Why We Make Gardens

THE BOOK: Why We Make Gardens [& Other Poems]


THE AUTHOR: Jeanne Larsen

THE EDITOR: Judith Kerman

THE PUBLISHER: Mayapple Press

SUMMARY: Sensuous, transient, human-made: this sequence of poems leads you into all kinds of gardens—from “A Trespasser’s Garden” to “A Garden Indoors”, from Anne Spencer’s hidden almost-Eden to Louisa May Alcott’s dooryard to Hart Crane’s troubling vision of Pocahontas’s land. They’re in shapely free verse, and they sound pretty good when you read them out loud.

One blurber wrote: “Here are gardens of betrayal and sex, bitterness and refuge. Larsen puts all that grows inside these beautifully crafted poems.” Another: “Each poem is acute, oblique, precise and complex: hers is an art to wonder at, to savor.” Or (one more kind blurber): “both beautiful and wise, a garden in which to wander again and again with wonder and renewal.”

THE BACK STORY: My friend Jan Knipe (the award-winning visual artist http://janknipe.com ) wanted to make an artist’s book: a hand-bound collection of poems alongside reproductions of some of her, well, revelatory drawings in pastels, conte crayon, charcoal, chalk… She proposed we two work independently, keeping each other’s art in mind. The poems were not to be comments on the visual images, and the drawings are not illustrations. It was just the kick in the head I needed.

I’m quite a fan of Jan’s edgy still lifes and her perceptive landscapes, so it was, I have to say, thrilling to sit with her at a table in a chatty restaurant and brainstorm a list of words to start the project off (“map”, “opaque”, “draped”, “scissors”, “Thelonious Monk”, “spiked”, “day lily”, “arched”, “gloves”…). We went our ways and worked. We got together and talked again. Soon, Jan got us a grant from Hollins University, supporting student artists who helped her create a couple dozen copies of a beautiful physical thing.

But I (my bloomin’ imagination, my chronic foot-itch, my naggy muse) was not done with this. Over the next few years, I reworked those 29 poems and made 18 more. (Have I mentioned my obsessive streak? What writer doesn’t have one?)

That meant moving into new territory. All the poems on visits to other writers’ gardens, for example, come from this later phase, when I was traveling solo around the eastern U.S., camping, working on a novel, doing literary pilgrimages. It meant changing the arc/s of the sequence, hearing new musics for the words. During this period, I had the delicious good fortune of residencies at Byrdclyffe, Ragdale, and VCCA; a month at an artists’ colony always lets me go in deep.

I knew about Mayapple Press (going strong since 1978), so when Judy Kerman said she’d like to read the manuscript, I was mighty happy. And happier when she accepted it. She and her staff did good work on making the poems a little sharper, and surely stronger, as well as creating a lovely cover using one of Jan Knipe’s drawings. The book, its design, delights my eye. It’s dedicated to Jan, in gratitude for lighting a path I needed to find my way on.

WHY THIS TITLE: I wrote the title poem pretty late in the sequence, because I truly did not understand why I had been so obsessed with actual gardening for the past, oh, twenty years. Writing it, I began to discover I’d been working amid a flock of questions: not just “why garden?” and “why write?”, but also, “why read?”, “why look for meaning in experience?”, “why plant flowers when winter coming, for sure?”, “…and when you belong to a species that’s destroying its only home?”—oh and, “yo, how great is it, being human and alive?” and “what’s so cool about dirt and rot, anyway?”

Plus, I liked the cadence of “WHY we make GAR-dens”. Turns out, it echoes the last line of a Sapphic stanza—not that I knew at the time. And the duplicitous subtitle makes me happy: all poems are on some level about the making of poems. Yes, they are.

WHY SOMEONE WOULD WANT TO READ IT: More because you like poems than because you like flowers or mandalas or languages or hurricanes. Oh, or chlorophyll or sex. But those are reasons too. And if you know someone who actually likes to actually garden, this book would, actually, make a nifty gift. Why not lure that person into reading poetry?


