FLOWER FIESTA


Hot yellow rudbeckia.

Zinnia, one of Mexico’s gifts to the Americas.

A few months ago a local couple invited many of the folks in my village and me to a mariachi party. I did not go, which is a pity from the historic point of view. Had I been there, I would have witnessed the unprecedented arrival of the police at a gathering that included the mayor. Reportedly, the mariachi band had been so overcome with enthusiasm it and the mayor forgot that the village has a noise ordinance. A disgruntled neighbor called the boys in blue and while no one ended up in the hoosegow, there was probably a certain amount of ayayaying during the explanatory period.
Local fiestas tend to be subdued in summer when the university students are making noise elsewhere. Fauna and flora benefit from the quiet. I know I do. I almost forget that I live two hours away from the nation’s capital. If it were not for the fact that e-mail allows me to reach people in remote corners of the world, I might feel totally cut off from the hurly burly of our civilisation. To keep from turning into complete hermits, the Infanta and I make occasional forays into the real exurbia. There is, somewhat near us a town that looks like the setting for a Victoria movie. There, superbly kept Victorian houses set in manicured lawns give the impression that lives untouched by adverse circumstances. Truth is, that tragedy has no respect for quaint architecture. In that very town, earlier this year, a man who seemed to be perfectly normal took a pair of garden shears and decapitated his wife and young children, then shot himself. The town is beautifully still and to those who have not heard of the crime, it is a little slice of sweet Americana.
How tragedy and beauty coexist is a mystery to most of us. In the Victoria town, one can still hear the musical accents of the South before local speech became a homogenized thing pattern on HBO speak. You can see two men sitting in front of a gas station talking about World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima. One of them might be tall and lean and he will wear blue clothes similar to those of Van Gogh’s olive gatherers. A few miles away, two egrets will stand stock still near a stream. There will be those horrible shopping mall roses French botanists have committed and every median will be radiant with lemon lilies, rudbeckia and Fairy roses.
We come to home to a floral fiesta of zinnias and black eyed susans. The world is too much with us out there. We have novels to write and books to review–Margot Berman’s Hothouse Flower: Nine Plants of Desire, for example. We intend to cocoon with a vengeance.
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ANNOUNCEMENT


1. HISTORIAN AND NOVELIST JASON GOODWIN TALKS ABOUT WRITING AND HIS EDGAR AWARD WINNING CRIME FICTION SERIES THAT INCLUDES THE JANISSARY TREE, THE SNAKE STONE AND THE BELLINI CARD.

2. WRITER AND ILLUSTRATOR JUDY SCHNACHER WHOSE BOOKS, INCLUDING THE SKIPPYJON JONES SERIES, HAVE BROUGHT WONDER AND DELIGHT TO CHILDREN AND THEIR PARENTS.

