Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Garden of Spring's Abundance: No Maybes in May

Coming home last week from a quick visit to New York -- including two perfect weekend days, with irises blossoming in the back lanes between Henry Hudson Parkway and, considerably downgrade, the actual Hudson River, so quiet and lyrically vernal that you can't believe you actually are still in New York City -- we discover that the month of May in Massachusetts has achieved its major statement in our absence. 
        Come on, May, say it with flowers. 
         I've been hoping that our streetside lilac bush (or tree; photo at left) would actually blossom in a way that produces the immediate undeniable pleasure of lilac scent. The blossoms have been on the plant for a month, but didn't seem to want to open. And weeks ago we did see and smell lilac blossoms in the abundance of the Arnold Arboretum (in Boston). 
          But on returning home Sunday night, we could smell the lilac halfway down the block. This plant is a Korean variety.  You can tell the difference at a glance. The Asian lilacs are sold these days as a replacement for the classic New England/New York spring flowering plants, cited by the poets for centuries -- as in Whitman's lament "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd" -- which suffered from disease a few decades back and either died or stopped blooming. You can still see them on old properties. Often you can also see where the old trunks were pruned away in attempts to revive the plant. 
             So, I'm fine with a new approach to lilac -- but hey,  we've got a "dooryard" and we've got a lilac in it, so listen to the poet and bloom already.
             Anyway, this year at least it's worth the wait. An opulent parfumerie. 
              Right beside it is a wiegelia (third pic down), probably too large for the space I have it in, which I've also been expecting to see a bloom. Sympathetically, its blooms opened in rhythm with the lilac, but that means it's getting less attention.
              And the other thing you notice about all these classic spring perennials, is the bloom while sweet is tragically short. 
               The poppies (top photo: orange) lead the way in the quick-show category. We watched the floppy stems reach out with their fat, alien-looking pod-like buds for a couple of weeks. A few finally began opening in the days just before our weekend away, so I said, 'Fine, wait till we go away to do your show. See if I care.' 
               The poppies did open en masse in the two sunny days we were away (I did care). A couple of sunny days dried them out. Then came the latest re-make of spring stormy weather striking the Massachusetts coast. A couple of big rain days to make up for the no rain last spring (and summer) along with some lashing winds. The poppies started dropping their petals. They are all such conformists, these European imports. They bloom at once, blow at at once, decline at once, and wither away. No second acts in poppies. Still, they are a specialty act, a rara avis. And seem to know it.

           And the clematis started climbing. Somehow, thick and rich and darkly purple (fifth photo down) in the blossoming, the plant forgot how to pull itself up on the dried-out vines from last year's climbing days and fell to rolling around on its own new exuberant growth. I found enough string to attach one of the most vigorous vines to the porch railing. I figured I would tie each of the others in turn, but a couple of fast-growing days later found to my happy surprise that the other vines had shot upward and latched on to the porch rails on their own. Good clematis; getting smarter every year. 
          I've also been watching the columbine blossoms sit coolly in some demi-monde state, not quite the lush dark-pink performers I recalled from other years (sixth and eighth photos down). Clearly, the only problem was my impatience. They plumped up into shapely forms, tumbling upside-down trumpets of descending posture and tone. 
             As for the irises (fourth and bottom photos), I have no schedule for them, though I think of them as a June bloomer. Depends on the climate, probably, and the earliness or lateness of any given spring. Late May has triggered these white blooms. A very classical shape. You can say only that it looks like nothing else but what it is: Iris. Named for the "personification of the rainbow" and the messenger of the gods. 
            The message of the gods seems pretty clear these days: spring beauty.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Garden of Literary History: The Mind of England, and the Pen of Shakespeare, When James I Wore Two Crowns

