Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens
by Ross Gay & Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Organic Weapon Arts, 2014
I recall while attending Indiana University the sort of city-wide obsession with gardening. My wife and I had relocated to south central Indiana from the great wide open of Montana and its forever wild mindset to the sometime near junglesque southern Midwestern prairie. To be in a place that so embraces the garden and working the earth in a manner that is both physically and spiritually sustaining was a very welcoming and endearing aspect to living in a place like Bloomington. So when I heard about this collaborative poetry chapbook from two poets with strong connections to the area and focused on gardening it instantly became a must read.
Before continuing I should say that I happen to be rather partial to epistolary poems. One of my all-time favourite collections being Richard Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams. Being a fan of the genre, so to say, helps a great deal in liking a particular collection. But these letter poems operate different. While they are advertised as letter poems, I would argue that these are more aptly described as poems that have been sent as letter. They perhaps function as letters should, but are most successful on the poetic level. The letter facet feeds into the collection in that each poem is a sort of epistolary response to the previous poem. Thus these a poems that speak to each other as much as they speak to the reader. Oddly enough, the reader is actually often called on by these poems to be two distinct people because they are constantly in the act of reading the poem directed at the other writer. Basically, you could say that can find a sort of experiential role as reader/writer in this piece. It is a nice drawing in factor for the work.
The individual poems in this chapbook are memorable and in many ways excellent. They are divided into seasons and act a sort of correspondence between the two gardens of their respective writers. Each piece ends with a sign-off that is rather reminiscent of Richard Hugo’s epistolary works. On the page, though, they don’t strike you as epistolary in nature. These pieces are decided poetic in nature and follow that form above all else. They are epistolary, however, in their lyric and narrative senses and do well to pull you in to the poetic worlds (basically gardens in south central Indiana and upstate New York) these pieces inhabit. The images are wonderful in the pieces and do so much to bring back memories of summer. Take this stanza from one of Nezhukumatathil’s pieces
” I cannot explain the click-step of beetles.
You are on your own for that. I grew up with patience
for soils and stars. Lace & pyrite. I believe
in an underworld littered with gems.
In another life, I have to. Sometimes I lose track
of all the bees and their singing.”
These worlds are deep, beautiful worlds were gardens give way to treasures and memories and fear and belonging. In short, there are these poems a deep-rooted lyric consciousness that pulls at soil and air to understand the places they inhabit.
My one single largest complaint is that chapbook is rather short. I know, I know, it’s a chapbook. But it’s quite short for a chapbook. While the book itself in quite handsome and professional in appearance, poetry graces a sparse 12 pages of it. There is a lot of white space with this particular chapbook. While this could be a good thing, I feel like it simply takes away from the wonderful poems that do grace the pages. This is because I want more, I want to understand, and feel the earth driven world that graces the lives of these poets and their poems. Sure, I’m greedy in some senses. But I feel like a need a certain minimum of poetry pieces to make this chapbook feel whole. I suppose, what you could say, is that the work here is so beautiful and the book itself so well laid out, I want and need more. And yes, this is a ringing endorsement, but I just want more.