Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Garden of the Seasons: Final Bows From a Star-Studded July

          Friends, have I told you that I love July? I did? Oh, yeah, pretty much every day this month.

            A lot of perennials appeared to be having a good time this month as well.

            And, happily for me, they continued to find their own water. Today was the first time this month I thought about hauling out the old lawn sprinkler to make some of the drier patches of ground (I generally can't see too many because the plants block my view) look happier. This practice probably does the plants some good, especially if their leaves are visibly wilting. More often it just makes me feel better.

            Happily a year of decent rains put enough water into the ground, relieving me (and the plants) from the anxieties of the typical midsummer drought. You know, think brown lawns. That doesn't mean that it won't happen in August.
        July is the big month for daylilies. After the familiar orange native variety finishes their bloom, cultivars such as the  daylilies in the top photo take over the stage. To my shame I gave up trying to keep track of their names years ago. This plant produces blossoms that are big, striking, and numerous. If I had to name it, I might call it 'best seller.'

          The second photo down is a medium tall, white flowering herb called Achillea or, more commonly, yarrow. Herbs tend to be native plants that are hardy and make the best of the situation.
            The third photo down is Balloon Flower, whose formal moniker (I'm told) is Platycodon grandiflorus. It's grand, all right in July. The 'balloon' name comes from the puffy buds, some of which you can see in this photo. It's their color and prolific quantity of blossoms that make them a winner for me. These happy flowers are shown in a tighter close-up in the page's second-to-last photo.            
           The next photo down shows some of Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) that proliferate this time of year. I've learned they are a member of the sunflower. We have tow varieties, one (pictured here) blooms a few weeks earlier than the second, which has somewhat darker green leaves and stems and has proved a real land-grabber, well adapted to our part-shade growing condition. 
          The sixth photo shows a group of these familiars hanging together. At its center are the Echinacea, sold as Cone Flower, another hardy herb. The violet variety pictured here is Echinacea purpurea. The purple and the white blossoming Echinacea are shown together in the fifth photo down.This grouping of flowering perennials (sixth photo) hangs together for about a month. The balloon flowers, pictured earlier, have begun drop out of the scene, all their splendid little buds having popped and faded in the familiar parade of the seasons. 
          The seventh photo down centers on Liatris, a thistle-like flower growing on tall spikes. Also called Blazing Star, and (a name from an earlier day) Gay flower. Our spikes are not very tall, maybe because the situation gets a lot of shade. It's a another bee-attracter. We get a lot of bees. 
           The back piece of garden gets good light on July afternoons. The eighth photo down pictures a high-noon gathering of the some of the perennials named above. 
          The next photo depicts the angle of the so-called "Gooseneck Loosestrife." Another herbaceous perennial, this one from the Lysimachia family, this gang has expanded its territory in recent years.

          Another shot taken in the high sun hours, the photo to the left centers on the pink-flowering tall phlox (Phlox paniculata), that bloom in July and stay with us all through August. These too eat up a lot of territory and hold on to a lot of color.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Garden of Verse: Saluting Home-Grown Truths About Where We All Came From and Other Poems of Our Season

In the patriotic month of July, the idea of 'America' sent Verse-Virtual poets on a thematic dig through symbols, memories, generational retrospectives and hard looks at what I recently heard described as "our cultural moment." 
            Gee, whatever could that mean?
            Maybe Uncle Sam can help. Jim Lewis's bracingly original take on a familiar icon in his poem "shaving america" makes this vivid appeal:
"we need you, uncle sam/ need your rebellious hair/ waving white in the breeze/ need that familiar goatee/ flying like a white badge/ of courage..."
            Lewis's other poem in the July issue, "how long does it take," is a vivid verse essay on what could possibly be meant by the notion of a 'real' American... "not a fake, not an invader/ not an illegal, or undocumented/ but a real, good-as-a-gold-dollar american." Because, clearly, everyone's origins can be challenged on the grounds that we came from somewhere else. Even 'Indians,' the poem notes, are "a figment/ of some explorer's imagination." The implication from these few richly packed stanzas is that being 'real' is not a matter of where you or your ancestors were born.

            Firestone Feinberg's marvelous poem "After School" asks us to confront one of those 'anthem' words that Americans, and the world (at least in other 'cultural moments'), associate with this country. I won't spoil the ending by mentioning it here. A lot gets rolled into this poem's relatively few words and short lines, besides those cigarettes the poet recalls smoking at age fourteen. Consider these lines, curt as a teenage brush-off: "And your mother/ Is dead and you/ Are left with/ A father you/ Can't talk to". The smoking takes place not only after school but "By the/ Waters of Babylon/ And you remember/ The songs of/ Zion." A further deepening context in a very affecting poem.
            In "Honoring Ancestors," Joan Mazza writes of ancestors in Canicatti: "No one learned to read,/ but they knew of schools, saved lira for a steamship to America." Guess what happens "three generations later" to great-grandchildren who graduate from college, teach, speak two languages? They also "go back to the earth," grow basil, buy "semolina flour/ heart of the wheat from Italy,/ to make pannetone and pasta..." Do stories like this one -- regardless of whether these brave ancestors came from Italy or anywhere else in the world -- not make the USA a 'great' country and much richer than it would otherwise be? Why is this history not taught in schools?    