             What else don't we know about "history"? Every time I pick up a book as well-written, researched and formulated as "The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606," I walk around in a cloud of 'wow, imagine that, who would have known such-and-such?'
            Shakespearean scholars as learned as "The Year of Lear" author James Shapiro (how wide a set that can be?) seem to know a lot more about the circumstances in which his plays were written than they did a few decades ago when I was studying them in graduate school. We were certainly aware that the change from the Elizabethan period to the Stuart dynasty upon the ascension of James I to the throne of England in 1603 had consequences for Shakespeare and his crew. But "The Year of Lear" tracks the composition of three of Shakespeare's major tragic masterpieces against the pulses of the news cycle in the fraught transitional year of 1606.
            A number of strong political, cultural and religious forces buffeted English society in the years immediately after Elizabeth's death. Her death marked the end of an era when England took its place as a central player on the world (i.e. European) stage, fending off attempts at domination by larger powers just as 'Good Queen Bess' fended off marriage proposals from Spain and France. I think Shakespeare's history plays and other formative successes in the Elizabethan theater may have helped build a sense of a shared, significant national culture -- though Shapiro's book does not make this point. England now possessed an art through which to know itself. France and Italy had music and art. Spain had wealth; along with its own literary tradition of the "picaro" (or picaresque tale) that flowered in Cervantes, Shakespeare's contemporary and, in many eyes, peer.
            England fought off a Spanish invasion during Elizabeth's reign and sent its first expeditions to compete in the great game of exploration, world trade, and eventual colonization. On the home front it stabilized as a Protestant nation with a clearly outlined, though limited tolerance for Catholics. London became a teeming, populous, international trade center and world capital.
            But following the queen's death, the plague returned to London with the first warm season, after a few years of happy absence. James avoided the city like the -- well, thing in itself -- and his coronation was put off for two years. Parliament was reluctant to meet. The theaters were closed; "The Year of Lear" reports that the city had a law closing the theaters whenever the official "death list" from plague reached 30 in a week. Astonishing facts of a long-ago, but literate civilization: London kept a list of everybody who died from plague, though some of these records were lost in a later fire. Still Shapiro can tell us that Shakespeare's London landlady died in the plague at this time and that she was close enough to her prominent lodger to ask him to help arrange a marriage for her daughter. Records show this.
            Because of the epidemics, the king's absence from London, and the uncertainties of how to please the new regime, Shakespeare's company virtually shut down and -- astonishingly -- he wrote no new plays for two or three years after a decade of regular production of brilliant new work. From my studies I knew that "Lear," "MacBeth," and "Antony and Cleopatra" are considered the 'later tragedies,' but little of their circumstances. They were 'later,' I know now, because there were no outdoor, public theaters for 'The King's Men' to perform in, and no king in London to commission new works from the company to debut before him.
            When James finally settled in and new works were called for, several major social and political forces helped light a fire and provide the tender in the imagination of the world's greatest playwright. For me, this is the deeper insight that "The Year of Lear" offers about the nature of great public art, particularly of the literary and narrative sort: The problems of a given society feed the juices of great imaginations; their productions in turn nourish the ruminations of the people.
            The big issue dominating the early years of James Stuart's reign was his desire to merge the two kingdoms of England and Scotland into one united kingdom since he was now monarch of both. James was a proponent of the "divine right" of monarchs. Since God (he reasoned) had made him king of both lands, God clearly wanted them united. Furthermore, James dusted off an old legend that the two countries used to be one kingdom since they share the same geographical entity. God not only works in mysterious ways, apparently, he works in islands.    
            In fact, an old play based on a British legend depicted the terrible consequences of an aging king's decision to divide his kingdom. This story of course is "King Leir," which Shakespeare re-imagined as "King Lear." While a lot more is going on in Lear besides dynastic politics, Shapiro is clearly onto something when he points out that a play warning of the dangers of dividing a kingdom would likely find favor with a king who wanted to unite his two crowns to form Great Britain.
            "The Year of Lear" also mulls the play's (highly unpopular)  innovation of failing to offer a restorative happy ending to bring a troubled world back to rights. Shapiro provides the intriguing suggestion that the play's last lines spoken by Edgar, a member of the younger generation, "we that are young / shall never see so much nor live so long" as the previous generation, amount to a valedictory for Elizabeth's epic reign.
            Audiences are so troubled by the death of the "good" daughter, Cordelia, that subsequent productions consistently brought her back to life. My suggestion on the playwright's unconventional choice: Might not Cordelia's death stand in for the thousands of innocents slaughtered by London's plagues?
            When London finally appeared safe enough for James to make his court there and press Parliament to approve an "act of unification" of the two kingdoms, his new country is faced with an act of treachery that shakes it to the roots. In November of 1605, England endured a near-miss 911-sized catastrophe known to history as the Gunpowder Plot. An explosive attempt at a stroke of terrorism meant to destroy, king, royal family, government and much of the ruling class in a single cataclysm produced by tons of gunpowder and musket shot stored in the bowels of Parliament. 'Security' had a long way to go back then; the conspirators had simply rented the basement storage areas from the government.  
            The plot was also intended to set off a nationwide Catholic uprising to restore the "old religion," return the country to the authority of the Roman Catholic church, and install a Catholic monarch.
            Of further import to our story, many of the plotters had connections to the region of Shakespeare's own Stratford. How big a deal this plot -- reduced in current days to the devilry of "Guy Fawkes Day" -- was for post-Elizabethan England is recounted in greater legal and political detail than I needed. What I will remember is that the repressive laws against Catholics enacted in the wake of this plot swept up Shakespeare's daughter, who initially refused to swear a new 'loyalty' oath but was forced to recant.
            Shapiro make the connection between this near-disaster both to Lear and, more importantly, to MacBeth, a play about the treasonous murder of a Scottish king. Again, I think there's a deeper take-away. Tragedy was invented in Ancient Greece from the politically driven need for a citizenry to experience, at artistic remove, the disasters that befall those who seek to rule. Greek tragedy is about power, rule, and passion. We the people cram into the amphitheater to feel the terror of crime, misdeed, and failure.
We fear the terror of failure and crime; we find compassion in our own hearts for the human suffering displayed for us on stage.
            MacBeth is also a cautionary tale. What would happen if a plot to kill a king succeeded? -- as MacBeth's plot to kill Duncan does, and as the Gunpowder Plot to kill James I failed to. What happens is you get MacBeth, "in blood stepped in so far" that a nation must suffer more wars and the bloody removal of another king before the moral order is restored.
           MacBeth is also, Shapiro argues, a play about "equivocation," which James's England considered as bad armed rebellion. To them equivocation meant not telling the whole truth when you are put under oath to do just that -- as the courtroom oath says today, you swear "to tell the truth and the whole truth." If rebels, traitors -- particularly secret Catholics -- believed it was all right in God's eyes to hold back part of the truth from a courtroom or any official inquiry, then society would fall apart. You would never know who to believe.
            Hence in MacBeth we have witches telling newly elevated war hero MacBeth what he wants to hear in his secret heart, but only hinting, or perhaps omitting entirely, important pieces of the story. Shapiro closely analyzes a playful of other examples of 'equivocation,' of giving a misleading or partial impression. Oh, dear, it's everywhere.
            I'm afraid Shakespeare's day never knew the half of it. Today American citizens routinely listen to their elected leaders and come away saying, "Ah, they're all lying. That's what they do."
            Frankly, I suspect we all hold back some of the truth.
            I'm afraid I'm holding back any discussion of "Anthony and Cleopatra," the third of the great tragedies Shapiro finds bathed in the controversial waters of 1606, because it's a play I've never warmed up to. Also because the author's case for relating this play to specific events and the national mood at the time of its writing is too subtle for summation here. Besides, I've already forgotten so much of this argument that I need to read it again.
            But this is the beauty of reading history, especially when important times and great writers intersect. The truth is, there is always something new under the sun. 
           It's the old stuff we never knew.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Garden of the Seasons: Little Pleasures of Spring

