Shino ware from the Momoyama period (1568-16000).

Wild morning glory.

In his novel A Thousand Cranes, Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata wrote about a flower arrangement associated with the tea ceremony,

“It was plain indigo morning glory, probably wild, and most ordinary. The vine was thin, and the leaves and blossom were small. But the green and the deep blue were cool, falling over a red lacquered gourd dark with age….He gazed at it for a time. In a gourd that had been handed down for three centuries, a flower that would fade in a morning.” When I first read Kawabata, twenty years ago, that paragraph seemed to encapsulate the essence of Japanese aesthetics. I still think it does.
Ikebana and Japanese gardening are two art forms I have never pursued. Both are so closely related to Buddhism I feel that they fit into most American homes and landscapes the way an elephant fits into a matchbox. In fact, the most unbeautiful garden I ever ever seen is a pseudo-Japanese assemblage of stone lanterns and trellises in the back yard of a suburban tract house. I am sure that it pleases its owner and if I squint and look at specific elements, I can see that it has a certain charm. Still, I would not attempt to recreate in my own space.
Old as my village is, by American standards, it is its infancy, compared to to its japanese equivalent. My house, which owes more to Scandinavia in its raw boned designed than to Asia, is no place for moon gates and pebble streams. Though I have used one of my few Fukagawa vases on occasion, my rooms call for wilflowers in jelly jars.
What made me think of Kawabata, Japanese gardens and ikebana was the blossom of a a bindweed vine that grew against one of my front windows. Ordinarily, my reaction to bindweed is one of profound aversion. Had I not forsworn harsh chemicals I would Round Up every single one in my yard, it being that pulling them up by the roots apparently encourages them to produced numerous offspring. But this particular vine had a pink blossom of such lyrical beauty I had no heart to kill it. Late afternoon light is one of the great treasures in my neighborhood. I have seen it in pale green, lavender and gold. The light that shone through the ethereal petals of the bindweed flower was silver, dusted with golden motes. It made the Shino pottery gourd Kawabata mentions superfluous. It was more almost than the heart could hold.


Gretchen Primack’s first published poem.

When you read Gretchen Primack‘s poems, their music stays with you. There remains an afterglow that follows you and makes visible things invisible to the naked eye. This is an urgent, compelling voice that speaks in incandescent imagery, a voice that echoes in the mind long after you have heard it for the first time.

Primack’s publication credits include The Paris Review, Prairie 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. It can be ordered from www.gretchenprimack.com

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 publishes kid’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, language poetry 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
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!

This, from The Slow Creaking of Planets


A handful of cornets declared midnight,
unable to wake an old dog
by the palace arch.
They spilled knees, hips, hands
through brass bores and bells, and still
she lay there.

Her father was a Briquet Griffon
Vendeen. She inherited his long
white ears. The yellow cornets
waited for her to drift through the gate; still
she lay on her side, as if all the king’s men
crooned only to mend her broken body.

But that was the night she gave over
to space, let the pulley of notes raise her as far
as she could go, and stayed.

That was the night Orion slipped out of the bowl,
leaving only his glittering belt, unbuckled
into an aching arch,
and the slow creaking of planets.


Monarda Bluestocking.

Hummingbird snack bar.

Ruby throated male hummingbird.

His heart beats 1 260 times per minute. His wings beat 80 times for seconds. While in flight, their metabolism is the fastest of all animals except insects. body makes it imperative for a ruby throated hummingbird to consume three times their weight in nectar. That is where gardeners can help by planting red, pink, yellow and orange flowers with deep calyxes, such as agastache, columbine, coral honeysuckle, monarda, pentas, and salvia.
My first effort to attract hummingbirds to my garden is very modest. I bought an inexpensive plastic bird feeder and mounted it on an iron shepherds hook tall enough to discourage predatory cats. Rather than the prepacked tinted syrup sold at stores, I provide hummers with a mix of one cup of water to one fourth of a cup of sugar. I added hanging baskets of red geraniums, salvia and petunias to the snack bar and lo and behold, less than a week later, the hummers found them. Next year I will try to offer them a larger variety of high sucrose flowers. Barbara Damrosch’s beautifully illustrated Theme Gardens includes a plan for a hummingbird garden. I can’t think of a better source of inspiration.

UPDATE– After two days of marvelously cool weather, the veggie garden has been weeded and all the miniature roses have been plant in the rose border. Casablanca lilies are in bloom and the summer squash has responded well to a good rain. Sir Thomas Lipton rose is re blooming, delphinium, rudbeckia and lychnis put out a modest show. Matchstick chrysanthemum makes an early appearance. It looks lovely next to lavender.



Barack Palinka.

Apricot tart with toasted almonds.