4. CELLIST AND COMPOSER CLAUDIO JAFFE TALKS ABOUT THE CONNECTION BETWEEN HIS MUSIC AND HIS FAVORITE BOOKS.

GRETCHEN PRIMACK, POET


gdina_450Primack’s publication credits include The Paris ReviewPrairie Schooner, FIELD, ReviewNew Orleans Review, Rhino, Best New Poets 2006, and others. Her manuscript, Fiery Cake has been shortlisted for several prizes, and recently she completed a second full length manuscript, Buzz. She teaches at Bard College and at two maximum-security prisons through the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI). She lives in the Hudson Valley of New York. Her chapbook, The Slow Creaking of Planets was published by www.finishingpress.com last year.
1. When did you know that you were a poet?
Don’t think I can answer this one!
2. What does it take to make a poet?
Attention. That’s key. And a willingness to wallow a bit in an image or an idea. And a strong love of language on all its levels: The meaning of course, but also the sounds, rhythms, and visual aspects of it. You really have to be what I call a “word nerd.” Just love them: the way they look, the way they sound, taste, mean, etc.
3.What was the first poem you ever wrote?
I wrote a poem in school when I was, what, 7 or 8 or so about a night sky. Actually, it ended up in Cobblestone magazine, which publisheskid’s writing. I wonder if my folks still have it?!
4. What is the difference between a good poem and a bad poem?
This is very much in the eye of the beholder. But for me, I need to be able to connect with it on a meaning level—for that reason, languagepoetry leaves me cold. Also, it has to touch me deeply, make me feel something physically. I often find myself nodding as I read a great poem. And it can’t be trying too hard—it has to feel pushed out of the poet rather than an intellectual exercise. I want to feel the poet has integrity. I want to answer “Does this piece of writing matter?” with a resounding ‘”YES!”
5. What is the most beautiful line in the most beautiful poem in the English language?
Here’s a possibility:
‘Tranquility at length, when autumn comes,
Will lie upon the spirit like that haze
Touching far islands on fine autumn days
With tenderest blue, like bloom on purple plums….”
and here’s one—this is from my favorite poem ever:
‘Music, and painting, poetry, love and grief,
Had they been more intense, I could not have bourne,—
Yet, not, I think, through stout endurance lacked;
Rather, because the budding and the falling leaf
Were one, and wonderful,—not to be torn
Apart….’
Both of those are from sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
6. What is the most difficult thing about writing poetry?
Having a sense of worth while doing it—wondering what the value of a particular piece of writing is in the world.
7. What is the role of a poet in our society?
To ask people to pay attention—in both large ways (to war, to factory farms, to mortality) and smaller ways (to the beauty in a single element in nature, to a single human’s relationship with another). And of course to pay attention to language!
8. Should poetry be as popular as baseball?
Yes, because I think it’s terribly important for us to pay attention. Poetry can demand that. In some ways, I think it’s a shame we don’t have the patience for poetry despite having the patience for baseball (let’s face it—that’s a drawn-out sport!), but in some ways I can certainly see why poetry isn’t popular—there’s a lot of awful poetry out there!
9. If President Barack Obama asked you what he can do for the writers, what would you tell him?
He can simply communicate that writing has value. He could also put more energy and funds into creating serious writers and a love of serious writing in communities that don’t necessarily value those.
10. What makes you happiest about your writing?
Right now I’m working on a book about how humans treat the non-human animals around us—”food” animals, companion animals, circus animals, zoo animals, etc. When someone connects with one—say, about the plight of a dairy cow—and it it changes the way they see animals, and even the way they eat, that certainly makes me very, very happy!!
On a more self-centered note, I simply like the way I feel when I’m in the Writing Poetry Zone. It feels like my internal organs are getting a massage. It also feels like I’m making sense of something—a relationship, a dynamic, a mood, an experience, a physical object.
11. Have you set specific goals for yourself as a poet?
No. I live very much from the heart, and so I go where that takes me rather than setting goals.
12. Do you have plans for a new book in the near future?
I have two full-length manuscripts ready for publication, and a third manuscript—the one about the animals, Kind—that is is currently chapbook-length but that I would like to expand to full-length. I’d love to see all of those in print!

WHEN IT SIZZLES


The last Casablanca lilies of the season.


Delphimium blue.

The dog days of summer have no gentleness, no civility, no middle of the roadness. They fry plants, frizzle hair, fray tempers. For all that gardening is an attempt to tame nature and reorder the universe, the wise gardener knows better than to fight the heat. The thing to do, under the circumstances, is to get a copy of Pliny the Younger’s letters, shut the door on the oppressive weather and think of the icy spring in that flows in the writer’s farmlet, in his native Lake Como country.
There is civility galore in Pliny. There is gentleness, generosity and gatherings of friends who discuss literature the way most of us discuss the most important things in our lives. Pliny talks of law, harvest, wine, the giving of gifts and praise and he does so elegantly. All this, the gardener reminds herself, before central air. True, Roman’s of his time had recourse to the frigidarium in their baths, but outside, in summer, the world was a tepidarium that could grow hot as blazes.
Did Pliny grow delphiniums, lilies, zinnias, cosmos, buddleia, careopterys–those good old workhorses of high summer? It is doubtful. His was a working farm meant to produce grain and grapes and some of these plants might not have yet reached Europe at the time. No matter, his was a green world, a good place to visit at any time of the year.

PESTO SIMPLE


Fruit and Vegetables from the Midi, Renoir.

My pear tomatoes.

Pesto, pesto, pesto.

First you get fruity, unfiltered cold pressed extra virgin olive oil–Lebanese is my current choice–and add to it a sufficiency of fresh mashed garlic, Parmeggiano cheese, pine nuts and black pepper. If you are purist, you grind the lot in a mortar, but if you are not, it is acceptable to whirl it in a food processor, making sure that you do not liquify it entirely. Correct seasoning. There. That is it, summer in a bottle. Eat the entire thing on bread fresh from the oven or it to a huge platter bowl of past. Share it with your beloved, your relatives, neighbours, the postman. The operative word is feast. If you have made lots of pesto, pour it into ice cube trays and feeze it. Transfer the frozen cubes to plastic bags and return to freezer. Use the frozen cubes to add flavor to vegetable soup, paltas rellenas, orange and beet salad. This winter, when it snows, add it to bean soup. It will make you feel as if you were basking in the sun of an ancient piazza in Italy.
It is not too late to plant basil. For that matter, if you live in zone 6 , you can transplant tomato seedlings for a second crop. I just did. Please congratulate me

WE SHALL HAVE RAIN


Pink achillea and blue geranium.




