I own a solace shut within my heart,
A garden full of many a quaint delight
And warm with drowsy, poppied sunshine; bright,
Flaming with lilies out of whose cups dart
With powdered wings.
~ Amy Lowell, Behind a Wall
I am a lover of poetry, but do not like every poet I’ve read. Today I was spending time with Amy Lowell, whom I’d discovered recently, completely by accident. I mean, her name was familiar, she appeared on lists of other writers, but people didn't comment much on her work. Maybe there was a reason for this.
Lowell seemed to belong to the group of Imagist poets, whose most famous member is Ezra Pound. I knew nothing about Amy, but made it a point to read up on her life and work. I had only read a bit of Ezra's work, because this style and artistic period had taken a back seat to some flashier writing, what I saw as the real avant-garde. The imagists seemed too constrained, too indistinct. They wrote subtle lines you had to read twice to see subtle meant capable of complexity.
Too complex and too subtle can bore a lot of people, especially nowadays. Still, I looked it up.
Imagism: “An early 20th-century poetic movement that relied on the resonance of concrete images drawn in precise, colloquial language rather than traditional poetic diction and meter.” (Poetry Foundation)
That only helped me a little bit. It didn't sound so different from avant-garde writing, either. It was worth giving Amy a chance.
What a fortunate coincidence! I was trying to lose myself in poetry so I wouldn’t have to think about how ho-hum my yard - front and back - was. Maybe a bit of poetry would improve the yard’s appearance. I had been living in the house for about ten years and never given it much thought.
I own a solace shut within my heart,
A garden full of many a quaint delight
I guess I was in need of some solace:
Solace: 1. comfort in sorrow, misfortune, or trouble; alleviation of distress or discomfort. 2. something that gives comfort, consolation, or relief. (Dictionary.com)
So is solace something I feel or is it the source of that feeling, the source of the comfort? I am wondering now if this whole poem is about the speaker or about what goes into the speaker, through eyes or nose, maybe a flick of the fingers or a sprig of something chewed on, like mint, basil, chervil?
There's another bit of complexity here: is the garden the solace or is the garden the heart? Turning this doubt around and rethinking things, is the heart a garden of delights? ... my heart, a garden...
Here terrace sinks to terrace, arbors close
The ends of dreaming paths; a wanton wind
Jostles the half-ripe pears, and then, unkind,
Tumbles a-slumber in a pillar rose,
I knew it. I did not have a pear tree, the blueberry bushes bear sparse fruit and the birds always have eaten them before I can. Useless, gangling plants that take up room in all the wrong places. Plus, my pillar rose isn't really attached to a pillar; it just rambles up a metal trellis shaped like a stained glass window without any glass. Still the trellis' form reminds me of the countless real stained glass windows I've seen, in so many countries. No glass in these little cut-outs here, but the imagination works quite fine.
This poem, I am finding, has a bit of sensual swagger to it.
Wanton: 1. done, shown, used, maliciously or unjustifiably; 2. deliberate, without motive or provocation; uncalled-for; headstrong; willful; 3. without regard for what is right, just, humane; careless; reckless; 4. sexually lawless or unrestrained; loose; lascivious; lewd.
I was sorry I had looked it up, that word. I knew what it meant, it wasn't anything very good, but seeing all its tendrils and ramifications led me to be a little fearful. My wanton wind was simply gusty, disarranging the vegetation and animal residents of my garden, but it didn't approach the category of sexually lawless, lascivious, or untrustworthy. My wanton wind definitely wanted to curl up in the prickly stems of a rosebush and sleep, grown indolent.
Indolent: 1. wanting to avoid activity or exertion; lazy. 2. MEDICINE (of a disease or condition) causing little or no pain. (Dictionary. com, more or less.)
Amy's poem confuses me, I confess. Who or what is indolent here among these words like blades of grass, dear Walt. ? Is it perhaps not the wind? Could it be the rose? Or is it the garden-heart? I think there are times when one can make a good case for indolence, by the way. Like right now, reading and watching, hoping to stumble across the non-boring part of my yard, a place that has never really been my heart. I think I have a few minutes to wander, without wind or pears, a deck in place of terraces, unfortunately.
It occurs to me that I should confess to having once hated Hostas. They seemed boring, just green leaves, smooth, pointed at the end. My own garden is beautiful proof that we should never assume we know everything about anything. It displays - from places I've forgotten - leaves with stripes, like green and white skunks; golden leaves the color of flat, smooth dandelions; monster canopies a foot wide, in matte gray-green bursting with pink blossoms. A lot of Hostas are insect-resistant, too. I really need more for the shady areas. They clearly are thriving here.
