February 11, 2012

Benjamin Vogt, poet, gardener: Guest essay

With great pleasure I welcome here poet, writer, gardener Benjamin Vogt. My love is his book of prose Sleep, Creep, Leap: The first three years of a Nebraska garden. Ah, those monarch butterflies that flocked to his milkweed.

Today hear his voice as he speaks of his book Morning Glory and get a glimpse of work that has not yet gone out widely into the world. I hope you will comment, tell us your stories about land and flowers and responding to chaos. When you do, you help hold up the universe, as Annie Dillard so wisely tell us in Living by Fiction. I turn to her words to introduce you properly to the poet and gardener Benjamin Vogt:

"The most extreme, cheerful, and fantastic view of art to which I ever subscribe is one in which the art object requires no viewer or listener—no audience whatever—in order to do what it does, which is nothing less than hold up the universe.

"This is a fundamentally insane notion, which developed in my own mind from an idea of Buckminster Fuller’s. Every so often I try to encourage other writers by telling them this cheerful set of thoughts; always they gaze at me absolutely appalled. Fuller’s assertion was roughly to this effect: The purpose of people on earth is to counteract the tide of entropy described in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Physical things are falling apart at a terrific rate; people, on the other hand, put things together. People build bridges and cities and roads. They write music and novels and constitutions. They have ideas. That is why people are here; the universe as it were needs somebody or something to keep it from falling apart. … Thoughts count. A completed novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order." —Annie Dillard

 Benjamin Vogt is the author of the poetry collection Afterimage (SFA Press, May 2012). The excerpt here is taken from his unpublished memoir Morning Glory: A Story of Family & Culture in the Garden. Benjamin’s poetry and prose has appeared in American Life in Poetry, Diagram, ISLE, Orion, Subtropics, The Sun, and Verse Daily, and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Benjamin has an M.F.A. from The Ohio State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska. He lives in Lincoln where he runs a native plant garden coaching business, Monarch Gardens, and is at work on a memoir about his Mennonite settler family in 1894 Oklahoma, the southern Cheyenne, and Great Plains flora and fauna.

 Benjamin Vogt on his memoir Morning Glory

When I wrote Morning Glory I knew I’d eventually have to unearth a complicated and buried family history, forcing myself and others to pick off some scabs and even create new wounds. This prospect made me profoundly uncomfortable. One way for me to build confidence was to start with the somewhat cautious relationship I had with my mother growing up. The relationship is one cultivated in the shadow of her childhood—wearing your emotions on your sleeve is what often caused trouble. A drunken stepfather and a conservative Baptist church saw to that. Yet if intimacy can’t be found in open, profound discussions, it can be found through the art of indirection, or metaphor—and it can be just as resonate and tender. When I finished the piece Mary publishes here, I knew it would serve as a set up to the heart of my memoir about gardening and its sheltering power for my great grandmother, my mother, and myself. The devil, or the emotion, is in the details. As a poet I was keenly aware of the imagery as a way to explore emotion, and I hope the action adds to the subtle dynamic of the family relationship I was beginning to understand.

from Morning Glory
        “Mind if I join you, or are you doing your solitary writer thing?” My mother approaches the edge of the circular brick patio at the base of her back garden, and seems at once sincere and sarcastic. I had had my eyes closed for just a few minutes, so I’m not sure where she came from.
        “No. Go ahead.” I’m happy she’s come by. Usually, I feel disruptive when I corner her outside—there seems to be simultaneous tension and complacence to my presence in the world surrounding my childhood home. Maybe she feels the same, I’d never thought of that before. Maybe she, a woman I’ve always taken to be strong-willed, bull-headed, and good for a kick in the pants when needed, maybe she always feels like she’s interrupting me. 
        I’d been outside in the early evening before dinner just for the warm shade and the inaudible soft mists that touch my legs, coming from the two foot waterfall just feet away. The smell of juniper—one that piggybacks along several specific memories in my life—sweetens and clouds the moment to the point of blissful confusion. Being in nature is like being on a merry-go-round set at 180 rpm—so much to focus on, so much to see, smell, touch, and hear. Squirrels perform Cirque du Soleil twirls and leaps on thin branches high above in the maple and oak canopy; sparrows, finches, and cardinals call themselves home in the waning hours of sunlight that begin to cool between the limbs and shadows. Mom settles into her chair without making the slightest sound, or if she does it blends into the hesitant rustle of leaves in a light breeze.

