Carolyn Kizer’s Ungrateful Garden

Considering how fond I was of Carolyn Kizer’s The Ungrateful Garden, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I haven’t bought another book of her poetry since that one came out despite my best intentions. As soon as I’ve caught up with my backlog of poetry books, I’ll have to remedy that problem, though I must admit I haven’t been able to find her books very easily when I have looked for them.

I much admired Kizer’s sense of irony in many of the best poems in this volume, but I must admit even more of my admiration for the poems stemmed from a similar attitude towards nature and towards man’s betrayal of nature:

The Ungrateful Garden

Midas watched the golden crust

That formed over his steaming sores,
Hugged his agues, loved his lust,
But damned to hell the out-of-doors

Where blazing motes of sun impaled
The serrid roses, metal-bright.
"Those famous flowers," Midas wailed,
"Have scorched my retina with light."

This gift, he’d thought, would gild his joys,
Silt up the waters of his grief;
His lawns a wilderness of noise,
The heavy clang of leaf on leaf.

Within, the golden cup is good
To lift, to sip the yellow mead.
Outside, in summer’s rage, the rude
Gold thorn has made his fingers bleed.

"I strolled my halls in golden shift,
As ruddy as a lion s meat.
Then I rushed out to share my gift,
And golden stubble cut my feet."

Dazzled with wounds, he limped away
To climb into his golden bed,
Roses, roses can betray.
"Nature is evil," Midas said

In the title poem from this volume, Kizer turns a well-known fairy tale to her own purposes. Surely, the role of greed in modern man’s destruction of nature has not gone unnoticed in the Northwest where a miracle of nature has been stripped of its forests and its bountiful salmon by human greed in relatively recent times. And when floods or other disasters have resulted as the final consequences of this greed, man has blamed the events on nature, not on his own greed. Certainly the lust of western business pioneers like Weyerhauser have “damned to hell the out-of-doors” with their clearcuts that destroyed not only the trees but the salmon that relied on the streams that ran through those forests. And, yet, if nature, as a result of these atrocities, should bring floods or destructive mudslides, it’s nature and not human greed that is generally blamed. For, as our Puritan forefathers so loudly proclaimed, “Nature is evil.” The dark woods hide evil, and for civilization to thrive forests must fall to serve man’s needs. And so they have.

“The Intruder” is a much subtler poem than “The Ungrateful Garden” but it, too, effectively portrays man’s betrayal of nature, the betrayal of the darker, less pleasant, side of nature. In a sense, this poem reminds me of recent Republican arguments that Alaska’s northern expanses should be turned to oil fields because they “aren’t even pretty.”

The Intruder

My mother– preferring the strange to the tame:
Dove-note, bone marrow, deer dung,
Frog’s belly distended with finny young,
Leaf-mould wilderness, hare-bell, toadstool,
Odd, small snakes loving through the leaves,
Metallic beetles rambling over stones: all
Wild and natural -flashed out her instinctive love,
and quick, she
Picked up the fluttering. bleeding bat the cat laid at her feet,
And held the little horror to the mirror, where
He gazed on himself and shrieked like an old screen door
far off.

Depended from her pinched thumb, each wing
Came clattering down like a small black shutter.
Still tranquil, she began, "It’s rather sweet…"
The soft mouse body, the hard feral glint
In the caught eyes. Then we saw
And recoiled: lice, pallid, yellow,
Nested within the wing-pits, cozily sucked and snoozed,
The thing dropped from her hands, and with its thud,
Swiftly, the cat with a clean careful mouth
Closed on the soiled webs, growling, took them out to the back stoop.

But still, dark blood, a sticky puddle on the floor
Remained, of all my my mother’s tender, wounding passion
For a whole wild, lost, betrayed and secret life
Among its dens and burrows, its clean stones,
Whose denizens can turn upon the world
With spitting tongue, an odor, talon, claw
To sting or soil benevolence, alien
As our clumsy traps, our random scatter of shot,
She swept to the kitchen. Turning on the tap,
She washed and washed the pity from her hands.

Now, admittedly, I haven’t gone out of my way to build bat homes or to attract them to my yard, for they aren’t nearly as “desirable” as birds. Still, the mother seems to have a taste for the strange; it’s the unexpected that seems to disgust her.

Nor is it the event itself that so shocks, but the result that disturbs. We realize, as the poet does, that we cannot afford to wash the pity from our hands simply because the animal does not fit our definition of cute or desirable. The cat with its “clean careful mouth” may be more acceptable to the woman because of that, but it is no less destructive of the natural order of things because of that cleanliness. We, probably, or no less guilty than the mother of forgetting about the destruction of “undesirable” animals.

Surely, we reason, it’s a good thing to kill off the sharks that prey on swimmers or surfers, until we realize that the massive destruction of any one species upsets a balance that has been attained through centuries of natural selection. I, for one, am not fond of snakes, but I still endure the garter snake in the compost heap because it is probably an important part of my organic garden. I doubt, though, that I would be so understanding if it were a rattlesnake, even though the rattlesnake might be as important to its ecosystem as the gartner snake is .

The truth is, though, that if were going to manage to save what little is left of our natural environment, we are probably going to have to be wiser than the mother and learn to accept denizens that “can turn upon the world/ With spitting tongue, an odor, talon, claw/To sting or soil benevolence” if we are really going to preserve nature as we know it.

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