Judith Harris’s recent book, Night Garden (Tiger Bark Press, 2013), intrigues us with the poignant chronicle of a gifted child’s burgeoning awareness of the natural world as her primary source of spiritual and artistic nourishment. This awareness, which redeems her from the crushing sensual and imaginative deprivation of her home environment, grows, as she grows, into her life’s most enduring relationship.
“Root,” which opens the first section of Night Garden, establishes the speaker’s familial origin and childhood home, the memories of which are fixed, static and frozen, impervious to her imaginative powers. “It is always dusk back there, /the road deserted, the house quiet.”
The memory of “my mother stands at the doorway, /tying her apron, her broad face/turned to the earth” like Lot’s wife turned to a permanent pillar of salt. Here “Nothing changes/Not here.”
The child, in her instinctive need to enrich the deadening and sterile routine of family life,unconsciously claims authorship and responsibility of this life in an effort to expiate her guilt of finding fault, as suggested in “My First Story”: “It was about a couple/who lived in a little brick house/ with a tin roof.” However, she is stymied by limitations of setting and character, and begins to find the task tedious, “it could go on that way forever, /my lingering over details. /the robes: white or off white terrycloth.” “I put pouches under her eyes/and let her say a few words, /with a smile or frown, /whispered or spoken aloud.” However, in a stroke of child genius, she gives the couple an alternate perspective, “I gave them a window to look out of” and in turn gifts herself a view where her poet’s gaze can contemplate the natural world’s cornucopia of sensual delights, a world worthy of her imagination. The subsequent, beautifully touching “When” describes a rare occasion when the child’s hunger for a balance of home and nature, utility and sensual beauty are met. As if heeding a primal call, her passive mother frees herself from the tyrannical obsession of “pressing down wrinkles, /and folding each sheet over and over” to forge out of the house to gather
apples from twilight and rain,
wrested from leaves, clenched around pulp,
envious of stones, gathered off ground,
shoved into burlap sacks,
arriving up the back steps
and through the screen door.
The child, steadied by the strength and industry with which her mother has gathered and mashed apples into sauce, swoons in the plethora of olfactory, gustatory and visual delights, and is able, for a moment, to simply be a child whose needs have been met without her own intervention of imaginative embellishment.
and I ate from a bowl, plastic
and unbreakable, and slightly faded
with a rim of blue birds
fluttering around it,
when sweetness was a result, not a wish
and the earth was solid with growth
and words rhymed, arm-in-arm,
and nothing could fall without falling
into something else.
In stark contrast to the syntactical stasis in the book’s first poems, “Autumns” is rife with sensory detail; sounds chime in the wind: “Dark leaves of the American beech/click in the breeze, gray and buff, /backsides mossy green,” and “Now the stiff broom swish/against the steps, /two crows strut into Mrs. Gordon’s garage” and rich visual imagery abounds: “Leaves piling up on the curbs, /or swirling and floating down/on the hedges, caught/in spider webs and draped over fences” and “…smoke wreathing/in the wind, a few Bakelite stars appear/ among swirling ashes.”
No longer are we imprisoned in the obsessively ordered house, but are sprung, frolicking in full festival with fall.
And although the speaker claims by the end of the poem:
outside my window, again the leaves
abandoning their threadbare stems
which my eyes are likely to see
as the bowing of any string section
while my ears are half-receptive, half-
resistant to such unfinished melodies.
the poems which follow belie any resistance, half or otherwise.
By the second section, the natural world is fully established as the speaker’s primary source of reference. In “Light’s Portrait,” it is to the world outside her window she first turns upon awakening, rather than to a clock or her own face in her mirror; she wakes “…to the first brushstrokes of gold on the ends of the spruce—”, as she does in “Fig,” as well: “There is a tree that catches/the first morning light”
With few notable exceptions—“Regress,” “Cancer Clinic with Wax Roses” and “Pharmacy,” in which the omission of references to the natural world deeply underscores the speaker’s sense of disconnection—the poems in the remaining sections are fully, playfully conversant with images and references to the natural world, a world the speaker has come to inhabit and trust as an inexhaustible source of poetry.
It is clear that by the final poem, “Imagining My Death,” the distance between the speaker and the natural world has closed, and as Gaston Bachelard remarked in Poetics of Reverie, “the object is then the reverie companion of the dreamer.”
Imagining My Death
The sky is milky blue.
No words sings, here,
and the rusty pines
keep hanging their heavy heads.
I can’t remember the sound
of a voice
or the smell of someone’s skin.
I am finally alone, here.
A feeling, like stone,
Forget me now, forget whatever
I touched, forget my face,
my prolonged silence.
I become the sky without
a single reflection.