‘I went out barelegged at dusk and dug and dug and dug’ (C.D. Wright)
(gardening with my dad in the dark)
The day is done, but there’s just a twitch of light left in the sky, so out you hurry to fix something in the dirt. Come back in, three hours later, with grimy nails and bramble whipped arms. Maybe you have a head torch on; you’re certainly grinning. Just about every good friend I have will recognise themselves here. So I am grateful for C.D. Wright’s muscular poem, ‘Song of the Gourd’, which absolutely nails the exultant exhalation that digging can release. Not fancy gardening, I’ve never been much cop at that, but clearing and weeding, and burning up the dead wood. Making space for things to push up through the mud.
In the wake of her death, I have been playing catch up with Wright’s work, which I came to late. I have been reading her selected, Like Something Flying Backwards (Bloodaxe), which is where I first came across ‘Song of the Gourd’, from the 1996 collection, Tremble (The Ecco Press) – it is a mucky poem that celebrates the graft and the green of gardening. Wright has elsewhere described herself (in ‘Our Dust’) as the poet of ‘good walking shoes […] and push mowers’, ‘the one with the trowel in her handbag‘, these are epithets I can relate to…give or take the handbag.
There are explicit echoes of Whitman here ‘excelsior: praise the grass‘ and perhaps, if it is not an over-reading, echoes too of the Underground Railroad’s ‘muddy road to freedom’, as suggested by the poem’s gourd and dipper. An escape from bondage, though in this case the bondage of trauma.
Much has been written about the therapeutic value of horticulture, with work being done with war veterans and sufferers of PTSD, where memories of trauma have been disrupted with some success by the repetitive tasks of gardening. Wright touches on this, saying ‘only in gardening could I stop shrieking: stop: stop the slaughter‘. ‘Song of the Gourd’ is a poem that doesn’t shy away from violence, pain and dirt, but which ends with the poet ‘besotted with growth; shot through by green‘ and so functions as a joyfully earthed and healing epiphany. As she says:
‘in gardening I thought this is it body and soul I am / home at last’
C.D. Wright, 1949–2016
Profile at Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/c-d-wright
Like Something Flying Backwards: http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/product/like-something-flying-backwards-863
Wright reading at Penn Sound (scroll down to Tremble, for ‘Song of the Gourd’): http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Wright.php