Prunus Armeniaca, Armenian plum, otherwise known as apricot, acquired many labels throughout its approximately 3, 000 years of cultivation. Ancient Romans called it Mala armeniaca, Armenian apple and praecocia, pre-ripened, from the Latin praecoquus, pre-cooked. Arabs called albarquq, which means plum, and in some parts of the Spanish speaking world it is known as damasco, which implies that a Syrian origin. Apricock, as it used to be called in English is, arguably, the sweetest fruit of the rose family. So sweet, in fact, that one of its latest varieties is called Candy.
Whatever its label, a basket of apricots is a scrumptious gift and its giver is a person of real generosity. To find such a git at one’s doorstep, as I did, recently, fills one’s day with all sorts of delightful possibilities. In my case, the first impulse is to take a mental snapshot of the contents of the basket, to fix the moment in my mind. The second is to sketch with the intent of painting a watercolor or making chalk drawing in velvety paper that approximates the texture of the fruit. All this must be done very quickly. Apricots do not keep well and that gives me license to eat one as I try to decide what to do next.
After consulting with the Infanta, who is a competent cook, I decide that we will make an apricot tart. She will be in charge of blending eggs, whole milk, flour, sugar, and vanilla bean paste for the creme patissiere. I will make the crust and blend apricot preserves with a goodly dash of amaretto, which is made from apricot kernels. The latter will be used as a topping for the tart, a process that is as necessary as as gilding a lily, since the fruit needs no enhancement whatsoever. The handful of toasted almonds added at the end adds texture, but it is really not required. If one has access to sweet apricot kernels, one could create an extra layer of apricot flavor of which only the truly decadent or the unreconstructed gourmand could approve. They would not be averse to finishing up with a small glass of Barack Palinka, a Hungarian apricot brandy made from apricots. I did that once, long ago, in a tiny Parisian restaurant in the Rive Gauche and reader, I have been a better person ever since.


Ivory pyxis, Moorish Andalusia, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Alexandra Romanov’s favorite perfume.

Passionflower blossom.

Necklace by Alexander Calder, Metropolitan Museum.

Nature knows nothing of vulgarity. It fashions flowers of such barbaric richness the crassest arriviste would hesitate to wear them. Take the passionflower blossoms in my garden. In order to reproduce it, Faberge would have needed tanzanite, Rose de France amethyst, rubies, imperial topaz, alexandrite, rock crystal, paparadsha sapphire, raw emerald and the palest peridot. The result would be gaudy and ostentatious bubble, in the style some of the Romanovs favored. Poor, poor Romanovs. Their last Czar, Nikolai, was never as happy as when he grubbed in the dirt of his little garden in Yekaterinburg. Fixed by the cold eye of Soviet kulaks, he dreamed of cabbage, not jewels. His wife, Alexandra was of another mind altogether. Though she she was fond of roses–Frau Karl Drushki was one of her favorites–when she wore corsages, she added yards and yards of pearls to set them off. Somewhere there is a painting that shows hear wearing pink roses, perhaps her beloved Baroness Rothschild. Prior to Yekaterinburg, She had massive flower arrangements brought from her greenhouses to her mauve bedroom, turning it into a garden. If those were not enough, there were always the Faberge baubles to add to the illusion that nature itself could be brought to heel.
We each made our garden to suit our style. Long before the Romanovs counted for much, the Moors created splendid gardens in Al-Andalus. They grew lazy and fat, married Iberian women and raised children who spoke romance languages better than they spoke Arabic. When the hard core Islamic fundamentalism decided to whip the Al-Andalus crowd into proper shape, the Moorish empire fell apart. Needless to say, so did the Moorish gardens. Today, we catch glimpses of how they must have been in the few surviving objects, such as the cylindrical ivory pyxis–a container for aromatics such as ambergris– seen above.
Alexander Calder, who has nothing to do with either Russians or Moors, is one of the artists who capture the essence of passionflower vines in simple metal jewelry that seems more alive than anything Faberge ever made. I find it enchanting.


Van Gogh’s Child with Orange.

Fantin Latour’s Nasturtiums

A Candy daylily on the wane.

Asclepias tuberosa, butterfly weed is one of the joys of July.

Prince Truffaldino does not visit my garden in search of oranges, as he does in Prokofiev’s Любовь к трём апельсинам opera. Just as well. Neither butterfly weed, day lilies blossoms nor nasturtium blossoms secrete the princesses Fata Morgana’s spell compelled him to seek. They are orange all right, but they serve a purpose other than providing a mate for ill behaved princes. Aptly named butterfly weed’s function is to feed the larvae of Monarch butterflies. Day lilies and nasturtium blossoms must be shared with humans who add them to salads and fritattas.
Gardeners are known to fall in love with certain colors, as painters occasionally do. At the moment, I happen to be in love with orange. ”Everyone knows that yellow, orange, and red suggest ideas of joy and plenty. I can paint you the skin of Venus with mud, provided you let me surround it as I will,” said Eugene Delacroix. Van Gogh relied on the blue color to provide chromatic balance in paintings lavished with his beloved oranges and yellows. Oranges and yellows and blues are the colors of the Midi, of the Indienne textiles of Provence, of lavender fields dotted with poppies. I think they may also be the colors of paradise.