Reviewed by M. Moro-Huber
To read Larsen’s Why We Make Gardens is to enter a world where the strata of each poem are enriched by the loam of that first paradisaical garden. (You know, the one with naked people running a-muck and something about a snake and an apple?) In other words, this is some epic writing. There are layers within layers which reveal that antiquity of garden symbolism and the metaphor of growth is cradled in the vivid images Jeanne brings forth from her own pilgrimage into the actual gardens that prominent poets of the past had tended and/or written about.
Where do we begin? Larsen’s poetry seems to ask, and what is the germination of our humanity, as a society, and as an individual. Is reality internal or external or both, how does our mind sift through it all, what takes root, what grows there, (here?) and what are we becoming? Much, if not all, of the book might be read as Ars Poetica or meta-poetry. For example, in her first poem we read:
The Gazing-Globe Garden
is the element ether, a stuff
insubstantial as any that transits
Carrara of columns, remembrance’s
angles of mountains, the blunt
edge of the world.
Glass. It’s merely
a mirror, a round-up
of jonquil, columbine, dwarf crested iris,
bellflowers’ slow first sprigs.
It glistens, accepts,
Sinks as the plants rise
towards their doubles.
It is what surrounds
it. Or it is
both, like the tangible bloom
of a face on its skin.
The “Gazing-Globe Garden” is a garden of the mind. Larsen begins by presenting the reader with the idea of memory, the elemental ether, the images our mind captures as if to hold and keep forever as some type of lasting monument, a Carrara of columns—(and don’t you just love the lyricism moving the lines along in this poem?)
The columns represent that which we might imagine as real, or solid, or lasting/eternal, but Larsen turns the poem in on itself when she declares this reality to be “Nonsense.” The reality Larsen brings to us is not just the idea of memory, but of the present, of the now, of us reading the words she has written on the page. We see that stone column, we imagine the curve of that globe—which is a mirror as the mind is mirror, as memory is mirror—as words also become a mirror to thought.
And what is this poem asking us to see? First, consider the glass and what is reflected in the globe: “a round-up of jonquil.” A jonquil is a daffodil, of the plant family narcissus. Ah, very clever Ms. Larsen. We are really just looking ourselves, she says.
But not only are we looking at ourselves in the “Garden-Globe” (our mind, this reflection of reality) by the reading of the poem we are now participating in looking at ourselves-looking at ourselves. (Are you having fun yet, well, I am—because I’m just narcissistic enough to do so.)
Let’s consider the other flowers reflected in this “Garden-Globe.” Larsen’s columbine allows a dichotomy in symbolism which adds another twist of meaning to the poem. “The symbolism of the columbine flower is varied, and often quite confusing. It was once believed that this flower was a symbol for cuckoldry and foolishness, at the same time, however, it was considered a symbol of fidelity and holiness.”
Reality then, memory, and all the images we see in our mind—specifically the image Larsen is creating of flowers reflected in a garden globe becomes representative of what we, ourselves, “see” when we are reading a poem. What Larsen is reflecting back to us can be either holy or profane, depending on how the reader decides to look at it.
The reflected image of the “dwarf crested iris” in the “Garden-Globe” is a slyly humorous poke at the narcissistic tendency to wallow in the beauty or the idea of “self.” Larsen seems to be giving the reader a wink here, letting us know she is aware she too is a participant in this globe-gazing narcissism through the process of writing the poem. We can also see Larsen’s smart sense of humor in the use of the word “Globe” (which has been used back in the day of good Old English *hello, Shakespeare* as another word for a person’s head, a globe might be construed as an overly large cranium perhaps, a ridiculously intelligent person or a fat head—or both, maybe?) The word “globe” also pulls from the idea of a literal map, the earth-sphere so often propped on a desk more for aesthetic appeal than actual use, so with the placement of that one word Larsen pulls us into that multiple world of meanings words have, both internal and external: Globe/mind/world—do you see it now, fat head?