I look at her by looking around her, into the garden we tended together when I was younger. I glance from butterfly bush to her flower-printed shirt speckled in dirt, from the manicured weeping spruce to her thick dark hair still combed in waves that blend into the criss-cross pattern of the black chain link fence behind her. The curved metal legs of the glass table mimic her recline: a head that sticks out a little from the torso, eager and patient to hold the world around it, the curve of the thickening neck back in toward a body that settles out around it, just wide enough to hold firm against the ground. Her tennis shoes—the sides and bottoms green from lawn mowing—give her the mark of being partly absorbed into something other, stained by some place, some landscape where I’d never been.
“It’s very peaceful out here this time of day,” she says suddenly, but the comment blends into the pause between breezes and flighty chickadees whose feet are stuck into maple trunks. A moment later she says, “My favorite time of day,” hazarding a response from me, or maybe the distant clouded growl of a motorboat passing down on the lake. I say nothing, but lift one leg atop the other to give myself, unconsciously, the reposed, thoughtful and participatory look a person might have in a business meeting. She took the hint of attention without flinching, and without turning from her gaze over the hillside to the water. “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine. I think.” I add the latter bit simply to lighten the moment, or—looking on me and my family’s tendency to avoid intimacy and openness—used a hint of sarcasm and humor to detach myself from the depth of emotion growing around me.
“I mean,” she begins more directly. “I mean no more stomach problems.” After college I’d had issues with acid reflux disease, a newly-coined term in the medical world, that had kept me from eating normally for months at a time and made me lose a bit too much weight—all of this likely due to my post-college depression. But even Mom’s question surprises me. It isn’t what I thought she meant, or was going to ask. 
“I’m fine. No more problems.” I say. This is the truth, and I knew she knew that. We both felt it wasn’t the question she wanted to ask, but couldn’t find the right metaphorical question to mask the more important one. Every question has an imbedded or hidden question, and in my family that’s the one being asked. If you answer to the obvious question it also serves as an answer for the imbedded question no one is brave enough or forthright enough to ask. But even if you only intend, and believe, you’re answering the simpler more obvious question, it’s always, always taken as the other’s answer. Confused? It can all be boiled down to being asked, “How’s the chicken.” And by replying that it’s very good, you are also saying “I feel happy, content, and am glad to be here with you.” Maybe it’s like this in other families, but I’ve never seen one more concerned with innuendos, subtleties, and roundabout attempts at saying things other families take for granted—the “I love you” or “I have to get something off my chest” or “Can we sit down and talk.” Nobody just sits down to talk. 
         But even in my mother’s quiet gestures there’s the nurturing quality of perfection, tinkering, deadheading the past so something new can bloom in its place. Her body might lumber, exhausted at the end of the day, but her arms settle like feathers into the chair, a walk, putting sheets of cookie dough into the oven—everything seems at once gentle and confidently precise as if she were a surgeon.
So, after answering her question about how I feel, I knew this also meant that I was happy, that my life seemed good, that things were in balance in grad school and that I was living how and what I wanted to live. But maybe this question was also one that begged for reciprocity, to be reflected back, to have a dialogue of questions with answers that nobody knew how to answer correctly. 
“How are you doing?” I ask, looking straight into the side of her eyes.
“I’m ok,” she says smiling into the snow-in-summer circling the patio. Bingo. “Everything I’ve been taking has helped balance me out. I went to the doctor two weeks ago and he seems to be confident with the hormone treatment.” She pauses, tastes the sun flecked through leaves, which are like signs on a highway at night, or runway lights. “I’ve had no headaches this month, and I’m finally having some good nights of sleep.” Her protracted and intense menopause had nearly pushed our family to the brink of annihilation over the years. There was still much to be repaired in the wake of this, but it seemed that my mother—my parent’s relationship—had come back up gingerly from themselves, together, was testing what it was like in the new life that medicine provided. Sometimes though, being back here in this house more as a visitor than a son, I have a doubly hard time of seeing the real people that have made this world, this tiny existence—that have made me. 
       I don’t have a clue of who my mother really is. I don’t think I ever will, but I’m resigned to having to pretend that I do, or at least trying to find her through other lives and other places, through the natural landscapes that have come to define who I am as much as my mother.
“I’m very happy to hear that, Mom. Hopefully, you can start to live your life again.” 
“Me too. I just hope this stuff works and doesn’t wear off. It’s time to move on.” Not being ourselves makes us understand ourselves, who we are, more importantly who we want to be. Who doesn’t have a dozen cathartic moments after having had the flu for a week? After attending someone’s funeral? What kind of thoughts and feelings do you have after years upon years of not being who you are? Do you suddenly become someone else? What I want to ask is this: Are you content. Do you still love Dad. Do you enjoy each other’s company. Do you like living in Minnesota, in this house. Is this the life you want. Is this the person you want to be, and if not, what is that person and what are you going to do to get to that person without sacrificing what you have built till now. Is that possible. What do you think about what I’m doing, about who I am, where I’m headed. Tell me these things. I might be able to use them in my own life.
“I can’t believe how that clematis has taken off this year.” That’s what I say. That’s my metaphor. That’s what I’ve inherited from my mother and I think I detest it while I recognize the power behind it—the power that I think has led me to words in my life, to the skin-deep beauty of sound and rhythm, to how incredible words look on a page in a book, to how they feel… but never what they mean. Metaphor. 
“I’ve worked so hard on that thing,” she says. “I’ve spent years fertilizing it, trying to get it to stick, to establish. Finally, it’s grasped itself and just keeps blooming. It makes me happy to see it doing so well.” She looks from the clematis bunched up, thick, wildly fragrant and alive with dark pink buds and flowers, turns toward me and then slides her eyes back to the thick trunks of the trees on the hill anchoring the entire landscape with their deep, complex fingers hidden beneath the soil—anchoring the whole garden, the house, this part of the street. “I think I’m almost done with the garden. Almost done all I can do.” 
        We sit there for another fifteen minutes, undisturbed by anyone else. The stream and waterfall going on and on, constant, decisive, furious and calming like a heartbeat. The light retreats from the garden to the roof of the neighbor’s house, steps up as if to see further than was possible in the low solitude of the world my mother tends day after day. The sparrows and cardinals and squirrels go on preparing for night, rushing toward themselves and their small purposes that seem so profound to them, to us at this moment. My mother shifts her weight a few times over the course of ten minutes, her head and eyes as still and patient as stone. When she decides to get up she’s slow about it, as if she were conscious of the fact she’d left something behind, didn’t know what it was, but couldn’t quite leave without figuring it out. She walks in an unaware zigzag through her garden, fingering a few blooms, turning over a few leaves, tossing twigs down the hillside before finally moving toward the top and past the side of the house. Somewhere between me and the plants, the shade and the sun, she saw what she’d been eluding.