Monday, June 04, 2012

`Everything is Plum'

To her poem “In Nora’s Garden” (Lines of Flight, 2011), Catherine Chandler adds a tag from Erasmus: “Non semper erit aestas.” It’s a cautionary reminder, roughly “It will not always be summer” or “Summer won’t last forever,” with the implication that hard times are coming. Think of the ant and the grasshopper. The formidably learned Erasmus collected it in his Adagia, an annotated compendium of Greek and Roman proverbs published in 1500 with some eight hundred entries. By the time of his death in 1536, Erasmus’ collection had grown to more than three thousand nuggets of classical wisdom. Here is Chandler’s poem:

“In Nora’s garden, nothing’s overgrown;
the phlox and freesias keep their proper place;
no goldenrod, no florid overblown
rugosas spoil the cultivated grace.
In Nora’s garden, hummingbirds and bees
find ample sustenance all summer long;
her suet feeders swing from maple trees
whose visitors repay her gift in song.
It wasn’t always so. I can remember
when dandelions ruled. My mirthful neighbor
could not have cared less, April through September,
about the weather or the fruits of labor.
In Nora’s garden, everything is plum;
Her hedge against whatever else may come.”

Nora is a grasshopper-turned-ant, though she harvests not fruit and grain but “cultivated grace.” Chandler is good with botanical and agricultural puns and suggestive near-puns – “florid,” “cultivated,” “plum,” “hedge.” Her Nora remains a mirthful mystery: “It wasn’t always so.” We’re not told the reasons for her change of heart. For Janet Lewis, a garden is its own reward. No need for fables. On Sunday we picked the first of the sweet basil I planted on Mother’s Day, and stirred it into the vegetarian chili. A garden is what one does – “ample sustenance,” yes, but in dozens of garden and flower poems Lewis cultivated grace for its own sake, as in “Lines with a Gift of Herbs”:

“And these, small, unobserved,
Through summer chemistry,
Have all their might conserved
In treasure, finally.”

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