Monday, February 28, 2011

A Book of Moments

I've been thinking a lot over the last year about a new kind of memoir, one that probably won't sell to big presses because it lacks the boring / typical narrative arc of a standard book. I'm too much of a poet, too much of a short story reader, too underwhlemed by the vast list of inane memoirs, and too in love with the possibility of metaphor to set us up for something more.

During the day, and after waking up, I remember moments--as most of us do. Today something, perhaps a smell, taste, or texture, reminded me of how I used to unwind and straighten out the fringed edges of my family's living room rug as I was growing up. I'd be laying on my back, feet propped up in front of the fireplace, enjoying an after-dinner coma. There's nothing unique about the event, but it evokes a feeling, one that only a lyrical piece might be able to evoke and translate.

But there are other moments, too. Ants climbing the rough bark of an oak tree. Fish scales clinging to fingers. The smell of a recliner. Snow falling late at night that almost makes the air warmer.

We go through life absorbing ghosts, reflection and refraction of how we interpret the world. And they are lost almsot instantly, some, if we are lucky, flashing back to life once or twice at some point decades later. Maybe it's nostalgia, or fear, or desperation (all the same thing?), but what if a person could gather dozens of these into a book? Would a narrative begin to form? What would take shape between the images, like mortar in the groove?

I don't know if it's silly or boring or just too surrealist, but maybe I'll start trying to journal these, collect them as they come up. If you don't write things down, they vanish without a trace. Maybe that's how photographers feel, musicians even, lovers. A moment that lingers has touched something in you to the core, beyond a sensorial level. Something deep has changed, been stretched or exploded or remade, and only the sensorial can lead you to it again. That's why scent and touch are powerful gateways to memory. Writing? Words? Echoes of echoes, perhaps. Gardens?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Stop Your Whining, Gardeners

I love winter most of all, because without winter I could not love summer more.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I Need You

To "like" this blog on Facebook. I'll tell you later why. I know this is an odd post and completely self serving. I'd really be very very thankful (especially if you've ever liked anything you've read on this blog).

Remember that tenacity isn't just hope, but it's faith that what you want to happen--that what you believe can happen--will happen.

The Deep Middle on Facebook

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Books, Dreams, Rocks, God as Language

"Here's what I mean by the miracle of language. When you're falling into a good book, exactly as you might fall into a dream, a little conduit opens, a passageway between a reader's heart and a writer's, a connection that transcends the barriers of continents and generations and even death.... And here's the magic. You're different. You can never go back to being exactly the same person you were before you disappeared into that book."

-- Anthony Doerr

"I will tell you something about stories. They aren't just entertainment. They are all we have to fight off illness and death. You don't have anything if you don't have stories."

-- Leslie Marmon Silko

"In general, people [are] not road maps. People [are] not hieroglyphs or books. They [are] not stories. A person [is] a collection of accidents. A person [is] an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath."

"Everything hurtles toward oblivion, except words, which assemble themselves in time like molecules in space, for God was an act--an act!--of language...."

-- Lorrie Moore

Monday, February 14, 2011

I've Got Another Book!

My first full-length poetry collection, Afterimage, will--once the contract is signed--be published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press sometime this fall or next winter. It will have an actual flat spine with sniffable glue. I'm very happy to be getting in at the beginning of a new press which, judging from the other upcoming authors, should be a great place to call home.

If you're in Lincoln, Nebraska on Monday 2/21 at 3:30pm, stop by the UNL campus (Andrews Hall) and hear me read with two of my friends, also recent graduates of the Ph.D. program: Steve Edwards (memoirist) and Carrie Shipers (poet). This is what we look like according to the school newspaper's sketch artist (click to expand):

And here's the article if you're bored.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


               67 67          67 67 67 67
           67                                67
          67 67 67                      67 
          67         67                  67 
           67          67               67  
             67 67 67               67

It feels wrong. The snow is melting so fast, and the ground is still frozen, I now have a water garden. I may just have to go pick up some koi and lob them in to the lake, er, mulch.

