Last weekend when I interviewed my friend Neville about his garden for this blog, he asked, "What makes a queer garden different from a straight garden?" I rambled a bit about how it could be a matter of who uses the garden and how, or a matter of how the garden is made (I mentioned that Neville's own garden includes sisterly-sissy elements such as his grandmothers' favorite plants and some canna lilies he dug up from the yard of my old house when we moved), or the use of certain well-known erotic shapes, like the arched grotto entrance. But ultimately, I made my away around to saying something about how a garden is always riding the line between nature and culture, between order and chaos, between art and life. It's art in a living medium that simply obeys its own unruly, asocial sexual laws (of reproduction and growth). So in that way, every garden is a queer garden.
What a pleasure, then, to read Ed Madden's new book and find a similar idea encapsulated so beautifully in the quotation in my title. Ed, who was one of a beloved band of queer UT graduate students who befriended me when I first arrived in Austin in 1991, is now an English professor at the University of South Carolina. He's the author of a critical study of modernism, Tiresian Poetics, and a previous book of poems, Signals, which won the South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. His new book, Prodigal: Variations, explores the very queer territory of intra-family erotics and does so through memories and experiences of plant, garden and farm.
Ed was raised by conservative Christians on a farm in Arkansas, and he beautifully evokes the fear of his father's wrath that shaped his gay childhood in the opening poem, "Sacrifice:"
When my father bound me, I submitted,
closed my eyes to the lifted knife in his fist.
Even now, the cords still hold my wrists,
rough ropes of love. My chest is bare,
my heart lies open. He loves his god more
than me. I open my eyes, watch my father
raise his fist against a bright and bitter
sky, no angel there to stay his hand.
The speaker's childhood farm, like all farms, is a place of both lush growth and violent death, as in these lines from "Osage orange:"
This is eating tomatoes from the vine. This is the cutworm,
this viscous smear of green. This is killing worms.
This is breaking windows in the pig house.
Many of these poems were written while Ed was the poet-in-residence at the Riverbanks Botanical Garden in Columbia, South Carolina,
and here the poet, still struggling with the legacy of love and anger bequeathed him by his father, sees clearly how this laid the groundwork for a satisfying intimacy with another man as an adult. In the garden, and with his lover, he is able to "learn the vocabulary of sweetness." He asks,
How do I know I will miss you?
And why does it come to me
in a garden, of all places?
These lovely, grave, formal poems belong in the Sister Arts tradition in which garden art is poetic, philosophical, even theological, offering an occasion for us to meditate on our deepest and hardest truths, and to experience the out-of-bounds wildness of being alive.