me, I’m letting my yard grass, and whatever else the yard might contain, grow. This is not to say without some thought and design. I was recently reading again about how the US suburban lawn grew into a values game, how clover came to be considered an evil, how more harmful chemicals were gradually poured annually into lawns than into agricultural hectares. And what one might do about it.
Take the lawn out, of course, as many of our neighbors have been doing for the past few years, and put in native plants, grasses that don’t need much water, fruit trees, raised beds, vegetable or flower or herb gardens. All of which we’ve done some, hit and miss, with receding
lawn grass space. It’s just a yard, one of many. But I’d like to think that to a few birds and bees flying over, it’s an open invitation to a safe landing zone. And I’d like to think of the yard as a poem, inviting its critical readers, passersby, to tarry, wondering what it’s all about, what it means, looking for a design.
But like the abandoned mattress put out to a curb, there are municipal curbs on what one might do with one’s yard. To wit, locally, grass may not be let grow longer than twelve inches tall. My gardening plan is to let my yard grow (and everything else that might be in it) until around mid-July, when it begins to die back naturally, and then cut it. And cut again once or twice in the Fall, and see what comes up next Spring. Likely, more of a meadow, a wildflower kind of meadow would ensue, if properly left alone. If one applies no rules, save that of not cutting. You mean a field of weeds, the cynic replies, like in an abandoned lot.
Yards, the keeping and maintaining of yards, the cutting and trimming and reading of lawns and grasses, are, after all, like poems. Some poems are like putting greens, mowed as short and as tight and flat as the flattop of your father’s Fifties barbershop cut, with just a bit of an edge held up by a touch of jell above the forehead, a tiny wave, a ringlet no breeze will disturb, no bird or rodent will nest in. Other yards are like the beehive hairdos or the bebop poems of around the same era. We get disparate yards and poems, no two exactly alike, yet we do find types: the suburban lawn poem, all the weeds pulled or killed with poisons, really the rulebound cynic out to make a point; the wildflower meadow poem, really the lazy man’s excuse for trading in the mower for a new chaise lounge where he can kick back with a beer and read a few poems in the shade of a summer’s day, surrounded by the soft call of the wild neighborhood bugs, undisturbed by the local cat creeping through the high grass, looking for a quiet place to nap. He too will nap, this new anti-lawn man, his book of poems fallen from his lap into the tall weedy grass.
A poem, Robert Frost said, is a momentary stay against the confusion of the world. True, no doubt, for his own poems. But what of the poems that seem a momentary departure from the sanity of the manicured lawn? Or at least from the trim and clean look of the cut yard, the heads of all the weeds whacked off?
The cynic wants to understand everything, and when he comes across something he can’t seem to get, or gets no immediate pleasure or reward from, he declares it presumptuous or pretentious or fraudulent. And the casual reader begins to think, fallacy of false dichotomy, that there are but two kinds of life, two kinds of yards, two kinds of poems, and one gets by in life only by pulling weeds from the garden of truth.
But, at risk of ending the post too aphoristically, truth is weeds.
And weeds is poetry.
Did He smile to make me?
The Tyger knows the answer
but waits behind the tree
while the smithy pounds
the fire to awoke cold eyes.
Did He make me to eat,
be eaten, or both, the blacksmith
beating, the heart now bleating,
dressed in cute bows,
the smithy now a ceremony?
Nature prefers wildernesses,
yet sticks to codes where one is tamed
to another, where one seems made
to ask questions, while the other
stares in doubt.
I’m in the habit of walking daily, not as committed to it as Thoreau, who said he walked eight miles through the woods daily, but most days I at least get around the block to have a peak into the neighborhood library box and see what new old stuff folks have tossed in, and this week I pull out three books, at first a delightful find, then, as I sit down back at the house to have a closer look, somewhat chilling.
I was raised on the Baltimore Catechism, and somehow I remember the first question as, “Why did God make me?” But this newer catechism reads, “Why did God make us?” A substantive change, I thought, so I looked up the Baltimore and read, “Why did God make you?” In any case, it was the answers I found somewhat chilling. Small wonder so many of us grew to question authority.
Disappointed in the catechism, I turned to Anne Hooper’s “Sexology 101,” also, I began to think, a kind of catechism in that its underlying purpose seems to be to ask and answer questions of a sexual nature, its focus though more on how we have sex rather than why we have it, and how we might disguise or diagnose or misunderstand or not even recognize our intentions from or with others. It seems humans have taken sex off nature’s grid, where there is no Q & A Following. We got to a point where no one talked about sex, but then studies were conducted, questions asked, and the rest is now academically stereotyped.
Dropping “Sexology 101,” at random I opened Michael Pollan’s “Second Nature” to page 67, where I find this: “That same scar shows up in The Great Gatsby, when Nick Carraway rents the house next to Gatsby’s and fails to maintain his lawn according to West Egg standards.” The “scar” referenced, I learn as I read backwards, is “a disgrace…where the crew-cut lawn rubs up against the shaggy one, is enough to disturb the peace of an entire neighborhood; it is a scar on the face of suburbia, an intolerable hint of trouble in paradise.” It seems someone had not read or gave no heed to their community lawn catechism: “After neighbors took it upon themselves to mow down the offending meadow, he erected a sign that said: “‘This yard is not an example of sloth. It is a natural yard, growing the way God intended.'”
I stack the new old books on the coffee table to return to the library box on the morrow. In the middle of the night I awake, a line of words in my head suggesting the three books tie together, and a kind of triptych poem emerges, which I finish off over a cup of coffee come morning.
The despot rising
declares a natural
state of emergency.
The pompous papa
prays on the instant
for a sum of leniency.
Alas, mere poet, see?
The sun protracts
your high-pitched misery.
Tonight a summer
full moon calls
a ball of lunacy.
The sun dictates the noon,
casts down dress codes
on the darling horology.
The moon denudes the day.
The night goes without
a blanket of authority.
The local nurseries and flower markets are loaded with starts, but I can feel the pink of the hard orange rose hips still sleeping, snoring in thorns, and hear the tiny golden broach just touching the iridescent crimson of the humming-bird’s throat.
Spring came yellowing in a green coach, wavy red-orange hair billowing out the open windows, the coarse driver spitting and spurring the horses to spirit, but the horses needed a rest already, apparently, and Spring slowed to a walk, not even a trot. Slug, slug, slug. One evening, a few weeks ago, we ate dinner outdoors – a false spring. I had lugged out the wooden table from the basement into the backyard, and we lit candles – it’s been covered with a vinyl table cloth since, to protect it from the rains.
And still the going is slow, the soil too wet to work, but I work it anyway, and the only birds following the hampered whirlicote, and a few Mew Gulls (never saw them before this far inland), sensing a lost trawler on restless water. Still, the apple tree is in fine form, drenched with blossoms and besotted with a few skittish bees. A little early for besotted bees, but there it is, Spring.