Of family, gardens and impermanence


By MICHAEL MILLER | APRIL 22, 2015


Grant Hier stands before a tree in his vegetation-heavy frontyard, holding up a copy of his new book and trying to match its cover to the spot on the trunk that is captured in the photo.


The Chinese lace elm, planted by Hier's maternal grandmother more than half a century ago, appears in extreme closeup on the front of "Untended Garden (Histories and Reinhabitation in Suburbia)," which took Hier two decades to write and recently netted him the Prize Americana poetry award. On this warm afternoon, Hier moves the cover around in hopes of finding an area where the bark is peeled just that way, and he's ultimately stumped.



"Untended Garden (Histories and Reinhabitation in Suburbia)," ...took Hier two decades to write and recently netted him the Prize Americana poetry award.


"You know, it just regrows," he says from behind the tree, facing toward the white picket fence that separates his yard from the cul-de-sac outside. "It just reemerges and sheds, reemerges and sheds. But that's the angle."


Given that "Untended Garden" focuses on the ways that nature takes its own course — and leaves humans as sometimes befuddled occupants — this frustration with the tree feels appropriate. Hier, the chairman of liberal arts and art history at the Laguna College of Art + Design in Laguna Beach, built his longtime manuscript around the topic of this house, and the book's overall tone is one of transience: However the narrator maintains his property, it will eventually lose to roots and tectonic shifts.


Still, 2015 feels stable enough, and Hier is busy gardening. In the process, he's digging up plenty of family history. The Balm of Gilead cottonwood tree, which the author's paternal grandfather planted on the other end of the yard, had to be removed recently because of water rot. Hier saved four of its branches and has planted a new tree in the same place. The picket fence, which he mentions in the book, fell to termite damage, and pieces of it now lie in the yard next to its replacement.


This suburban home gave Hier the inspiration for nearly 100 pages of poetry, and for at least some who read "Untended Garden," Hier is passing on the gift. When he read from the book last weekend at LCAD, he brought a selection of pressed leaves from his grandmother's tree and offered them to those in attendance.


"On this plot of land are the trees that my grandparents planted, the same dirt I dug in as a boy with my toy trucks, wondering what was down there," he says. "I remember distinctly [wondering], 'If I dug and dug, what would I find? What's under there?' And that has always remained with me."





Hier's own poem is sounding in the air. "Untended Garden" begins with the auditory image of birds above the house, and one has just begun to call.


"The mourning doves have just always been a soundtrack to this place," he says, scanning the roof for the bird's location. "Just listen."


As Hier maneuvers around the back patio and inside the house, followed by his two dogs, who seem excited by a visitor's presence, he points out mementos. A cement slab in back contains his and his sister's names and handprints; a doorway inside sports notches that tracked his height over the years.


Hier measures the history of this house in numbers — specifically, multiples of 13. He lived in it for the first 13 years of his life, then left when his family moved. At 26, he moved back in, and at 39, as a creative-writing graduate student at Cal State Long Beach, he began writing the manuscript that would turn into "Untended Garden" two decades later.


It was an act of gardening, more or less, that cued the thought process. As a graduate student nearing 40, Hier built a fence around the perimeter of the yard, and as he dug up the soil to make room for posts, he ruminated on the days when the property felt more like a mystical playground than a homeowner's responsibility.


"Untended Garden," which bills itself on the cover as "A long poem by Grant Hier" and consists of three long sections, describes those early years in one passage:


I rise and walk along the picket fence,

recalling how I once dragged toy trucks across this ground,

mounded dirt with smaller hands, filled plastic pails

with earthwormed soil, wondering how deep I could go.


Hier turned in the original version of "Untended Garden," along with a report describing its creation, as his thesis project at Cal State Long Beach. Gerald Locklin, his faculty adviser, was impressed by the poetry, but something else caught his eye even more: the accompanying paper that described Hier's creative process. Many poets, he says, found summarizing their work the toughest part of the assignment.



"...it was right up Grant's alley," Locklin says by phone. "No problem at all there. He knew exactly what he wanted to do."


"It's not always easy for them, but it was right up Grant's alley," Locklin says by phone. "No problem at all there. He knew exactly what he wanted to do."





"Untended Garden," which came out this year from The Poetry Press, is partly about its own creation. In the text, Hier describes poring over maps and even taking a plane over the coastline to decipher his region's natural and social history. One prose section of the book describes a "Council Tree," once held sacred by the Tongva, that fell after centuries to urban development.


According to Hier, 80% of "Untended Garden" survived from his original thesis, but he spent two decades honing and adding to the manuscript. In incorporating Tongva language and history into his work, Hier had two valuable consultants: his wife, who belongs to the tribe, and UCLA professor Pamela Munro, who has done extensive research on Native American languages.



...the mission statement of Americana...calls for "material that examines such issues as social action, social justice, human rights, environmental awareness, the human condition, diversity, love, compassion, ethical and moral obligations" — The institute's judging panel, which reads manuscripts blindly, awarded it last year's Prize Americana.


When Hier read the mission statement of Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture — which calls for "material that examines such issues as social action, social justice, human rights, environmental awareness, the human condition, diversity, love, compassion, ethical and moral obligations" — he decided to submit his manuscript for consideration. The institute's judging panel, which reads manuscripts blindly, awarded it last year's Prize Americana.


Now, Hier, whose previous publications had been limited to anthologies and one collaborative volume, is a solo author for the first time. As he stands in his front yard, surrounded by tools of a different kind of work — cans of paint, a wheelbarrow full of shovels and screws — he compares his feelings about "Untended Garden" to that of a pop star who hears one of his songs from decades ago on the radio.


"My [newer] poems are not as blatantly autobiographical," says Hier, who recently submitted another manuscript for publication. "Of course, you know, when you write, you're on the page. But I'm not writing so much in the first person, about this personal childhood history. This was a unique project. And I celebrate it. And I love it. And it does represent me. But it's a bit odd that 21 years later, after writing it, it's coming to surface."



One section of "Untended Garden" imagines the roots below the narrator's house slowly undoing its fastenings, "reluctantly relinquishing / the bind of nail in wood / bolts twisting back / down the threads."


Still, enough has stayed the same in 21 years that the work feels timely — even if its overriding message is that everything, in this yard and beyond, will eventually give way. One section of "Untended Garden" imagines the roots below the narrator's house slowly undoing its fastenings, "reluctantly relinquishing / the bind of nail in wood / bolts twisting back / down the threads." At another point, he summarizes the neighborhood's history in a few lines, skipping from ocean floor to river bottom to "fields that were farmed and plowed and paved over."


If Hier seeks to revisit this property in a future poem, he may have the seed for it, literally. In the corner of the yard, he points out the tiny shoots that have grown where he planted the new Balm of Gilead tree. In a patch of dirt and sawdust, soft under shoe soles, the bright tufts of green stand out.


"They grow pretty quickly, actually," he says. "So in another season, it'll be maybe 3 feet."