with critique by Jendi Reiter
Blooms the sunrise as the foliage
The will of dawn. Salmon mist
Ochreous with affliction, its colors
Coalesce into infinity.
The whole day is without serenade or sorrow
The black bird
Beats its wings against the fence
Then off like a spear
The flowers are without fragrance
There are only these poppies, blood red
Swarmed by baby's breath.
The sun blooms, beats high above me
The distance of night is done for
Caught between these two realms, I turn away
Into the startling darkness of the day.
Copyright 2007 by Joleen Leo
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, Joleen Leo's "The Garden", shows one way to make a familiar poetic subject fresh and interesting again. Gardens feature prominently in the Western artistic vocabulary, starting with the Bible. Like art itself, the garden represents the harmonious coexistence of the given and the manufactured, deriving its vitality and surprise from the independent workings of nature, but paradoxically finding its truest essence by being set apart from nature, forced into a human-made form.
In medieval art, the garden was a symbol of purity and tranquility; in the Bible, it represented a safe homeland as opposed to the physical and spiritual alienation of the wilderness. Now that the greatest encroachment on our peace typically comes not from nature but from human activity, the wildness of gardens, rather than their controlled aspect, attracts us as a source of renewal in our sterile post-industrial environment.
Leo's garden scene is unsettling, juxtaposing moments of expectant stillness with flashes of energy, even violence. Her fractured syntax jolts the reader into a mode of consciousness where one must process intense sensations without the comforting distance of a narrative framework. Imagine the more commonplace ways that this scene could have been described: the sun rises on some rather common varieties of flowers, and a blackbird flies away. Safe, predictable, ignored on our front lawns every day.
Leo employs several techniques to infuse these small incidents with dramatic tension, thereby telling us that they are worth studying. Like the atom that contains the potential for a bomb, every bird or flower, if seen correctly, pulses with an unbelievable force of pure being.
Consider the opening lines "Blooms the sunrise as the foliage/The will of dawn." Beginning with a verb creates a mood of action, and also suspense because the normal word order is reversed. We look for a subject with which to identify. "The will of dawn" personifies the sunrise—it has a will, a consciousness. Humanity is not the primary or only actor here. Sun and foliage both bloom; does the latter, too, have a will? The possibility is thrilling and disturbing.
The phrases "Salmon mist/Ochreous with affliction" and "The day is without serenade or sorrow" suggest that great emotions are at stake, but in a way that is a mystery to us. "The black bird//Beats its wings against the fence/Then off like a spear". The joyful violence of this image reminded me of D.H. Lawrence's poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1922), such as "Almond Blossom", where he describes the buds emerging on the tree as "Strange storming up from the dense under-earth/Along the iron, to the living steel/In rose-hot tips, and flakes of rose-pale snow".
Some of Sylvia Plath's Ariel poems (e.g. "Tulips", "Poppies in July") perform a similar reversal of our expectations of the pastoral. I thought of Plath when reading Leo's lines "The flowers are without fragrance/There are only these poppies, blood red/and rose//Swarmed by baby's breath." They share the same fascination with uncontrolled fertility (as in Plath's bee poems), the innocent turned suddenly threatening, a too-vibrant life coexisting with a chill waxwork beauty (flowers without fragrance).
I was conflicted about the introduction of a first-person voice in the final four lines. A personal element can draw the reader further into the scene, helping to explain its importance. I've read a lot of beginning writers' poems that present a well-realized description of a landscape, but nothing else, no characters or connection to human themes, and these often leave me feeling flat. It would be wrong to object to non sequiturs in a poem whose style is defined by paradox and surprise, but I did wonder whether the self-identified narrator's storyline or concerns were really the same as those explored in the preceding lines. What are "these two realms"? This reference seems to assume a clarity of argument that the poem has so far avoided, indeed gained its unique power from avoiding. I did love the last line, with its echoes of Henry Vaughan's "deep and dazzling darkness". I could feel the temporary blindness of walking into a shaded room after being out in the garden under the blooming, beating sun.
Where could a poem like "The Garden" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
JBWB Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by June 30
British writer Jacqui Bennett's website offers quarterly prizes of 100 pounds for poems up to 30 lines; online entry/payment accepted
Yorkfest Arts Festival Adult Literary Competition
Entries must be received by July 6
Pennsylvania arts festival offers $100 prizes for light and serious poetry and fiction by authors aged 18+
Erskine J. Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: August 15
$200 prize for unpublished poems from the journal Smartish Pace; online entries accepted
This poem and critique appeared in the June 2007 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).