Rumpus Book Review
By JEFF LENNON | MAY 6, 2015
“The search now begins,” writes the narrator in the final section of Untended Garden (2014 winner of the Prize Americana), the debut long poem from Southern California poet Grant Hier:
to find the soil within ink. Representative lines that mark the home
The narrator is speaking of surveyors’ maps, but could just as easily be speaking of the poem itself. What does home comprise? What of our homes is ours and what do we inherit from others? What do we pass on to be inherited? These questions are central to a poem that is, at its essence, about noticing what normally goes unnoticed. It is an attempt to discover the patterns, if not the order, in one’s life, the history in our bones and blood and land and water, and to recognize an all-encompassing interconnectedness of things. This is not only an individual and immediate problem for Hier, but a general-historical and a cosmological one. Hier is concerned with personal identity (like any good artist), but also with the identity of a place, and in turn of a planet, a biosphere, a cosmos.
And everything here is merely the same simple star ash rearranged.
Could it be that all is present, that everywhere is contained in where we are?
The narrator’s investigations start in his own front yard (the ‘untended garden’ of the title). The structure of the poem consists of three branches of narrative discourse—laid out on the page in three separate columns—that of the narrator’s present, of his childhood past, and of the ancient past, including the history of both the local landscape and its peoples, flora and fauna, and of the Earth and known universe as a whole. These three columns speak within and amongst each other, spatially weaving throughout the poem the very idea of interconnectedness Hier is interested in. The discovery of things in things, the melding of two into one and spread of one into many, fills the poem’s rhythms and rhyme as well as its content, and is already evident from the first page:
two crows on grass that bob and caw as one—
and the single mockingbird chants a single word.
The sky is stitched with a tapestry of coos and chirps,
tweeps and caws threads of song
that lace the leaves.
The idea of reflection and likeness is a key theme: how the present reflects the past, the narrator’s hands reflect those of his ancestors, the tree’s roots its branches, maps of rivers the veins of leaves, the “self-similar fractals at every scale” of the universe. Mirrors are visibly present throughout the poem, including a memorable scene in which the narrator, using a flashlight and a handheld mirror, reflects light onto a bird’s nest under the eaves of his house.
Hier is adept at portraying this similitude via what he calls “The dreamlike / compression of time”, an apt epithet for much of the poem itself. A single spot can hold a hundred narratives and images. Sometimes, as in the “Starlight Bath” section of the poem, Hier really packs this in:
I move my foot along the bottom of the tub
and the shell cries
aching at such naked human touch
there’s the rub of this world
hollow yellow filled with warm fluid
two-thirds saline solution
pulled by a moon
Here we have birth/rebirth, the womb, the life/death divide (with a little Shakespeare), the blood/sea divide, and the diurnal tides of the moon on that sea (and that blood), all within thirteen short lines. The rhythms are exquisite.
Here we have birth/rebirth, the womb, the life/death divide (with a little Shakespeare), the blood/sea divide, and the diurnal tides of the moon on that sea (and that blood), all within thirteen short lines. The rhythms are exquisite. The way the lines wrap and pull at each other, driving the reader onward while also whipping his mind back around, expanding and contracting, creates a lovely swift tension. Frequently, Hier is at his best when working in this couplet form (couplings being like reflections too). In one section of the poem, Hier simply pairs words from the indigenous Tongva language with their English counterparts, a surprising poetry of direct translation, the reflection of word in word. In poeticizing cosmological processes Hier recalls fellow Californian poet Robinson Jeffers, particularly Jeffers’ posthumously published The Beginning and the End (Hier is a Jeffers’ scholar). Hier also shares with Jeffers the theme of (ideal) human connectedness to the natural world and its inheritance. Hier’s verse is more forgiving than Jeffers’, and more personal, much like contemporary Pattiann Rogers, or the poems of Richard Hugo. Initially, the heavy presence of the cosmological throws one off a bit. What feels detached at first, however, becomes, the more we read on, an all-immersive, suffused interplay. This is true particularly on the second and third reads, when the poem, like an orbiting comet, picks up the dust and ice of impressions theretofore unobserved.
The unifying element, and the source of many of the best sections in the poem, is the middle column of the narrator’s personal past as a boy in Orange County (where I also grew up). Scenes of cul-de-sac baseball and foraging through quiet suburban neighborhoods are juxtaposed with local archeology and larger mid-century historical events. At one point, Hier’s narrator listens in on both the 1969 moonwalk and the 1969 Dodgers:
long flights to barren seas
Cronkite’s voice buzzes through the front door screen.
From the open door of the garage an unattended radio crackles
as Vin Scully talks a different round rock home:
…popped way up, and I mean way, way up…
This section of the poem as a journey through the past is divided into three periods of thirteen years (thirteen is a oft-recurring number throughout the poem—there are thirteen poems in each of the three sections), and the narrator writes that “this house and I / are the same age”, that of 39.
The central journey—and the best, and longest, single section of the poem—is that of the narrator’s thirteen year-old self sneaking out one night and boldly exploring one of the concrete rivers that crisscross the Southern California landscape. This section brings together nicely Hier’s idea of rediscovery of forgotten or unnoticed history and inheritance underneath one’s feet. The natural rivers that flowed freely throughout the Los Angeles basin for millennia have been paved over, but not extinguished. These are the rivers the narrator finds marked on old maps and sung in Native narratives, and the evidence of which still exists in the very soil of his front yard garden. The young boy acts out a reinhabitation (a word Hier borrows from another Californian influence, Gary Snyder), and rejoins the ancient flow:
I followed its flat bed between concrete banks rising on either side like wings
to the place where the walls steepened and narrowed and a feeder conduit five feet across
pierced through the sloping wall the source behind its black circle opening unknown…
pant legs soaked from the storm-drain soup of lawn sprinkler runoff and the piss and excrement of rats, birds, and homeless
The journey is Whitmanesque in its telling, a modern-day version of traipsing about the untouched stretches of Long Island.