        The first weeks of May are the best of times in many ways. Including the pleasure of looking closely for that fine class of small blossoms that grow close to the ground on plants that hug the earth and take their share of sunlight before the bigger boys grow over them and tend to hog it all.
         One of these ground huggers (or 'covers') blossoms with the abundance of tiny purple circlets you see in the top photo. I have never been able to learn their name. Recently, the suggestion "Pennyroyal" was offered. Nothing I can find online has put the matter to rest for me.  
         Speedwell is another all-purpose name. Plants sold under that name include those in the second photo down, showing vertical stalks with lines of trumpet-shaped pale blue blossoms. But also the significantly different plant structure seen in the second to last photo on this page. A dense scatter of single blossom, again a light blue, among attractively shaped leaves. 
         The third photo down pictures a patch of lily of the valley with spear shaped leaves mixed in among the low mass of sweet woodruff. Both of these plants produce delicate white blossoms. The lilies blossom a single stalk with tiny bell-shaped flowers. The mat of white flowers of the sweet woodruff are shown in the sixth photo down. 
       Common violets range in color from dark purple to light violet to the nearly white flowers with purple spots pictured in two photos here.  
        Another prolific low growing, blue flowering, ground covering plant is the Forget-me-not, seen below growing amid the spear-shaped leaves of daffodils and daylilies.  
           The last photo in this group, and the only one with pink flowers is the low phlox which truly illustrate the concept of "ground cover" for a few weeks each spring. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Garden and the Library: Where Flowers and Books Come Together