“To read Jeanne Larsen’s new poetry collection is like taking a bite out of a ripe, succulent pear that’s just fallen from the branch: refreshing, textured, complex, crisp….Densely packed and yet wholly accessible, WHY WE MAKE GARDENS is a thriving garden of words: Larsen’s poems interlace, blossom, and push softly but irrevocably into the mind, sure to return again in subtle and significant ways.” —William Wright, JAMES DICKEY REVIEW

“Larsen has to know at least some of her readers, like myself, don’t make gardens and that our distance from planting, pruning, weeding, watering is not merely urban. No matter…. WHY WE MAKE GARDENS abounds with such lyricism and in doing so may serve as explanation. We make gardens and poems and art to achieve gentle charms of word and life. Understanding isn’t what we’re after. We want to return to the garden, don’t we, to life without shame, to naked sport, to some sort of innocence (if it was a place we regretted leaving there had to be at least a bit of cunning and teasing. I mean, come on.). And if poetry, and a poet like Jeanne Larsen, can help us make our way, we can count ourselves lucky.” —Sarah Sarai, THE RUMPUS

“There is a lushness and close attention to sound, the way the words feel in the mouth, in Larsen’s work…. Nathanial Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Anne Spencer, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are just a few of the authors she pays homage to in her poetry. Overall, Larsen’s work captivates with its prismatic look at the word ‘garden,’ revealing all of the intricacies and possibilities of the word.” —Renee Emerson, NEW PAGES

“To read Larsen’s WHY WE MAKE GARDENS is to enter a world where the strata of each poem are enriched by the loam of that first paradisiacal garden. (You know, the one with naked people running a-muck and something about a snake and an apple?) In other words, this is some epic writing. There are layers within layers which reveal that antiquity of garden symbolism and the metaphor of growth is cradled in the vivid images Jeanne brings forth from her own pilgrimage into the actual gardens that prominent poets of the past had tended and/or written about.” — M. Moro-Huber, THE NEW YORK QUARTERLY

AUTHOR PROFILE: See http://www.jeannelarsen.com.  My first book of poems, JAMES COOK IN SEARCH OF TERRA INCOGNITA, was published as the winner of the AWP poetry series. Number three, WHAT PENELOPE CHOOSES, is due out in 2019. I’ve also published two books of translations of poems by women from medieval China, and four novels.

As for the David Copperfield, um, stuff: for a couple years in my move-around Army-brat childhood, my parents had a vegetable garden on post at Carlisle Barracks, PA. I loved walking between the rows of corn, the uncoiling pumpkin vines. But I’m no farm girl. Mostly, my mother put in a few bright-colored flowers to claim the next new house. She also got me into Girl Scouts, which got me into the woods and attentive to the green world of western Europe and eastern North America. (The more we anthropogenically mess it up, the clearer its importance becomes, right?)

A couple degrees, a couple books, a couple new countries later, I settled west of the Blue Ridge in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley and started teaching at what’s now Hollins University. I broke my lifetime record by living in the same house for three full years; my husband and I began our gardening craze. Flowers, no veg—ask me about the groundhogs. Native Appalachian plants, and their cousins from East Asia, are a special interest, but we play it loose. These days, he does most of the work. I admire. The compost heap smolders, useful as useful can be.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: You don’t need to own a trowel to dig these poems.

SAMPLE CHAPTER: Some of these poems (most in versions a little different from the book) were published in nineteen literary journals, as well as an anthology.

Here are two that were reprinted on the VERSE DAILY site: http://www.versedaily.org/2005/globegarden.shtml





LOCAL OUTLETS: Book No Further, 16 Church Ave SW, Roanoke, VA http://www.booknofurther.com

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Mayapple Press, Amazon

PRICE: $14.95

CONTACT THE AUTHOR: jlarsen@hollins.edu or via my website: http://www.jeannelarsen.co

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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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