The journey is Whitmanesque in its telling, a modern-day version of traipsing about the untouched stretches of Long Island. It is brilliant and suspenseful and such a wonderfully loaded symbol of all that Hier is bringing together in the poem that it takes your breath away (it did mine).
It is brilliant and suspenseful and such a wonderfully loaded symbol of all that Hier is bringing together in the poem that it takes your breath away (it did mine). It is also, for those of us who hail from the region, a profound revelation of our ever-dissembling home landscape. It is a joyous discovery of one of the “rerouted trails / still extant / in relief”, and one in which the narrator quite literally comes to know “the transitions from old watersheds to here.”
The poem is not all celebratory, and chronicles the narrator’s own sense of loss and stagnancy “counting futile laps / around a dying star.” In his search for meaning, he realizes the relative meaninglessness and chaos of the world and its history. Nevertheless, he writes:
planets orbit moons cling like lovers
never turning our faces we look inward watch outward
in all directions seeking clues
As we have done for millennia, and will in all likelihood continue to do, in our personal and spiritual lives. “How we come to live apart,” he concludes, “should be clear / like the singularity / of one explosion.”
Hier’s embrace of this type of double metaphor (the common nature of all our differences), as well as the tone and scope of the poem in general, is reminiscent of Hart Crane. Hier is after the same slice of grand synthesis, the wide pulse of theme and symbol, and he uses a similar type of extended metaphor, one that doesn’t rely on outright explanation but an undercurrent of emotion, recurring words and phrases and images. A few times, it should be said, Hier doesn’t hold back where he should, as in the aforementioned scene with the bird’s nest:
Looking up into the mirror, I direct the beam with my mouth as if sunlight to moon, and bounce the light to flood the nest.
The image is powerful, but we don’t need that third line. It is redundant in light of all the corresponding imagery from previous pages. Occasionally, and particularly in the cosmological column of the poem, explanation overcomes image.
Contemporary critics are generally quick to cavil at place-based poetry (‘regionalist’) or personal-past-based poetry, or both. One can imagine both complaints coming against this poem. Many cite a proclivity for nostalgia and sentimentality (as if those weren’t real and profound instincts in human nature, and a large part of the human experience we all have to deal with and work as we age to overcome). Hier seems to predict this, and even includes a defense within the poem: “I will not romanticize the past,” he states, which is of course, in part, what he’s just done. But Hier, as stated before, is not concerned with his personal place among his own ancestors to the neglect of his place—to all our places—among ‘all our ancestors’ (the “mitakuye oyasin” of the Lakota, which Hier tells us is “‘wee ‘eyoohiinkem” in local Tongva). If the poem is sentimental it’s sentimental about the common past as much as the narrator’s past; a kind of love letter to the universe. How many people do you know who express a fondness for the Big Bang? Hart Crane speaks about the concept of ‘transcendent sentimentality’ and its “universal portent.” Hier is after this very transcendence.
It is especially important in the Southern Californian culture (Hier calls it “a chaotic basin of displacement”) of generations of migrants pursuing the escape from old identity and a reinvention of self in America’s ‘paradise’. The neglect of history in LA is a local sport. This is the place where Hollywood stars change their names and once-poor Midwestern farmers grab a subdivision home by the beach. It is this very trend the narrator has to fight through to get at the roots of the place, to find the connections that are still hidden there. A local population of “myopic gardeners instead of careful guardians…each replacing myth with amnesia. / Treaties breached and maps redrawn,” has historically helped to cover over a sense of shared experience and spirit.
Again, this isn’t simple nostalgia for a time of idyllic Alto California, when the trees were allowed to grow and orange groves still covered the basin. Seasons come and go naturally, and layers cover over earlier layers:
leaf fall lethal laughter of autumn accepting the dance
Nostalgia is only an easy thing when trivialized by people building up caricatures, cheapening the sentimentality naturally suffused in memory. It is because we do not know what to do with nostalgia that we revert to this. Nostalgia pains us. It is directionless weight. It is the tragedy of time right there in a fuzzy remembrance and we don’t want to have to look at it. But if you do look, as Hier does, you’ve got to take it seriously, you can’t just automatically consign it to kitsch.
In a contemporary era with plenty of poems that “have charm for children but lack nobility,” Hier chooses to dig after the deep stuff. He does so by putting everything on equal ground, one’s own grandfather and the native peoples and one’s fellow commuters on the freeway. He investigates the entirety of the life of man in his environment, not just of man in his intellect.
“It is bitter earnestness / that makes beauty,” writes Jeffers. In a contemporary era with plenty of poems that “have charm for children but lack nobility,” Hier chooses to dig after the deep stuff. He does so by putting everything on equal ground, one’s own grandfather and the native peoples and one’s fellow commuters on the freeway. He investigates the entirety of the life of man in his environment, not just of man in his intellect. Indeed, the interconnectedness Hier is after is a far cry from the Pynchonian postmodernist’s shallow connectivity and faux eclecticism. Hier’s Whitmanesque connections buoy us up where fellow Angeleno Pynchon’s crushes us with crap.
Well, it is true that these deep narratives of place might just be facing their greatest nemesis yet: the internet. As current generations are raised in a placeless space—no more local dailies, no more meet-ups in the park, possibly no more cul-de-sac baseball—the urge to know one’s geographic identity, one’s organic history, may no longer resonate. Hier, for one, has produced a forceful work of art to combat this trend, an instructive narrative for all of us who live without noticing all that is around them, “unaware of the sources of our grace.”
Jeff Lennon is a displaced Californian living in Brooklyn. You can visit him online at The Coastal Literary.