One way to end an era

For years I’ve let the rambling roses ramble. They grew wild and snarled, like the brambles covering Sleeping Beauty’s castle. As of late July, they looked like this:

roses covering the car port

For years, they’ve grown into my poems, as all that bloom and cane was becoming the yard, green growing over the a thicket of dead cane and thorn. For years, I tried trimming all that old growth out.

Then I realized that even if, decades later, I were successful, in the meantime, the roses were overflowing, and they would still take up more and more room.

My daughter was looking for a project and wanting to grow vegetables. I explained that the roses were blocking necessary sunlight—and thus, a landscape revision was born.

Here’s what it looks like now.

garden without roses

I’d say Before and After, but the photo above is more like During.

My daughter said she had thought of this as a secret garden, and now she was uncovering some of its secrets—like the wall plaques that have been hidden for years. But gone is the Paul’s Himalayan Musk that I brought from the old house, and the California Plena, which started as a sucker from a friend’s bush, just a stick in the dirt, and the climbing Cecile Brunner. I’ll miss it’s pale pink blooms in early spring. We will plant some smaller, tamer roses—maybe in time for next spring. Then we’ll take the After photo.

For now, I am in this negative capability, this uncertainty of what the yard will become, what together we decide to make of it. It’s hard to see the end of something, even if I know it had overgrown desperately. It’s hard to imagine the next thing before it has started. And this, I’ve heard, is where poems happen.

Rose season: What keeps coming back

Rose with reddish leavesWe cut down this rosa rubrifola last year. It was in the way when we were trimming the laurel hedges, and my husband asked if it was okay to get rid of it. I said yes and muttered that it would just grow back anyway. That wasn’t the first time I’d cut it down to below the ground, trying to saw through the root. This is what it looks like today.

It might not bloom this year, but it’s back.

Writing is like that. Lately, I’ve been thinking about poems in my “old stuff” pile–old stuff as in “just don’t send these out anymore” and wondering whether I can salvage them, or pieces of them.

I’ll open the file for a poem that I thought was really working five years ago. I’ll look at it, and sometimes I can see exactly why it’s not working. Other times, it just looks like a train wreck, but it’s an educational mess. I guess this is why people commonly advise to put your poems in a drawer for two years and come back to them. Instead, I tend to send them out for a while, give up, consign them to the poetry attic. A few years later, maybe they start to haunt me.

So I’ve been looking at this fiercely stickery rose returning in the corner of the garden and I’ve been looking at some old poems and thinking maybe they, too, still have some life in them.

Do you keep your old work around? Do you give it a rest before you send it out? Do you find new life in it?

Rose season: Big projects

tall roses bloomingHow do you start? Where do you start?

These are my killer roses, my wild roses, my proof that Sleeping Beauty’s castle could easily be engulfed by roses. And it wouldn’t take 100 years. These have been here less than 15 years. They’ve been untended, because I wanted them to burgeon–and burgeon they did!

Some years, I get out and make a dent, cut them back. Some years, I don’t. I’ve got my mother’s pole-pruner now, which helps, but it’s still slow going. I can’t even reach the parts I want to thin. I’ve got years of dead wood to clip away (it looks like a haunted forest). And I don’t want to cut up the honeysuckle that vines through it all.

Sounds like working on a manuscript.

Yes, I love doing the full immersion project, the deep dive, but now the waters are bigger, deeper. Instead of writing a chapbook, I’m working on a full-length collection–but I’m trying to do it the same way: Compile all the poems, make a rough order, and then start revising and re-crafting the poems in the context of the manuscript. Clip away the dead wood, see where images in different poems are growing together, cut out, plant, transplant. All of this longhand, on paper–just taking notes. Then back to the computer, to incorporate those notes, where the real writing, the real work begins. Then repeat again.

All made thornier by the subject: grief. It’s the project I have to do and sometimes the writing I dread. I’ve managed to make a tiny start, like clipping a few stems. A lot left to look at, think about, reconsider, do.

But if I feel stuck or overwhelmed–and the weather holds–I can take a break and work on those roses.

I’ll ask again: How do you take yourself by the hand and start?

Reading: Gravesend, by Cole Swenson

Rose season: Gruss an Aachen

Pale pink rose

I brought this rose from the old house 15 years ago. It was one of the first four I planted there in 1994 when I started to dig up that yard, and it became a part of this poem.

Love Apples

Each cut and push of the shovel sings inside her
and she imagines the summer garden
awash in lavender and meadow rue.
In the darkest corner she’ll plant a bleeding heart,
fleshy pendants dripping ruby in the shade.
She invokes the names of roses: Gruss an Aachen,
Reine des Violettes, First Kiss

and wonders what he would plant if he were here,
whether it would be a good year for tomatoes.
Pommes d’amour. Each spring he would start
with ardent intentions, watch the sun ripen
garnet hearts that swelled to splitting,
lay sliced and bleeding on the plate.
He would eat them until his mouth hurt and want more,
regretting the slender harvest.

Sunlight eases between her shoulder blades,
warms the distant hilltop where she’s placed what he left behind.
She turns the earth over and listens for him
in the stillpoints of her stubbornly pumping heart.

“Love Apples” originally appeared in A Steady Longing for Flight, Floating Bridge Press.

This mystery rose

red rose

Where did this rose come from, a persistent sucker stemming from nowhere, rising between the spiked canes of the yellow Agnes rose.

Could it be one of the wedding roses, spreading its red blooms across the yard?

Here’s more about those wedding roses.

When What Lives Will Thrive

The wedding roses open, a scarlet
snarl of petals ruffling in a stiff breeze—
reminder this chipped terra cotta pot
once held standard forms made to look like trees,
white flowers grafted onto stronger stock.
That unblemished cultivar did not last,
succumbed to the usual troubles—black
spot, powdery mildew, aphids, and rust—
but below, the root began to burgeon.
New shoots appeared, a tender green advance.
Years after that hot August afternoon,
we abandoned our plans for elegance—
and even white—found our own way to wear
the years, let the roses be what they are.


“When What Lives Will Thrive” originally appeared in the anthology Limbs of the Pine, Peaks of the Range, Rose Alley Press.