Thursday, January 13, 2011

Container Gardening

One of you recommended that I read Ellen Steinbaum's volume of poetry entitled Container Gardening, and I did. I was so grateful for the recommendation that I actually went back and tried to figure out who told me about it, but to no avail. My no-credit-no-blame system is too efficient.

My favorite one in the volume is this poem, "standing at the shore":

afterwards we will
look at it and say
this was when we still or
this was before
but then we will not be
at that same soft moment
grouped in pastel shirts
the children giddy with being
on the beach at nearly bedtime
digging their toes into the sand
wild to escape to the waves
get their clothes wet
looking back we may see
the messy instant of everyone
trying to be perfect or
we may see it
framed by then
that minute
when we did not know where
we would be looking back from

Possibly this is my favorite simply because this is the time of year when I call on memories of our once-every-two-years trip to the beach in South Carolina to sustain me through the long, northern winter. I think it's also my favorite because I tend to think of my own poems as snapshots; the last time I made a collection of them, I gave it the title "Preface to Photo Albums Three and Four." Most of all I like the lines "this was when we still or/this was before," because my photos of our beach trips cover years before one of the children was born, years when my parents sat on the porch with my friend's mother, years with portable cribs, and, recently, years with adult-size children who each require a bed of their own.

Steinbaum has a number of "snapshot" poems in this volume. "One Photograph" begins with the line "She will not become my mother for another thirty years." Another poem, "At the Time Exchange," demands that we "Picture them: the old/whose every waking is/a disappointment...." And in "How We Become Ordinary," you can see the process of a woman becoming "just a mother" in her child's future photo album: "It starts in such small ways...." The best of the lot, after "Standing at the shore," is the poem entitled "The Time Emporium" which asks "which was your favorite/bauble--the perfect summer evening....Or maybe the birthday/when you were six....Which, looking back, would you never/exchange for what was coming next?"

The title poem, "Container Gardening," is about plants that have to "sip water doled out by the cup" on a balcony where "no earthworms/ crawl among these roots, no weeds invade." It's similar in tone to "Order," in which the speaker informs us "I always know where/the tape measure is now." The idea of control pervades this volume, and each page gives readers the sense that the pot won't be big enough to contain all the days, "more days, if we are lucky,/than we will think to count,/piling up like shelter/at our door."

This is just the right volume for this time of year, at least for someone like me, who hates the dead of winter and can be sustained for a while by images of growing things.


Harriet M. Welsch said...

I love that line too. I stopped and read it over a couple of times before moving on. I've been reading poetry this week too -- a good friend's latest book. I am wondering if you might like it too: . It's also a vacation, in a different vein.

Jeanne said...

Harriet, I've added that volume to my wish list; I like the description of her poems as "musical thoughts."

edj3 said...

I like January far better than December. Life is generally calmer because the holidays are over, the sun is up slightly longer each day and that means at least one of my commutes is not in absolute darkness.

Serena said...

Wow, this sounds like an excellent collection that I should check out.

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, the days are a little longer. I feel like we won't see the sun for another two months, though--central Ohio has cloud cover more days than almost anywhere else in the continental US.

Serena, they're nicely crafted small poems, for the most part.

Jenners said...

Thanks for sharing these ... wonderful stuff. Though now I feel somewhat guilty about container gardening (not that I do much of it).

And just a few snowstorms in and I'm longing for spring already.

Jeanne said...

Jenners, I don't think the poem is about feeling guilty for exerting such control, but about how the plants don't always stay neatly contained.

Who is not longing for spring?

edj3 said...

Jeanne, I do remember how gloomy Columbus was for the five years I lived there. I only realized it after the fact, though. When we moved to Lawrence, KS, I got frustrated because I would only wear my glasses on cloudy or overcast days (I wore contacts otherwise, and liked to have a break sometimes). But Lawrence had so FEW cloudy days that I couldn't use clouds as the reason for not wearing my contacts.

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, thank you for validating my S.A.D.!

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I will be interested in what you think of it. I've found some of its lines haunting me this week. I do think my take on her poetry is somewhat affected by what I know of her as a person -- it's very personal poetry. So I'm curious to know what you think.