Dear 67 -- I know you have no idea what you're doing, and I really want to ask you to stop, to go away. It's February. It's winter. I'm not ready. My blood hasn't transitioned. I'm like goldfish in a plastic bag, soaking in their knew home, the water temperature equalizing for a nice cozy transition. I feel my mouth making an "O" gasping for air, shocked by the moment. I want you 67, but you are nothing but a flirt and a showman, extra icing that makes the day almost too sweet. I may turn on the A.C.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Happiness, A Poem

I have been taught never to brag but now I cannot help it: I keep
a beautiful garden, all abundance,
indiscriminate, pulling itself
from the stubborn earth. Does it offend you
to watch me working in it,
touching my hands to the greening tips or
tearing the yellow stalks back, so wild
the living and the dead both
snap off in my hands?
The neighbor with his stuttering
fingers, the neighbor with his broken
love: each comes up my drive
to receive his pitying,
accustomed consolations, watches me
work in silence a while, rises in anger,
walks back. Does it offend them to watch me
not mourning with them but working
fitfully, fruitlessly, working
the way the bees work, which is to say
by instinct alone, which looks
like pleasure? I can stand for hours among
the sweet narcissus, silent as a point of bone.
I can wait longer than sadness. I can wait longer
than your grief. It is such a small thing
to be proud of, this garden. Today
there were scrub jays, quail,
a woodpecker knocking at the white
and black shapes of trees, and someone's lost rabbit
scratching under the barberry: Is it
indiscriminate? Should it shrink back, wither,
and expurgate? Should I, too, not be loved?
It is only a little time, a little space.
Why not watch the grasses take up their colors in a rush
like a stream of kerosene being lit?
If I could not have made this garden beautiful
I wouldn't understand your suffering,
nor care for each the same, inflamed way.
I would have to stay only like the bees,
beyond consciousness, beyond self-
reproach, fingers dug down hard
into stone, growing nothing.
There is no end to ego,
with its museum of disappointments.
I want to take my neighbors into the garden
and show them: Here is consolation.
Here is your pity. Look how much seed it drops
around the sparrows as they fight.
It lives despite their misery.
It glows each evening with a violent light.

-- Paisley Rekdal

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Phallic Winter Garden Art

After a string of "serious" posts from my new garden memoir manuscript, it's time to let it all hang out, hang loose, etc with the shallow puns. 50s are forecast for the next week, and what little snow we have left will soon be gone. The winter has been dry as a bone. Spring has nearly sprung.

The snow is moderately happy, even as it melts away

Miscanthus snow cone

Corn with landscape (looks like the Nebraska capitol, yes?)

Frozen fog on joe pye weed seed heads

Apple with landscape--where's Eve?

Wish the corn was a rocket

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Nursery Circuit

Rows and rows of plants lay on tables waist high, their leaves still speckled with the morning watering. The air is rich, sweet, musky, a breeze nudges you and the bees toward blooms several rows over—something you hadn’t noticed at first in the cacophony of flesh. For a moment it’s almost as if you can see those ultraviolet runway lights that guide in pollinators, you too are part of the process. You woke this morning for a singular purpose, and this exhaustion is a subtle joy.

Once or twice each week in 2008, the first full year of the garden, I ventured to nurseries. It was often the first thing I did in the morning, and I had an itinerary, an agenda, and two shopping lists—“need” and “surprise me, baby, oh please surprise me.”

10am Nursery #1

I hit the closest nursery, about ten minutes from home and in the middle of the city. From my previous twenty trips over the spring I know that here I’m likely to find the staples: salvia, coneflowers, coreopsis, monarda, and a good collection of groundcovers. Shrubs are also the cheapest here.

There’s an awning over the front doors, both which swing in to a large knickknack showroom with a low ceiling. A single air conditioning duct runs the length of the room above the two cash registers. The clerks at the front greet me, but in my mission I smile and wave them off, making a quick zip line approach to the back door and out past the covered area of annuals—each one advertising itself like a woman behind plexiglass in the Amsterdam red light district. I don’t need to waste money on a cheap, one time thrill, so I’m out the next door, to the tables laying in sunshine and a small lot of shrubs and trees.

I think I’m here for just a few things, so I quickly grab a one gallon plant that’s on my list, then another, pinching them between my fingers and dangling them against my right side. Just for kicks I peruse a few more lanes, perhaps noticing that the threadleaf coreopsis speaks to me today in a siren song I hadn’t anticipated, and I figure I know a place it will work well, to fill in a void that may only be metaphysical in my life.

Two more gallon pots and I’m pinching four of them, two in each hand. I feel like a lobster. Before I know it I’m hovering over a stand of groundcover sedum, and already picking them up in my mind. If I only had telekinesis. I can see them in my hands, in my car, in the garden. I’m lost. Hopelessly lost. And this is how it often happens. In the first year of planting—when I spend 6-8 hours outside in almost any weather save tornados—I am completely insane, full of blood lust, chlorophyll lust.