Late at night I travel to Istanbul, courtesy of the magic carpet author Jason Goodwin provides with The Janissary Tree. There, gardens bloom on Iznick tiles of splendid blues, greens and pomegranate reds. I dream of asking Goodwin how he recreates this world of opulent color, singing fountains, bright jewels. Good writers are magicians and I am in awe of their power. Dare I ask this particular magician for an interview? Why not? The worst that will happen is that he will say no. I ask and hold my breath, metaphorically speaking.

I wake up to a sky as grey as a chunk of hematite. The temperature has zoomed into the upper eighties. The air is oppressive. The garden looks dry and exhausted. The round ruffled leaves of the Rond de Nice squash droops forlornly. When is these stony clouds going to resolve themselves into a cooling rain? We have had brief showers for the last three days, so brief they do no more than coax plant roots into coming closer to the surface to absorb a few drops before they evaporate. I go out with watering cans filled with grey water. This is not enough, I know. What my plants need is a series of long drizzles, gentle and sweetly thirst quenching.

The day ends without the promised downpour.

“Later,” says the weatherman. “Later.”

I labor over sentences. I murder paragraphs. My characters rebel, throw off the alphabet, become mute. I find a poem that is as fresh and cool as if it had just been written. It refershes the soul. And then, joy of joys, Goodwin says yes. What else can a provincial writing gardener want> Rain, perhaps. But has been promised. It will come.




Beloved, let us once more praise the rain.

Let us discover some new alphabet,

For this, the often praised; and be ourselves,
The rain, the chickweed, and the burdock leaf,
The green-white privet flower, the spotted stone,
And all that welcomes the rain; the sparrow too,-
Who watches with a hard eye from seclusion,
Beneath the elm-tree bough, till rain is done.
There is an oriole who, upside down,
Hangs at his nest, and flicks an orange wing,-
Under a tree as dead and still as lead;
There is a single leaf, in all this heaven
Of leaves, which rain has loosened from its twig:
The stem breaks, and it falls, but it is caught
Upon a sister leaf, and thus she hangs;
There is an acorn cup, beside a mushroom
Which catches three drops from the stooping cloud.
The timid bee goes back to the hive; the fly
Under the broad leaf of the hollyhock
Perpends stupid with cold; the raindark snail
Surveys the wet world from a watery stone…
And still the syllables of water whisper:
The wheel of cloud whirs slowly: while we wait
In the dark room; and in your heart I find
One silver raindrop,-on a hawthorn leaf,-
Orion in a cobweb, and the World.

Conrad Aiken (1889–1973)

THE MYSTERIOUS SCENT OF CASABLANCA LILIES


Potted Casablanca lilies in their second year.

Close-up of Casablanca lily.

Cobalt blue Fukagawa porcelain vase decorated with white lily.


Phenolics,” says my scientist friend, backing away from my Casablanca lilies as if from the devil himself. ” Being illiterate in science, I have no idea of what he means. A quick look at the google database provides me with incomprehensible answers such as, Lily PPO possessed a diphenolase activity toward catechol, catechin and gallic acid; catechin was the best substrate for the enzyme considering the Vmax/Km ratio. ” So I begin my fruitless quest for a description of the intoxicating scent of one the most beautiful flowers in my garden. My nose decodes it as a spoicy smell with a predominant note of cinnamon. I am no expert. I could ask Chandler Burr, my learned occasional correspondent who has authored books on scents, but it would be an imposition considering that he recently answered my questions about the scent of azaleas mentioned in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca . By the way, the answer is, azaleas are scentless.
Form, color, substance and a fierce determination to are good enough reasons for planting Casablanca lilies. Mine are crammed into a faux terracotta pot–the real thing wicks out water too quickly–set at the foot of the truly enormous climbing Noisette rose Claire Jacquier. Therefore its feet are in shade while its top is up in the air, which supposedly is a good way for lilies to live. The only difference I see in its development, is that it only grows up to a foot or so. The flowers, three to a stem, are spectacular. I woulds grow fields of these bulbs if budget and voles would allow. At one point, I planted fifty of them in the rose border and now only one remains. That is when I planted a couple of bulbs into the plastic pot. This is their second year and I intend to pot a few more this coming autumn. That way I will have something of surpassing beauty next July when my garden enters its fairly bleak hot weather
stage. Nothing can possibly please the eye as much as these lilies did this evening, after a soft rain.