            Too much winning? When it comes to immigrant ancestors you have to take the eccentric with the ordinary, as Michael Minassian's poem "Naked Toes, Naked Stars" suggests. After his Armenian grandfather lost a big toe to a lawnmower, the poet visited him in the hospital and found him "rattling off a litany of complaints/ in a swift combination/ of four languages,/ confusing the hell out of the/ Puerto Rican nurse & Indian doctor ..." They wrap his foot "like some 20th/ century mummy from the Bronx" but fail to cushion his "cursing abilities" among other colorful traits. The poet's search for the missing digit brings the poem wonderfully back to those "naked stars."

          Tricia Knoll's poem "The Value of a Home" addresses the issue named by its title in terms both close to home and close to the heart. How do you put a value, the poem asks, to immaterial assets such as the "Christmas tree corner with green/ lights, a deck where poetry flowed/ into the woods, enough water/ in the creek it might be crying"--? This is a moving poem about the kind of migration we all make at one time or another from one someplace to live to another, and about the unquantifiable human value of 'home' to all of us fortunate to have one.  

          Penny Harter's poem   "Healing the Wound With Honey" flows from one of those scientific findings that reads like a kind of curiously wonderful found artifact. Research, apparently, has shown that "difficult-to-heal wounds respond well to honey dressings." I'd say this sounds like the stuff only poets can make up.
            Harter's poem begins with this perfect jumping off point: "It must have been inflicted in another life,/ this wound we can’t remember, not even sure/ whose it may have been." The poet illustrates those difficult wounds by way of a beautiful image "a wound/ of the spirit that even the heavy blue dressing/ of the sky can’t fix." So we must "learn the names of honey," and where we must offer this healing provides a deeply fitting ending I don't wish to spoil here.

            However strongly we may feel about America, our home is also the earth. Robbi Nestor's "Benediction to the Earth" is a prayer that both cites and summons the enduring blessings of the planet. An Ekphrastic poem accompanying an image by Ira Joel Haber on her V-V page, ("blue as a morpho" butterfly to quote from the poem), "Benediction" asks the rain clouds to "carry our heavy regrets" and drop them harmlessly on desert; and among other requests petitions the sun to bring us "the chambered face of the sunflower."
            I like sunflowers. I don't ask where they came from (earth is answer enough). I bless the rain that falls in New England, without wondering what other country or continent it may have visited. And I am glad that my country births so many wonderful poems. 
            You can find these poems and many others at http://www.verse-virtual.com/poems-and-articles.html

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Shakespeare's Garden: 'Macbeth' in Our Season