Hydrangeas. One of my favorites, as long as they are blue. No white or pink for me. I think some copper compound makes the pink turn blue, but might need to look that up. I have at least seven hydrangeas and two are really big. I hope they all grow into trees. That would be lovely, sitting beneath a branch covered with soft balls of blue. It never occurred to me that could be a part of my garden until just now, now that I'm wandering and comparing. I am feeling very tempted to go to the local nursery and get another three or so Hydrangeas, all blue, to add to the azure clouds that I've begun to notice hovering about the house, in my heart or yard. There is no legal limit to the number of Hydrangeas a person is allowed to have in her life. (I looked that up, so it's true.)
Heucheras have a rather ungamely name, or unappetizing. I needed them in this dull yard because there are lots of shady corners and a tree or two. (Hostas are great in shade and need almost no care. I am so grateful to mine, especially the elephant ear variety, for their vigor.) I guess Linnaeus named the genus after Johann Heinrich von Heucher (1677–1746), a German physician and Professor at Wittenberg University. In that respect, I can't blame the poor plants, because the scientist's last name must sound a whole lot better pronounced correctly, in German. Now it would be interesting to find out what Heucher did that made him so famous. I only heard he worked with medicinal herbs sometimes.
Herbs. Yes, I've got some of those growing, but they're so scrappy quilt style that sometimes I forget there's a patch of Thyme in the frontmost rock garden. There's also a mad Oregano plant and an almost-as-mad thyme beside it to the left as you stand on the porch and look at the street. Actually, I need to note that there are three or four patches of thyme, some along the front path, next to the Cranesbill and the St. John's Wort. Then swinging around back there are the raised beds, one of which pleasantly vomits Catmint in growing amounts, year after year.
The little favorite here is the Winter Savory, too grand of flavor to try to describe to one who thinks it looks like thyme. Spiked Chives, neither dying nor thriving in a corner of a raised bed. Sage. Chervil and Sorrel and Catnip. Sweet Annie, in its place but interrupting other crops by growing tall, feathery, fragrant, inedible. Perfect for incense-like bouquets. Might have been used in making absinthe, which is scary for the brain. I like thinking none of my plans for or are hazardous to the health.
Borage has forsaken me this year, but I know it can be coaxed back. Annie will show it the way. Basil has worked in strange ways this season and balks at becoming tall or bushy. The fact that they go away every year in the fall, but borage brings itself back by its taproots while basil begs for a new packet of seeds - that fact amazes me. Some seeds survive snow. Some bid forever farewells. My garden-yard is reminding me of this, of its diversity, its millions.
Euphorbia that can become a tree (or not), can be a perennial (or not), has two thousand members in its genus (or more). I prefer this name or spurge, because instead of thinking about purging, it's more pleasant to think of euphoric. Apparently this plant is named for the Greek physician who married the daughter of Anthony and Cleopatra. Linnaeus, great classifier that he was, came along and expanded the whole genus to Euphorbos. Can't fault Linnaeus.
Rudbeckia. Name chosen by Linnaeus to honor his patron and fellow botanist at Uppsala University, Olof Rudbeck the Younger, and Rudbeck's late father Olof Rudbeck the Elder, Naturalist, Philologist, Doctor of Medicine, (discoverer of the lymphatic system), and founder of Sweden's Linnaean Garden in Uppsala. (Gleaned from Wikipedia.) However, the real meaning of the name comes from Linnaeus' words about the human-nature connection:
So long as the earth shall survive and as each spring shall see it covered with flowers, the Rudbeckia will preserve your glorious name. I have chosen a noble plant in order to recall your merits and the services you have rendered, a tall one to give an idea of your stature, and I wanted it to be one which branched and which flowered and fruited freely, to show that you cultivated not only the sciences but also the humanities. Its rayed flowers will bear witness that you shone among savants like the sun among the stars; its perennial roots will remind us that each year sees you live again through new works.
Clearly Linnaeus wanted to communicate important ties to the Rudbeck line as well. Thus, as I pass by the larger back deck where a large, lovely clump of lemony Rudbeckias with green nuclei flutters against meringue yellow cedar shakes, I think it would be nice to go to consult with the other clump out front, on the corner of the lawn where the drive slowly sign is. It's a tall sign and the yellow flowers are at the bottom edge, so, yes, tall. Would it be worth measuring the Rudbeckias? I am laughing now, because it wouldn't be worth it, but at least it would be silly. (My little yard has actually made me laugh.)
I fear I have strayed far from Amy Lowell and her poem, and the poem isn't even over. I am nearly out of time and don't think I can address the Fittonia agryneura, the Mosaic plant with green tiles for leaves, tiles lined with white grout, fitting together perfectly. I wouldn't know where to start with all the day lilies, especially the ones that are wine-colored, almost scarily so, because if you see one you want to drink it, even if you never drink wine. Must keep walking this poem...
