Letters from Two Gardens
A correspondence between writers captures the changing seasons
By Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil
IN THE LATE JULY swelter and dragonfly buzz of summer, poets Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay began a correspondence of poems—sent the old-fashioned way, through the mail. Aimee wrote from her flower garden in Fredonia, New York, Ross from his fruit and vegetable garden in Bloomington, Indiana. Here, then, is how they made sense and record of a full year in their respective gardens. “It is our hope that some of the pleasure and anxiety of tending these gardens—which is to say, tending to ourselves, our relationships, our earth—comes through in these poems,” says Ross. “There’s bounty, yes. But there’s loss and sorrow too: like a garden, like a life.”
I still marvel at all the people who first mapped the summer sky—
the pretty patterns from chalk and string they pulled
across the fresh-swept floor. Every monster wishes their teeth
gleamed louder than Vega, summer’s brightest star. Every night
has its own delights: waxwing, paper moth, firefly larvae.
I would drink the red and blue stars if I thought my thin throat
could handle it. Even at the darkest hour, my garden throws
furtive dots of pale light to guide my steps: the bubble of fresh
egg-froth on a frog’s back, the secret bloom of moonflowers
when the children have been tucked into their tiny beds.
O teasel bur and grasshopper—how you catch in the hem of my skirt
like a summer cough. It’s exhausting, this desire. But I would never
trade it for any shiny marble. Would you? I love the silence
of sweat in these slow days of summer. All the mysterious sounds
in the trees—like a sack of watches—while I tend to tomato plants
who have only thought to give four fruits this entire month.
It’s true. No golden marble or treasure chest or even
tongue mapping me ankle to the cove behind my ear
quells that guttural tug by which I unwind bindweed
from each thorny raspberry cane, or clip the fish pepper
from its scaffolding, or swing my ax if need be.
With which I hack back the jackass branch
or beg the rampant sunchokes this way, or that.
Or dream beneath the currant’s
myriad golden mouths.
Some days I catch glimpse of the hurdy-gurdy path I make
through this garden: ooh! the gooseberries aglow,
ooh! the lemon balm tufting up, ooh! wasps swilling the golden florets
of bolted kale, and Good Lord the strawberry flowers
are the pursed lips of ghosts
I want to know. Yes, today I am on my belly
for that scant perfume, this invisible parade
of dying and bloom.
At the onset of fall, there are days full of the need
to exhale without sound around the crispy aquilegia
stalks. One last plume of astilbe is the only shot of pink left,
and even now drifts of unraked leaves threaten to choke
it out. I wouldn’t wish this sickness on anyone.
The only sound I remember from that week
with you at summer’s end was the terrible toss
of bullfrogs flinging themselves into the pond
when we approached. Wait. The only sound
I remember is actually a color, muddy river water
that hides an ancient fish. I never sat up nights
with sick horses and I wonder if that’s
the difference: their coughs will never haunt me.
They say frogs are vanishing all over the Midwest,
but I can still hear them.
And yet, and yet, when the cold
makes brittle what remains—the spent okra
stalk, the few pepper plants that hung on
through the first two frosts, those little gold
tomatoes—when it withers even the rogue
amaranth, its tousled
mane bent and defeated,
when the silver maple out front has ceased whispering,
and when the bullfrogs nestle into their muddy lairs,
and the peepers go where they go,
and the crows circle,
just down the street, its leaves
too mostly blown off, spindly
and creaking in the wind,
while the whole world shimmers with death,
hauling all its sugar into perfect globes
the size of a child’s handful,
giddy, it seems,
at the sound of ants
slurping beneath, at me
joining them, brushing away wood chip and beetle
before burying my tongue
in the burst pulp
dropped on the earth below,
gives its modest fruit
for yet a while.
This time I left. I could not swallow
these dark weeks of the new year
even though this is supposed to be
my season—the constellation of a goat
draped over us now is supposed
to comfort and stay the coils around
my heart. I thought I would regret I didn’t plant
a line of skunk cabbage—so warm their flowers
can thaw fly wing and even melt snow—
but it turns out I never needed them.
When I returned from Florida:
no snow to inch over the barely used woodpile,
no snow to reveal the mysterious visitors arriving at night,
no snow like pale kites cut and lost in a terrible wind,
no snow starfishing from the sky and onto a bleak beach,
no snow collected on the weak scatter of straw in the old berry patch
and the ground softens under my boot because
too many grosbeaks herald the sunrise and where
are these newly designed nests they’ve never had to build
like this: a lighter, brightly lit story of architecture and twig?
And maybe there’s some other story:
the finger’s plow furrowing a scar
for seeds through the loam,
and the way the flesh’s million filaments
fleck like mica the soil
till it glows—no, no.
The earth is heating up, I mean to say.
Nothing like peach blossoms in February to tell you
something’s off—when these
shivered and shimmied in the wind,
it was a full month early.
Do you know what I’m asking?
The garden these days leans in as if to say,
“You’re fucked, friend.”
It says so with equanimity, all its leaves
quaking through the bright light
like applause for the dead.
If the garden had shoulders, I think,
it’d shrug them. Berries today,
the blue jay divebombing the cat today,
the silver maple loosing its twirling battalions today,
What am I trying to say?
The tiny prints of your kids’ feet in the garden
filling with shadow?
No shadows here, only mud.
Praise the caked-up trowel, hand rake,
and grass scissor. I want to kiss each crumble
of sunbaked earth as my sons welcome iris
and drunk ants whirl-rush over each juicy peony bud.
After warm rains come the spring peepers shivering
out of the mud and sitting half in, half out of a puddle.
You must know the bees have come early
this year too: I see them visit aster, sweet Williams,
bleeding hearts, and azalea blossoms hardy enough
to not have crisped with the last late frost. Whatever light
bees give off after the last snow, I hold up to you now.
I cannot explain the click-step of beetles.
You are on your own for that. I grew up with patience
for soil and stars. Lace and pyrite. I believe
in an underworld littered with gems.
In another life, I have to. Sometimes I lose track
of all the bees and their singing.
You thought I said stinging.
Maybe you’re right: let us stop explaining.
I know those ants too—soon
they’ll slurp caves into the handful of apples
that come on the pipsqueak tree out back,
or scurry dizzy on the sugar
glazing the sweetest bean I’ve ever tasted,
the beans themselves tonguing
through the spent cherry bush.
Terrified as I am—and I am—
the bumblebees furrow the pursed
and purple lips of false indigo
for the dusty blush
and I want to go make a hallelujah
of my own simple body. Not to mention
the cup plants just coming up out back
can hold mouthfuls of wet
despite the months-long drought.
All is never lost.
Some of what remains
of my father swims amidst the breathing
roots of the plum tree. You could almost
see him look out from the leaves’ stomata
in spring, or his fingerprints pressed into
the delicate whorls of the young bark.
And when the tree makes its first
fruit next year, or the next,
it won’t only be in dreams
he’s back. I think I too will be
so lucky some day. Some day,
I think, so too will you be.