I soon have a cart full of plants, a dozen or more, and the young woman at the front asks me, as she pulls each plant from my cart and sets them into cardboard flats, if I found everything ok. I smirk, and swear she can see the saliva dripping from the corner of my mouth before I wipe it away.

11am Nursery #2

Another ten minutes east and in the north part of town is perhaps my favorite nursery. They’re the smallest one I frequent, and something about them oozes class, or some sense of horticultural sophistication. I’ve never been able to quite put my finger on it because they smell and look like pretty much any other nursery. Their shrubs and trees are a bit pricey. But there’s more. Most of their perennials come in small pint-sized containers, and are thus half the price of the larger nurseries. They have a few more unique plants, that’s true, but not as many natives as I’d like.

The greenhouse is the nearest building to the parking lot, and the sliding door works only if you want in, not if you want out. That’s either a great way to ensure customers or to break the fire code. Still, the venus flytrap method works.

Though it’s a small green house, it still takes me a while to find what I came for because, well, you know how it goes. But there they are, liatris, then the agastache. Out back in the open, through the requisite and annoying main room full of birdfeeders and tacky statuary, I pick up a viburnum and an itea. Then I put them down. Surely nursery #1 has these cheaper, but why didn’t I think about getting them there? Because I just realized I needed them. Look at them. They are perfect. Perfect.

Instead of hitting nursery #1 again, I can shoot down to its sister store on the south side of town, twenty minutes away, where their tree selection is the best. Might as well get some trees.

12 noon Nursery #3

The old man who works the tree and shrub lot out front greets me, asking if I need any help. No, I say confidently, admiring his straw hat and bypass pruners, one on each hip like six shooters. Of course, I have no idea where I’m going.

I walk up and down the rows and take thirty minutes to decide on one bald cypress of the ten I see. I’ve read up on how to choose, looking for a strong leader, no signs of stress in the bark, no infected branches. I like it here anyway, hidden by maples, oaks, birches, aspen, pine, crabapple, pear, willow…. Willow! Of course. Another twenty minutes and I’ve found a yellow-twigged willow, a cross between a black and weeping willow. How wonderful. I flag down the old man from across the lot. “Find something you want?” he yells from thirty feet away. “Yes, this tree here, and another over there.” He asks me if that’s all. Why’d he have to ask me that? I bet they have training sessions on how to ask questions, and on certain inflections and mannerisms which subliminally sucker in wide-eyed newbies like myself.

“Well,” I say, “I’d like to get a viburnum and maybe an itea while I’m here.” After red-tagging the trees, he leads me to the shrubs, where I select two before he asks, “Anything else for you today?” I head into the greenhouse and don’t come out for half an hour.

1:30pm Nursery #4

Which is, technically, on the way back home from nursery #3, so I might as well stop in and check it out. They have the best sales and clearance, common stuff of course. I’m beginning to get most of my species plants from online nurseries, but shopping online isn’t much of an experience. After rummaging through some things on sale under the large outdoor tent, I’m set for home. My trunk has two dozen plants that I’ll likely dig within two days, and a truck will deliver two trees later this afternoon. But it won’t keep me busy for long.

Sometimes, I come home feeling guilty. I didn’t really need to buy so many plants, or even any plants at all. In later years I’ll visit a nursery just for the experience as my willpower grows alongside my full garden, which both grow inversely to my checking account. Still, there’s always a plant or two. And when I return home I hide them behind a shrub, and sometimes plant them when I know my wife’s in the shower or away at work. It’s silly, I know she doesn’t really care. But I know I have a problem. I know I need help. I have to get in as many plants over the summer as I can so they’ll settle in over the winter. I’m always thinking ahead. Next week, I’ll hit the same nurseries again, but I’ll only get what’s on my list.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Much Mulch

You say you don't want another section from the new manuscript? Too bad. Here's one anyway.

Much Mulch

It’s late morning already, and we’ve finally made it to the new house. In two weeks we’ll move in, married, but until then—and before the sod gets laid—my fiancee and I are here to spread mulch. Twenty yards.

The sun feels as if it’s being reflected off of a series of mirrors, each mirror focusing the heat and light. The air is thick and it’s windy, carrying the musky smell of a nearby farm. I slide a wheelbarrow out of my hatchback and give my wife two buckets—she insists that buckets will be easier.

On the east side of the house, on an empty lot, is twenty yards of wood mulch. Three quarters of it will go behind the house, the rest out front. We dig in. I map out the edges of the garden by outlining it with wheelbarrow loads, and my wife fills in the soil one small bucket at a time. “Are you sure you don’t want to go buy another wheelbarrow?” I ask, and she insists that it’d just be too cumbersome and heavy. And she may be right.

