“Wow, you really kicked Nature’s butt,” that’s what a friend told me after we finally tamed our rear garden. It was wildly overgrown. There were gooseberry shrubs, a swath of ostrich ferns, Manitoba maple saplings, and half a dozen other weeds that thrive on neglect. I love gardens. I love admiring gardens from afar. They seem to embody order, balance and beauty. Or utility, if they’re vegetable gardens. Gardens are an illusion. You never kick Nature’s butt for long.
This is what Monty Reid’s book Garden is about. It is a cycle of short lyrics that celebrate his real garden in east-end Ottawa and its dogged refusal to be more than what it actually is. It is not paradise. It is not metaphor. It is, however, more than a patch of land. The book is divided into twelve units that correspond to the months of the year, like a gardeners notebook where someone might record light quality, soil conditions or other useful observations. In fact, Reid says that the book began as just that kind of notebook. Then kinda went of off the rails just the way gardens, and other living things, tend to.
The result is useful. But it isn’t going to help you with any real gardening.
Season by season, Reid documents a simmering conflict between order and disorder, growth and decay, illusion and reality, perfection and its opposite. All of it taking place in our own backyards. Literally. These lines, from April, on the failure of the garden as frame or ideal are typical:
The garden is an enclosure
but a failed enclosure
It was never intended to be perfect.
Reid calls the poems ruminations, rather than meditations, which literally means to turn something over and over in your mind. Just the way gardeners do with dirt. Reid’s favorite tool is his “non-transcendental shovel.”
The shovel is my companion species.
The hoe is my helper brain.
The fork is my gmo.
The boot is my choreography.
The dirt is my prosthesis.
You get the idea. Although the full effect of the book — crammed with humour, insights, beauty — is difficult to summarize in a short review. It is roiling and cyclical. Images appear — like the pumpkin with “its carved up face” that “spent one night on fire.” They are churned under. They appear again — as an “orange smear” then a new pumpkin. The gardener/poet who wears a Tyrell Museum sweatshirt, Wrangler jeans and an Ottawa Folk Festival ball cap on page 34 returns on page 81 as a similarly attired scarecrow:
Yes, it’s me, I think
Every time I enter the garden again.
I should mention that I became Facebook friends with Reid some time back and had the privilege of seeing many of the pieces, fresh and green, when he posted them as status updates there beginning in 2012. I still devoured the book. It still tasted fresh.
To conclude, yes, you never get to kick Nature’s butt for long. But sometimes a poet like Reid can plant things so deep in your brain that it will take the ordinary weeds a good long while to choke it them out.
Garden, by Monty Reid, is published by Chaudiere Books. It is $20 and available on their website.