      Thank goodness for libraries. 
         Where else can you go as often as you want and it's always free? Sometimes they even have people standing up in the front of the room reading things for you. 
           That's what I'll be doing next month at Plymouth Public Library, introducing and reading some of the poems from my first book of poetry, titled "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty."
            We'll also be showing some slides taken of flowering plants grown in our perennials garden in Quincy. And offering refreshments. Maybe some the strawberries from the garden referred to in these poems will be ready by then.
             The reading takes place on Monday, June 12, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Plymouth library is located at 132 South St. The event is free. Paperback copies of chapbook will be available for purchase and signing for $15.

             Here's the "third-person" press release I've been putting about to promote my new slim volume of verses. You may have seen it before.

Globe Reporter's Poems Blossom in New Poetry Book

            Boston Globe writer Robert Knox, a Quincy resident, has published his first book of poetry, "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty."
            The book consists of 27 poems, many of them related to gardening, the outdoors, planting a perennial flower garden, and the environment. Other subjects include a father's brush with death in World War II, visits to Greece and Lebanon, a busy day on a Boston beach,family crises, a birthday party, a nostalgic glance at youthful dreams, and an encounter with Syrian refugees.
            The book received advance praise from Boston University poet and short story writer Robert Wexelblatt, who stated, "Knox's well-tended garden of verses furnishes readers with elegant borders, unexpected vistas, gorgeous blossoms, and insights as sharp as thorns. His themes are as local as the backyard and as universal as the weather."
            According to the publisher's description of the book: "The poems followed a backyard gardener's decision to dig up all the grass at his Boston area home and plant flowers, both perennials annuals, ground covers, shrubs, a small tree or two, berry bushes, and vegetables. To  be an amateur means to do something not for money, but for love. A few summers later the garden blossomed, and the poems grew from the voices heard while tending the plants, pulling weeds, trimming old growth, planting anew." 
            Knox is a freelance correspondent with a thousand bylines in the Globe South, other sections of the Boston Globe, and other newspapers. A former Plymouth resident and editor/writer for the Plymouth newspaper The Old Colony Memorial, Knox recently published the novel, "Suosso's Lane," based on the Massachusetts roots of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. He presented programs on the book and the history behind it at a dozen South Shore libraries and other regional settings.
            As contributing editor for the online poetry journal, Knox has published new poetry on a monthly basis on that site. His poems and stories have also appeared in other literary periodicals.
            The poetry chapbook was published in May this year by Finishing Line Press, an active independent publisher of poetry based in Kentucky.
            "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty" is available from the publisher's website,, for $14.99.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Garden of Literary Biography: "Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart" by Claire Harman