After a few loads I see how long this will take. My wife has already retreated twice into the house to rinse out mulch dust from her contact lenses, and I’m beginning to feel like a slave driver. We must establish a rhythm ingrained in me during my childhood: years of spreading hay in dirt basements each winter for my dad as he built houses, untold rooms swept as workers installed plumbing and electrical, and hours of mowing weeds on empty lots—all of these $5 per hour jobs ensured me that steady repetition was key to surviving. One must retreat deep inside one’s head and make a whole comatose world out of manual labor, and to get there meant emotionless efficiency. My wife disagreed, as I stopped to encourage her with a hug as she cried out the grime and heat.

Each load I jammed in more mulch into the corners of the wheelbarrow, tempting fate and gravity. As we finished about 200 square feet we approached the soggy part of the future garden, and I laid down a mulch bridge that quickly absorbed the water. Several times I got stuck and my wife pulled the wheelbarrow as I pushed, once with the load spilling out to the side like a S’dumpr truck. Yet I kept adding mulch, even half shovel fulls, even individual pieces, anywhere I could in each load. When I went home and found mulch in my socks, pockets, and underwear, I saved them in a container to bring back.

Soon my skin color changed, from red to brown as the mulch dust glued to my sweat, perhaps having the side benefit of working as sunscreen. “You want to go inside, take a drink, cool off?” I’d ask my wife. “We could just go home,” she’d reply, but then refill her 10 gallon bucket and carry on.

It hit me what the neighbors might think, what they’d guess or assume about us or our project. No one has any landscaping within a solid one block radius, just grass up to the foundation walls of each house. And no trees. Not even street trees planted by the developer or city. Instead of lawn, one might assume, we’d have a field of mulch, an expanse of violently shredded trees that after a rain shower left the yard smelling like sweet leather or tannin. Or like the woods I grew up around in Minnesota. Indeed, perhaps subconsciously, the olfactory sense of smell—the oldest sense in the human body—was now enacting itself from deep within. I was creating not just a home with my soon to be wife, but I was creating the home. One mulch chip at a time.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sexy Table of Contents

An official unveiling (finally) of the chapters to my recent gardening memoir-esque book Sleep, Creep, Leap: The First Three Years of a Garden. Rate your brutally honest interest on a scale of -5 (tonight's forecasted low temp) to 10.2735 (tomorrow's forecasted high temp). Let us not speak of the -30 wind chills.


6 – First Garden First
9 – Mulching
11 – A Rock. A Stone. A Mountain
13 – Four!
15 – The Garden Circuit
20 – Cassia Hebecarpa – Wild Senna
21 – Skin
23 – Digging
25 – So Much Depends Upon a Woodchip…
28 – The Research Assistant Couldn't Experiment With Plants Because He Hadn't Botany
30 – Hatchback Trees

33 – 650 Crocus Bulbs
34 – Fire Pit / Bird Bath
36 – Geum Triflorum – Prairie Smoke
37 – Mr. Mows All the Time
41 – UPS. FedEx. USPS.
43 – The Naming
45 – Deadheading Grasshoppers
48 – The King is Dead. Long Live the King.
49 – Parthenium Integrifolium – Wild Quinine
50 – Ambergate Gardens
52 – New Model Year
54 – Dragonfly
55 – Liatris Ligulistylis – Meadow Blazing Star
56 – I Succumb to You Autumn, Like a Memory

59 – Rapture
60 – The Geese, The 50, The Iris, The Waiting
62 – Pulsatilla Vulgaris – Pasque Flower
63 – Fetch
65 – Dogfighting
67 – Danaus Plexippus
70 – Favorites
73 – Tall Plants
80 – Splendor in the Grass
82 – The Lesser of Two Weevils
84 – Thrashing
86 – Confessions
88 – Salvia Azurea – Pitcher Sage
89 – Where I’m From
91 – Open Garden
92 – Garden Spider
93 – Aster Laevis – Smooth Aster
95 – The Last Cosmo
96 – Twilight Geese in Autumn

You've got some pieces that are prose poem / plant profiles. Some light-hearted narratives. Then a few lyrical narratives. Some pain, some agony, some joy, some death, some rebirth, some hope, some fatalism, some snarkiness, some cornballness, some je ne sais quoi. I've decided that from now on I'll write in winter, and garden the rest of the year. Obviously, winning the lottery would help this plan along. And living in a warmer climate zone.