            Some aspects of Shakespeare's great political tragedy "Macbeth," director Melia Bensussen writes in her notes to the current production at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., "resonated... with our cultural moment."
            Would that 'moment' be the one when our current Usurper sells out his country's interests, alliances, values, and national pride to the two-bit totalitarian gangster who currently runs the long-running catastrophe generally known as Russia?
            "I thought about what moves and frightens us as contemporary audiences," Bensussen writes, and cites "how Macbeth's ambition, and belief in his imagination, lead to his destruction."
            She quotes the estimable literary critic Harold Bloom: "(The Macbeths) delight in their wickedness... Shakespeare rather dreadfully sees to it that we are Macbeth; our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable."
            Since 2016 there has been only one dominating influence on our 'cultural moment.' I won't say the name of the devil, but you know who I mean.
            What else can be meant by the 'cultural moment'? Me-too? The sins exposed there don't appear to have a precursor in this play since the only woman who matters, Lady Macbeth, is more actor than victim. You can see the "delight" Bloom speaks of in Bensussen's direction when Lady M. laughs in the course of her encouragement of her husband to murder and usurp. To throw caution to the winds and have the 'courage' to risk all for the prize of royal power, and be ruthless in obtaining it.
            They're playing the game of houses (or "Game of Thrones" as the TV series called it).  Among other contenders for the Scottish crown we must count the head (Duncan's) currently wearing the crown, whose necked is saved by Macbeth's defeat of the rebels. Banquo, Macbeth's comrade in arms, is another rival. When we first meet Macbeth, he is triumphant in a just cause and likable. A furiously competent warrior, he takes pains to share the credit for the victory with Banquo.
            But Banquo must be eliminated because of the witches' prophecy. Though he will not become king himself, they prophesy, his descendants will. Our hero-villain naturally prefers his heirs to sit on the throne (even though he doesn't appear to have any).
            Other threats to his power include Duncan's son Malcolm. Suspecting correctly that he's a likely target of the conspiracy that murdered his father, he flees the castle before the Macbeths can take a run at him. Then there's Macduff. Though he evinces no appetite for the game of thrones power, simply because he is a name, a power center that might some day ally with Macbeth's enemies gathering across the border in England, the logic of tyranny says he must be eliminated.
            Ask any tyrant in our own season. 
            Ask North Korea's Kim. Ask Putin why the oligarchs must be cut down to size before they become too popular or influential. Ask the Chinese Communist Party why no religious groups may operate in their country, no dissenters question their policies.
            Unlike history's more famous tyrants, Shakespeare's Macbeth has something they don't -- a conscience. An unavoidable capacity to experience, to feel, the reality of what he's doing. After he has Banquo murdered, Banquo's ghost ("in his blood") turns up at the dinner table.
            Macbeth's pathetic breakdown at the appearance of this ghost is black humor. Bensussen's production plays it for all that it's worth -- and then some; running the entire scene through twice. First with Banquo's ghostly appearance viewed by the audience. A second time with no 'ghost' on stage; the way, that is, the other guests would have perceived the occasion of Macbeth's mad-guilty ravings.
            The word the play's scholars use for this inconvenient capacity in a ruthless usurper is "imagination." Bensussen writes, "Macbeth too strongly believes in his own imagination..."
            He can, clearly, imagine himself king. But he can't help seeing the cost.
            To go back to that quote from Bloom: "Macbeth suffers intensely from knowing that he does evil, and that he must go on doing ever worse."
            Those last few words nail it. It's not enough to kill Macduff; you must kill his wife and children as well. No potential enemy can be left alive.
            Just as, to take a current instance, it is not enough to deny refuge to frightened people fleeing a threat to their lives. You must separate them from their children when you throw them in jail. That will show them. They won't try coming here again.
            But Macbeth, as I see it, chooses the path he does because he convinces himself that 'destiny' accords with his own desire for the crown.
            And, of course, the three witches help with that convincing. "Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!" they greet him, before Macbeth has learned that Duncan has bestowed this title on him -- and "All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!"
            But the witches are (as they do again in a later scene), "equivocating" -- to use a term of moment. Shakespeare's moment that is. In the aftermath of the infamous "Gunpowder Plot," a terrorist plot to destroy King James I and the leadership of England's Protestant government, investigators  faced the pernicious doctrine of "Equivocation."
            The doctrine taught that it was morally lawful to swear to civil authorities that you are telling the truth, but also to hold back essential information if you have good reason to that accords with your religious faith. So if the sheriff asks you, "Did you hide a priest last night?" you can swear that you did not, because actually it was your son or your wife that hid him. And because, as a believer in the old religion -- Roman Catholicism -- you believe God's law smiles on this deed of withholding truth for a higher cause, rather than forbids it.
            This is why the word shows up in Shakespeare's play and why the director of this "Shakespeare & Company" production has her actors emphasize it so strongly that it becomes a laugh line.
            The witches equivocate to Macbeth by withholding the whole truth with a clear intention to mislead when they tell him that he has nothing to fear until "Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane" -- an apparent impossibility. Until, in a fashion, it happens. And also when they tell Macbeth that he need fear "no man of woman born."
            Macbeth hears what he wishes to hear instead of considering the source and maintaining a healthy skepticism. It's a fitting fate for a once good man turned tyrant, and hollowed out morally as a result. Duncan's son Malcolm, -- born by Caesarean -- will run him through in the end.
            That's why I missed seeing these telling scenes with the proverbial three witches in this "Shakespeare & Company" production. Bunsussen's show gave us only bare snippets of these encounters, and the three witches were economized to one. This RIFing also cheapens the historic context, since James I, England's new Stuart ruler, was a famous hunter of witches.
            We may not have witches or witch-hunters among us today (though 'witch-hunt' is daily thrown about), but our world has no shortage of 'strongmen' who lust after power. And find confirmation of their greatness everywhere.
            The omission of the witch scenes also slights the historical context because Shakespeare's play connects "Macbeth" to his own day by pointing out that England's new Scottish king is among Banquo's many descendants. The point is made by a daring device as the witches show Macbeth a charmed mirror in which he glimpses portraits of the long line of Banquo's descendants on his country's throne -- including new boy on the throne Jimmy (or 'Hamish') Stuart.
            Macbeth is after all "the Scottish play." It's doubtful that this theme for a play would have occurred to Shakespeare if the throne of England had not recently passed to a Scottish king.
            And revealing a play's connection to its own time helps connect it to our time as well -- because the through-stories in human history are always the same. Shakespeare's time had dynasties, powerful lords, and rule by tyrants called kings or queens.
            We have dynastic families, billionaires -- our last election featured the wife of a former President against a tax-evading oligarch -- and an endless parade of celebrity egos who believe they're hearing destiny's call to greatness.
            Not for nothing did the Constitutional framers create a governmental structure pitted with restraints on power. I questioned the need for so many of these myself when our gentle Duncan sat in the White House and suffered political impotence by a thousand cuts.
            Now, however, we see how easy it is when a monster sits on the throne, surrounded by liars, thieves and toadies, to ignore all restraints simply by denying the claims of reason and fact and moral decency.
            Maybe that's what Bloom meant when he wrote "Shakespeare sees to it that we are Macbeth; our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable."
            Today the Great Equivocator sits on the throne and tells us that what he told the foreign dictator yesterday is not what he meant to say. Today he will say something different that plays better at home.
            His sycophants and enablers will rally around and say, "Yes, boss. Yes, boss."
            History echoes in all our present moments. Will no one rid us of this turbulent beast?


Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Garden of the Seasons: July Friends, a Colorful Group Coping with a Strong Sun and a lot of Shade

          Anne and I were discussing what is meant by the term "midsummer." In England Midsummer day (or 'night' as Shakespeare reminds us) is a magical time because it's the summer solstice. The day on which the sun reaches its highest point of the year in the northern hemisphere. This usage had no regard for the public school calendar. Kids are just getting out for summer vacation, so mid-summer for them (and their teachers) is late July. 
         For a perennial flower garden in Massachusetts, I would say it's right about now. The sun is high, but beauty is fleeting. Many plants have already flowered and gone back to making strong roots, stems, and leaves for continued success. Maybe they're bearing seeds that haven't scattered yet. 
           Others are hitting their stride. It's daylily month. Hydrangeas are flourishing. Many roses bloom through this month. And many of us indulge in summer annuals that take a month or two to reach their prime. One of these is the orange hibiscus, pictured in the top photo. 
          I buy these hibiscus and pot them for a season to help celebrate summer every year. They're tropical or semitropical flower. The big ones I bring indoors for the winter; some of them make it and are good for a second go-around outdoors, some don't. In either case they know they haven't spent the winter in Florida or southern California.
                Spiderwort (second photo down) move in anywhere you let them. When they all bloom at once, on a dark morning or in blazing sunshine (doesn't seem to matter) they can be stunning. When they start to tire and the weather gets dry, they just flop all over the place. Now the question is whether to try put up with them in hopes of later bloom, or cut them down. I do a little of both.
           Astilbe, blooming red and white in the third photo down, are going good in early July. A plant widely recommended for shady spots. they're surviving here where it's shady more than half the time; but the high sun of late June and early July stays on them for a longer piece of the day. If only these blooms would last all summer -- that's what we say about most perennials.
           This Spirea (fourth down) blooms in a lovely dark pink to reddish color. Somehow they never last -- but you've just heard that story. However, if you conscientiously dead-head all the faded blooms, you may be rewarded with a good second show. That's my job for today.
          These daylilies (fifth down) have a lovely soft color. They tolerate neglect and crowding as you tell from this photo. And partial sun. I've been trying to collect different varieties of this remarkably versatile plant (though I forget to write down the names) so that the differences in blooming dates will keep the color flowing for over a month at least. The native orange daylilies start in late June. Some other varieties have yet to begin to bloom. The pale yellow ones here are finishing up.
          Rose Campion (sixth down) is another champion of midsummer, late June to early July. Their dark red flowers (that name them, I suppose) contrast nicely with the gray stems and leaves. I don't know anything more about them, but that's enough for me. 
          Another plant with a nice color contrast is the coral bell (seventh down), with delicate pink flowers above dark purplish-green leaves. Again, it's highly recommended as flowering perennial that blooms without too much sun. Most of all the plants growing here in our the back garden are labeled semi-shade. That's a cleome blooming in the lower right of this pic.  
          Lamium (sometimes sold as "spotted dead nettle") is shown here (eighth down) growing beside the newly reconstructed stone and gravel path. Everybody does their road work in summer
            Lace-cap Hydrangea (ninth down) shows in this photo exactly where its name came from. The plant grows expansively, but hard to believe, truly wilts in the sun. In our front garden sun is more prevalent, and in sunny, dry periods (like today) they require watering every day (yes, also on today's to-do list).
          A different daylily with a darker yellow color is pictured here in the last photo. I love this tint and should have kept that name tag for this cultivar. Remembering the names of plant varieties is one of those activities they recommend for improving your memory. I think I'm going in the wrong direction.