I don’t think she is poking fun at the reader’s expense though as the poem itself becomes the globe, and here we touch upon meta-poetry, the idea of “poem” parallels that globe, it may just be ornamental or it can be a useful map, or both, depending on the reader. Basically we who dabble in words are ALL fat heads in the “Gazing Globe Garden,” but the question here (for me) which the poem brings to my mind, the problem, the sticking place—of what use are these images of flowers, of gardens, of reflections and why even bother considering the weight of meaning and symbolism each implies? If “remembrance’s granite” is “nonsense” is she claiming everything is a reflection and nothing is real or important or lasting, what are we to make of our own memories, these images, this life, reality? Is she claiming reality is only a reflection which occurs in the mind where the self is a mere reflection of a reflection? Is nothing tangible? What exactly is the “it” Larsen refers to in the final lines?
Let’s consider the bellflower (which interestingly enough in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Rapunzel took her name from one Campanula rapunculus (the Latin term for one of the bellflowers.) What is the way out? Is there a long golden ladder of hair somewhere we can use to climb up, or down, this poem on?
The answer is no. Tough luck fat-heads, there are a multitude of bellflower types, which seems to indicate to the reader—don’t expect one answer to any of your questions regarding the “elemental ether” that “stuff” of science and religion which we use to explain our existence. We try to use words, too, to define and explain things, words like “self” or “soul.” But, words provide so many dichotomies there are multiple ways to consider the reality of every single association the words in the poem call forth. Behind the words, though, Larsen is reaching for a reality that moves in and around and beyond language. Larsen provides us with complex layers of meaning not to confuse the reader with her careful word placement but to provide choices for the reader, different paths for the reader’s mind to ramble down. There is not just one way to interpret this poem, folks, not just one way to interpret any word in this poem, or in any poem for that matter as “it” (words, the act of reading) all brings to the surface of thought associative meanings that are unique to each individual reader.
Take the word/image of “columbine,” for example, besides the historical symbolism mentioned above, intended or not, there are many who lived through the terror of a high school shooting who will never separate that word from the flower from the event. Careful now though, let me be clear that in the above paragraph I’m just sharing my view of what one interpretation could be in this specific instance, which the poem’s carefully constructed (planted, seeded) dichotomies allow.
But there IS a resolution in this poem. Larsen relates the way the reflection merges with the mind to the image of the bellflowers “slow first sprigs.” To experience this poem, this moment, this reality and to see the brilliance working here is to also see the brilliance working in your own mind—the “It” is that which is seemingly unknowable, the undefined “ether” outside of self, but the “it” is also the internal processing of the external world and the “it” is that which we view, we know, we become as we discover in this moment that which is true. Or should I say we discover that which is. True?
It is what surrounds
it. Or it is
I must mention the important line-break on “is” here. With that specific line-break Larsen is declaring: whatever this experience, this reality, this reflection can or can not be defined as, does not matter… simply put: it IS. “It” exists, “self-containing” or what “surrounds”—internal reality, external experiences—“the bloom of a face on its skin.” Macro-micro, the elemental and the intangible not to be separated and labeled or put in a box, but reflected through and in the language of poetry into the mind of the reader.
Is the skin separate from the face? (interesting what she does here with juxtaposition…so many layers!) The face/skin and flower/bloom poem/poet reader/poem—all intertwine, and it leaves me feeling humbled and grateful to wonder: is the poem separate from the reader—are we not becoming something as we read, and is the process of understanding separate from that which is already understood, the revelation here—well, I will leave that to you to determine.
And folks, that was just the opening poem. I suggest this book is a garden worth visiting, more than once.
If I had any complaints about Jeanne Larsen’s writing I’d have to say her writing is too cerebral. She should dumb it down some with a rhyme here and there.
(Uh, that’s a nerdy joke.)
Jeanne Larsen’s first book, James Cook in Search of Terra Incognita, won the AWP annual competition in poetry. She has also published three novels (Silk Road, Bronze Mirror and Manchu Palaces) and two volumes of translations, most recently Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon: Women’s Poems from Tang China (BOA editions). She lives in southwest Virginia and is presently the Susan Gager Jackson Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University.