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Ready for planting, Alaska 2003.

It would appear I still have the planting bug. Moving from ten acres in Alaska to a very small lot in Oregon, you would think I’d stop. But at night I plan what I’ll plant the next day, or what I’ll cut. A few days ago, I pruned two flowering crabapples that were spindly-tall, growing in the shade of several large Ponderosa pines. With the pole trimmer extended to 14 feet, I snipped the top branches in a way I hoped wouldn’t draw attention to my efforts. Pruning requires studying the tree and imagining the results before you cut—like poetry.

I’ve also been collecting plants, starts of iris, salvia, phlox, two Monardas (bee balm and bergamot), rhubarb, and Oregon grape—a native plant with leaves like holly. Already, I have planted lettuce and spinach, onions, three kinds of mint (pineapple, chocolate, and “mint julep”), thyme, sage, chives, parsley, one cucumber, and two peppers. Plus seeds: columbine, purple coneflower, and sunflower. I’m hoping for two dozen magnificent sunflowers leaning over the fence by the end of summer.

What is the magic that planting brings to poetry? Or poetry to planting? Is there a cause, or cure, for planting fever?

I conceived this post to be a sampling of poems of planting by women. Or perhaps I should say, sampler. Think of it as a quilt, each piece unique and yet sharing a color or thread, theme, or idea.

Carolyn Kizer’s poem “Fanny” is biographical of Fanny Stevenson’s time in Samoa with her husband Robert Louis Stevenson. With the first line, Kizer throws the reader into Fanny’s horticultural universe:

“At Samoa, hardly unpacked, I commenced planting.”

Even under normal circumstances, a gardener’s environment is one of planting binges, lucky occurrences, and loss and Kizer gives us an epic of the changes one woman makes on the landscape, as well as her personal experiences of loss—but I am more interested in the planting so if you want the loss part, please read the poem (link at the end of this post). Fanny:

“October, 1890. I have been here nearly a month;
Put in corn, peas, onions, radishes, lettuce. Lima beans
Are already coming up. The ripening cantaloupe were stolen.
Carruthers gave me mint root and grenadilla
Like a bouquet; he delivered a load of trees,
Two mangoes among them. I set them out in a heavy rain,
Then rounded off the afternoon sowing Indian corn.”

What you know if you plant, and notice reading this poem, is the communion with the dirt. The person who does the planning and planting has a rapport. Planting, you notice things, like whether there are worms, slugs, cutworms, or centipedes in the dirt you uncover. The act of planting can be bliss, and indifference to what others think. Fanny:

“When I’d opened the chicken crates, built the Cochins a coop.
The Reverend Mr. Claxton called, found me covered with mud,
My clothes torn, my hair in a wad, my bare feet bleeding.”

Or the criticism of a loved one:

“Louis has called me a peasant. How I brooded!
Confided it to you, diary, then crossed it out.
Peasant because I delve in the earth, the earth I own.
Confiding my seed and root—I too a creator?”

Any gardener knows the magic of discovering what the dirt offers, of instigating with seed or plant “starts” whole new (often edible) aspects of landscape. The gardener knows the magic of scents and smells, especially in a place where everything is new. Fanny:

“I discovered the ylang-ylang tree: a base for perfume,
Though it suggested to me the odor of boots.
Another tree is scented like pepper and spice,
And one terrible tree, I am forced to say,
Smells like ordure […] It nearly made me ill.”

“Fanny” is epic. Thirty-three stanzas, six pages printed. Kizer has gracefully condensed life and death, and a war, allowing us a poetic view inside the mania or obsession of the gardener. The gardener who plans and acquires seeds and plants, plans some more then sows or transplants. The gardener who keeps myriad tasks organized and everything watered and fertilized, weeded, and even sometimes devises frost protection. Not to mention dealing with insects, wildlife, or a gift of bees. And then there’s harvesting and processing or making perfume. Fanny:

“I discover wild ginger, turmeric, something like sugar.
Roots of orange, breadfruit and mango, seeds of cacao
Came with a shipment from Sydney; also eleven
Young navel orange trees. The strawberry plants are rotten.
I am given a handful of bees. I plant more pineapple.”

This is fantastic! For the gardener reading Kizer’s poem of Fanny’s time in Samoa! Following a tight rope of difficulties with aplomb and flexibility, the poem always rushing forward, like Fanny did. What a gardener will love: the effort and energy, and refusal to be intimidated, whether by the Reverend, her husband Louis (which worried her most), or the Samoans. I think this quality of Fanny’s remarkable story is why Kizer chose to create this poem and have it be the fourth part of her Pro Femina collection.

What haunts me is the “handful of bees.” Indeed, what does one do with a handful of bees? I’m certain Sylvia Plath would have released them immediately.

I hope you will read the entire poem, “Fanny,” by Carolyn Kizer. You’ll find it on the Poetry Foundation web site. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171311

Well, I thought I would cram a discussion of six poems of planting in one post but this is enough for now. I hope you will check back for my next post on Planting Mania! Or “follow” my blog! Thanks for visiting!

Comments, anyone?


Photo: Katie Eberhart.