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June 17, 2005

In A Dark Car

(Posted by Joel)

This is originally from my blog and, while it's personal and feels a little strange now posting it here, I also am pleased with how it came out. Plus, you all know you don't read enough poetry.

"Sheltered Garden"

I have had enough.
I gasp for breath.

Every way ends, every road,
every foot-path leads at last
to the hill-crest--
then you retrace your steps,
or find the same slope on the other side,

I have had enough--
border-pinks, clove-pinks, wax-lilies,
herbs, sweet-cress.

O for some sharp swish of a branch--
there is no scent of resin
in this place,
no taste of bark, of coarse weeds,
aromatic, astringent--
only border on border of scented pinks.
Have you seen fruit under cover
that wanted light--
pears wadded in cloth,
protected from the frost,
melons, almost ripe,
smothered in straw?

Why not let the pears cling
to the empty branch?
All your coaxing will only make
a bitter fruit--
let them cling, ripen of themselves,
test their own worth,
nipped, shrivelled by the frost,
to fall at last but fair
with a russet coat.

Or the melon--
let it bleach yellow
in the winter light,
even tart to the taste--
it is better to taste of frost--
the exquisite frost--
than of wadding and of dead grass.

For this beauty,
beauty without strength,
chokes out life.
I want wind to break,
scatter these pink-stalks,
snap off their spiced heads,
fling them about with dead leaves--
spread the paths with twigs,
limbs broken off,
trail great pine branches,
hurled from some far wood
right across the melon-patch,
break pear and quince--
leave half-trees, torn, twisted
but showing the fight was valiant.
O to blot out this garden
to forget, to find a new beauty
in some terrible
wind-tortured place.

- Hilda Doolittle, 1916

Poetry is always something I've had trouble with. My mind has a tendency to work in too literal a sense and I have always had a hard time grasping poems. There are some that I get better than others and this is one of them. This poem struck me the first time I read it and I grew to love it with repeated readings. I think I'm helped by the fact that I can clearly picture what the poem is talking about in a literal sense. From there, I can work out the metaphorical meanings, as well. My problem with many poems is that I have a hard time approaching them from any angle, thus I am never able to grasp them properly. With this one, that was no problem. I could see this garden, so perfect and manicured, sheltered from the elements. I could also imagine it being ripped apart, as per the final stanza. The beauty of it is that taken in a literal sense, the poem makes sense and is compelling. From there, I can extrapolate out and start pondering the more metaphorical meanings.

This, then, is where the poem starts to get under my skin. When I was around twelve years old, my parents split up. They had been fighting for a long time before that so this did not come as a great surprise. Still, it's a tough time when you're a child and your parents have that conversation with you, trying to explain why they are splitting up. That isn't easy on anyone. My mother was the first one to raise the subject to me. She told me at the time that nothing was definite--just that it was a possibility. I imagine that was a lie, but it didn't really matter. Even then, I knew what she was saying. I knew that it was an inevitable possibility.

We were in the car at night. She was driving me home from somewhere. I think it may have been a piano lesson. The car was dark and I don't know if she was crying, but I seem to recall her voice being thick. There was emotion. She was hesitant and I can't imagine how hard that must have been for her. How do you broach that subject to your child? How difficult must it be to tell your child that you're considering fundamentally altering their world, that you're thinking about splitting their very foundation? At that point, you have to think she would have jumped at the chance to just talk to me about sex. I mean, surely anything would have been better.

I don't remember my exact reaction. As I said, they had been fighting a lot and it wasn't as if I had never considered the possibility of them splitting up. I wasn't shocked and I think part of me felt it would be a good idea. Certainly I must have understood that them staying together couldn't work. But as a child, I was always excellent at looking at things logically while divorcing myself of the emotional realities. I tried to do that then and it succeeded to some degree. At the same time, though, I was fighting back tears.

What is amazing to me, though, is what I thought at that point. I thought to myself, "My life has been good and easy so far. It's about time something bad happened to me." That was what I thought. I may even have said that to my mother and if I did, I suspect that must have half broken her heart. I can't imagine having a child of my own say that to me.

I believed it, though. I had convinced myself my life was great and I look back now and realize I was a goddamn fool. My life was a mess at that point and it stayed a mess for some time after that. My thought process, though, was that I was smart, I was a pretty good basketball player, I was great at playing the piano, I did well in school and I was a talented writer. I thought I had all these things going for me and it felt like I had something of a charmed life at that point. Because at that point in my life, it was about being able to pile up the accomplishments. I don't mean I was looking for awards and certificates, but I counted talents and intelligence as the final factors. Subtle emotions weren't in the equation and that was my great mistake. I wasn't able to recognize the huge family problems I had, the complete and utter lack of self esteem, the ways in which I hated myself. I was only able to see the things I was good at and the fact that I had never experienced any obvious and overt tragedies, and I took all that to mean that I had led too easy a life.

The split, then, was something I could point at and categorize and say "I have felt pain." I could claim that I had experienced hardship and suffering, that a Great Event had affected my life and caused me to grow as a person. I just didn't understand subtleties at that point in my life. I didn't have any grasp of everything that happened under the surface. I needed major events--divorces and death and great illness. I thought these were the things that would cause me to struggle and grow and become a more compelling person. When I was told my parents might split up, I sat in that car and thought that this might improve my writing. Finally, I would have real pain to inject into my stories.

So when I read "Sheltered Garden," I remember that quiet night, sitting in a dark car with my mother telling me about the ways my life was about to change. I took that as the storm that would tear me apart but that would make me a stronger, more experienced and intriguing person. What I didn't understand was that storms aren't always external and at that point in my life, I had already been mostly dismantled. I'd been being ripped apart for years.

Posted by Joel at June 17, 2005 12:49 AM

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Nice post Joel. I had a friend who pretty well put a name to those moments such as yours in the dark car -- "anti-epiphanies" -- moments when an Answer or a Truth breaks into our minds with a blinding clarity and rightness which belies it's (usually laughably) tragic wrongness. I've had more than my share along the way.

Oh yeah, the poem was good too.

Posted by: Pete at June 17, 2005 03:02 PM


Very nice. I highly approve of self-disclosure.

You point out what my poetry professors spent a couple years trying to impress upon us novice writers: poems mean what they mean to the reader. That's all. This is why the best poets never try to tell anyone what their poems "mean."

Good work.

Posted by: Dan at June 17, 2005 09:08 PM

Anti-epiphany. I like that, Pete. I think that's going to stick around in my head now.

Dan--Yeah, I eventually learned that the by far best way to approach poetry is to find your own meanings. More than any other form of writing, that's just how you have to approach it. Stories are much more concrete--poetry tends to be ethereal.

Posted by: Joel Caris at June 18, 2005 01:13 AM

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