         Queen Victoria, then a young woman, stayed up late reading "Jane Eyre."
            Much of the reading public did so too. Its author was the fictional Currer Bell, since actual author Charlotte Bronte, the reclusive elder member of a household of extraordinarily inward-looking siblings, was worried that the work of any woman, much less one of relatively low social status, would not be taken seriously. A reasonable assumption.  
            The above information comes from "Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart" by Claire Harman, a recent biography timed to the bicentennial of the subject's birth.
            If you've read "Jane Eyre" but, like me, knew nearly nothing of the author's life, this account of her life and what the book tags 'the story of the Brontes' makes for fascinating reading --  generally sad, often bizarre, rising to a triumph rare in any lifetime, and unique in the author's own times and circumstances. If you haven't read "Jane Eyre," reading this account of the author's unlikely life will surely prompt you to do so.
            To put Charlotte Bronte's accomplishment in perspective, "Jane Eyre" was a 19th century literary sensation rivaled only by Dickens.
            To explain its originality, biographer Harman describes the book as the first realistic novel written from the point of view of a child. The character grows up in the course of the book, but her early life, with its losses and traumas is told in the voice of the defenseless, but courageous child who experiences them.
            Dickens broke ground in bringing to serious writing the concerns of the lower classes, common people, life's "unfortunates," orphans. "Nicholas Nickleby," a devastating muckraker, exposes the cruel treatment afforded poor orphan boys. Bronte upped the ante -- ground-breaking, new, implicitly shocking -- by exploring circumstances, hardships, and the gamut of human emotions from the perspective of an abused, neglected, but smart and determined girl.
            Readers, including the era's literary lions such as William Thackery (author of "Vanity Fair") were transfixed.
            To add further degrees of phenomenal to this sensation in the history of publication, the book was a first book by a writer no one had ever heard of. And, of course, the publishers had no idea that "Currer Bell" was a pseudonym.
            Only when some other nefarious publisher tried to pirate 'Currer Bell's' work, did Charlotte Bronte come forward, traveling unannounced to London with her sister Anne for courage, to announce her existence in the public room of her publisher's offices and demand that they take actions against infringement of their rights.
            The publisher stares at the strikingly, small, quaintly dressed woman. Literary surprise of the century!
            "You are Currer Bell?"
            This moment was recently captured in an otherwise disappointing recent Masterpiece Theater film, "
To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters,” a striking example of missed opportunity. For, as Claire Harman's book demonstrates, the unique (a word that actually applies in this instance) story of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte is still an incredible tale.
            The Bronte family was poor, isolated, fantastically literate. Their father was an Irish-born Church of England vicar, with a parish in barely civilized Yorkshire (the word 'rude' comes to mind), lacking English relatives or local connections. He was mostly interested in tutoring his only surviving son in Latin and Greek. His wife died after a delivering a seventh child. He sent two daughters, including the elder who at age 10 had assumed the 'mother' role for the younger children to a cheap school with brutal conditions, where they proceeded to die.
            His son Bramwell and the three surviving daughters then created a fantasy world of characters sometimes modeled on real figures -- military and political figures they read about in their father's newspapers -- whose explorations and exploits they wrote about in tiny books made of tinier writing (legible only under magnification). A shared world, that is, into which it would be inaccurate to say the children 'withdrew' since there was virtually nothing to withdraw from.  
            To get the rest of the family details, both stirring and sad, read this well written and researched book -- a biography plus one or more. Suffice it to say that in addition to Charlotte's novels, the family produced a major English poet in Emily Bronte. England in the 19th century did not have a category for female poets (outside, perhaps, a famous poet's wife); recognition for Emily Bronte's poems came in the 20th century. Emily also wrote one of the canonical English novels, "Wuthering Heights," a work that still strikes many of us as alternately brilliant and amateurish. And a book that gave us archetypes of a passionate connection too strong for life, or death.
            Charlotte's "Jane Eyre" was a sensation, a cultural gut-check, a new and deeper exploration of society and the individual. In a time before movies, it spawned theatrical exploitations of its popularity.
            Emily's "Wuthering Heights" too was a sensation, but also a scandal. Too much candor for the English public to accept from a woman.
            Outside of the shadow of her talented sisters, Anne Bronte's fiction and poetry makes the sort of interesting early 19th century 'women's writing' that PhD candidates study.
            What happens to their sad brother and the three Bronte sisters rewards any reader's attention, though it won't make us happy. I need add only one significant fact about their father. Reader, he outlived them all.