By night my garden is o'erhung with gems
Fixed in an onyx setting. Fireflies
Flicker their lanterns in my dazzled eyes.
In serried rows I guess the straight, stiff stems
Against the rocks.
Fireflies… few and far between. I was afraid my garden had little to offer. The only solution I can see short term is to string some tiny lights in the back yard in strategic areas, like where the fern forest has overgrown its original boundaries. Not the same as the real insects, but would serve as consolation. Another idea - and I know this one works well - is to stop, close my eyes, and be a little girl again, in another state and another yard.
Flash! It's all there! The poem, my reading, the little girl. It's all here, super- and sub-imposed on this small lot. And suddenly, my breath quickens, I walk through wanton water and waves of wind. I am tying everything together: Amy’s words, the backlit world overlooking the brook down below, the growth everywhere…
Serried? Crowded or pressed together, indicates Merriam-Webster, revealing to me that this is a very curious word. I've never heard it before and am stunned. Unlike the poem, there were Hollyhocks only once here. I thought they were perennials when I planted them, but maybe I hadn't known how to keep them perennial.
Thank goodness I have the 'imposed hollyhocks' of another garden, maybe not serried, but at least somewhat abundant. They were once lovely little ladies to me, but now their beauty for me is in the concept of hollyhock. This flower must be protected, and I've heard hollyhocks can be killed by a specific type of weevil and a type of rust or fungus. That sounds so unfair, but I will take a closer look and make sure my next hollyhocks are the perennial sort, not the annual or biennial. I want ones just like the ones I had and harvested as a girl, complete with weevils and rust. Finding them might require some research, but it’s worth it. Wait - Amy hasn’t quite finished. She still has a wall to teach me. (I need to learn to listen better.)
So far and still it is that, listening,
I hear the flowers talking in the dawn;
And where a sunken basin cuts the lawn,
Cinctured with iris, pale and glistening,
The sudden swish
Of a waking fish.
Talking in the dawn? At nightfall (called luscofusco in my other language for understanding gardens, yards, plants, leaves, little animals that are not too wild). My flowers might be awake at dawn, but I am more likely to meet them and hear them at midnight. I never get up with the day because I tend to be off exploring the night. Still, I understand where Amy is coming from. We should just listen to hear when our flowers are saying something. I thought mine were all mute, so of course they were plain and boring. It has taken a poem and a slice of time to realize my error.
Cinctured. The word needs no translation. It can just be there in the garden, a precious gem resting on the greenery like shy, cool dew. Morning or night, we cannot survive without dew. The air writes on green, papery surfaces, and every airy syllable leads to the first time we learned that dew existed. Cinctured. Serried. Indolent. Wanton too, if you insist. Dripped sound, transparent and happy, everywhere.
Fish. What kind? I have no pond but no longer am going to blame my yard for that. I can make do with the brook out back, down the slope. I have recently discovered that I own a small stretch of the brook, so that when it gurgles through the back portion of my property, the gurgles from one back corner to the other are mine. My land ends a few feet over onto the opposite shore. Solace, definitely. The brook had many uses in the past, in its flow to the nearby Atlantic. Now it speaks of the future, what it might become, and welcomes me to come, too.
I have apparently been behind the wall of my own laziness. Amy’s poem got me thinking. Woke me up. Pulled things into focus. Slowed me down. Caught my heart and its early memories. Made me see that my yard - front and back, both - has layers of time and color, sounds and silence. Thick, rich, vast, magnifying layers of recycling life.
Things are beginning to fuse, to meld. I will lean on this maple tree, which I now realize is perfect. That will steady me. I am becoming attached to this.
Patchwork. This garden-yard is stitched by a split rail fence. Sewn by river stones. Reinforced, shaped, by bricks. Pattern? Does it need one? What is happening? My thoughts are all colors now, and the colors are wishes as deep as the fish I might find in the brook down below.
There are whites: spiraeas, nicotiana, some of the comfrey. None of the three whites overlaps with the others.
Monoprint yard, overlaid by an abstract design, a stencil with curves and angles; other stencils resembling tattered lace or oak leaves. Acorns and their uses. I need to look that up. I think the pioneers baked with acorn flour. Or the first peoples. Hostas are edible, not just for deer. I might look for a recipe. There is much more nourishment here than I had realized. Amy’s poem showed me. So I know now:
I own a solace shut within my heart,
A garden full of many a quaint delight
Amy, how did you know I wrote those words? I never published them, and you could not have read them. Yet you published them with your name, so you beat me to it. You didn’t steal them from me, we know. The lines have you as author. That doesn’t upset me... I own a solace… It is mine. I claim it and also claim myself to be its creator. Solace born from quaintness. From this yard-heart of mine and our words. The garden and its animal residents owe their beauty to you.