Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978–79)
As luck and timing would have it, I come to Eleanor Stanford’s Bartram’s Garden just as a seemingly infinite number of Brood XXIII cicadas have emerged from their hidey holes in western Kentucky. I can’t imagine a better book to read to the accompaniment of the music of the spheres, as I keep calling the rattling surround sound produced in the resonant abdomens of the male cicadas clinging to the leaves of every tree, bush, and flower in our neighborhood. The last time I heard it — exactly thirteen years ago, in accordance with the periodicity of Brood XXIII — my children, who are now both almost out of the teenage years, were the same age as Stanford’s young children. If the home is a kind of garden, those are the years of near absolute retreat into its sanctuary. Small children must be fed and bathed and put to bed in the same routines, day after day, and there is a kind of dumb peace in that constant vigilance that Bartram’s Garden captures exceedingly well. It’s not that there is no wolf at the door (“Meningitis. Dengue. The voice on the line that says, we have your son,” reads one of the entries in “Itapua Footnotes”), but that the wolf is always lying down with the lamb.
At first it struck me as odd that a book with only one poem, in three sonnet-sections, specifically about naturalists William and John Bartram, would take as its title Bartram’s Garden. The Bartrams’ travels perhaps provide one of the keys. William’s were the more prodigious. His four-year trek through the eight southern colonies, beginning in 1773, resulted in his classic Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, etc., noteworthy not just for its botanical accuracy, but also for its empathy for the Creeks, Seminoles, Cherokees and Choctaws.
Stanford is a traveler too, and many of the poems in Bartram’s Garden are set in Brazil, where she lived for a time with her family. In reading them, I found it almost impossible not to see Elizabeth Bishop as a kind of muse — not just Bishop, the author of The Complete Poems: 1927-1979, but also Bishop the editor of An Anthology of Twentieth Century Brazilian Poetry (which includes many translations she did herself), and Bishop the translator of The Diary of Helena Morley, a young girl’s account of life in a rural Brazilian mining town in the 1890’s.
Stanford brings to Brazil the same liveliness of imagination, the same refusal to typecast. “Agua de Beber,” for example, takes as its epigraph En quis amar mais tive medo, which, I’m guessing from Spanish, would translate something like “In wanting to love more, I was afraid.” In this poem, Dete, hacking coconuts in the kitchen with a machete, technically qualifies as the kitchen help, yet her purpose is to release coconut water as a balm for the speaker’s sick children, and she comes across more as a sister or friend as she reaches out to soothe a mother’s anguish.
Another link with the Bartrams may lie in Stanford’s naturalistic vision. Section titles in Bartram’s Garden include “The Nursery,” “Flora,” “Fauna,” “The Vegetable Plot” and “The River Trail.” “Think how easy it is/to mistake one thing/for another,” the speaker in “Windows” concludes, and Stanford clearly warns her readers away from that ease. In “Crabapple (Malus coronaria)” and “Two Common Daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus),” among my favorites in the collection, the speaker struggles for existential balance in the aftermath of two moments of family fracture — the first involving a son and the second, a husband. German artist Anselm Kiefer has written, “Ruins, for me, are the beginning. With the debris, you can construct new ideas. They are symbols of a beginning.” Although her everyday ruins are not on a par with Kiefer’s Holocaust, Stanford succeeds in using seemingly objective botanical titles to push what could be limited family narratives into similarly liberating symbolic territory.
Another thing that recommends Bartram’s Garden is its good garden design. Informal poetic beds, in freewheeling lines, yield to beds designed in accordance with more formal elements. The collection includes a poem in terza rima, a pantoum, a villanelle, and a ghazal. There are also whimsical elements. I particularly enjoyed, for example, “Ode to Bly’s Translations of Neruda.”
In “Dawn Redwood,” a dreamscape of a poem, Stanford grapples with the inevitability of endings:
For myself, though, I do not believe
in miraculous returns.
In no region of this earth
will I again wake to soothe
an infant’s ferny cries, or find myself
flooded, suddenly, with milk.
In reading these lines, I was flooded, if not with milk, at least with memories of early motherhood. Experiencing the flood was a bit like coming upon the dawn redwood, believed extinct and then discovered thriving in a rural Chinese province. In short, there are miraculous returns, albeit through poetry, and I highly recommend Eleanor Stanford’s Bartram’s Garden as the conduit to them.
Ann Neelon is the author of Easter Vigil, which won both the Anhinga Prize for Poetry and the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Writers and Readers Award. She directs the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Murray State University and edits New Madrid journal.