Monday, April 14, 2014

Is Your Garden Made in the Shade?

by Susan Sylvia

I promised I wouldn't say anything about the inhuman length and fierceness of this past winter, and how perfectly sublime it is just to see last season's dead grass in my yard. And I would be too embarrassed to mention how spotting the little nubbins of crocus and iris reticulata poking up through the remaining snow in my garden yesterday made me jump up and down like a six-year-old with a new puppy.

Since I'm not commenting on any of that, let's talk gardening.

Gardeners always dislike owning up to gardens that are like an opening scene of Plants Behaving Badly. Whether a plant has a proclivity for 1) covert underground infiltration of its unsuspecting neighbors, 2) startlingly promiscuous self-sowing, or 3) the kind of disdain for its environment that leads to an early demise, no gardener wants to waste time and money trying to encourage everyone in the garden to get along.

Gardening professionals know this about us, so for years we've been plied with lists of "reliable plants for the garden." There is plenty of information out there about shade-tolerant plants, and elsewhere recommendations for cold-tolerant plants. Unfortunately, we end up with an overwhelming, annoying glut of non-specific information from many different sources, when all one really needs is a good idea for a plant to fill the hole left by the poorly chosen specimen of last season (may it rest in peace).

This problem is never more evident than to the New England gardener. Many gardens in these parts feature expanses of unwelcome shade, because yards are so often carved out of the abundant forests in the region, and remain surrounded by tall trees. Add to this New England's four seasons to contend with—June, July, August, and Winter—and these challenges all dogpile on top of the basic reliability that we look for in a good garden plant.

It's a tall order to find plants that have all the qualities we want. Sort of like finding the right man.

Where the qualities of hardiness, shade tolerance, and reliability collide, we find The Shady Lady's Guide to Northeast Gardening, the horticultural equivalent of In it, author Amy Ziffer hones down all the excess generic gardening hoopla, weeding out plants that will be nothing but trouble around here, and leaving us with a selection of great plants that will actually work in the New England garden.

Ziffer, a Master Gardener and professional garden designer affectionately known as the Shady Lady, runs her own gardening business in Connecticut and lectures all over the Northeast on the subject. This puts her in the perfect position to vet a comprehensive, reliable go-to list for the average Northeast gardener who doesn't want to take the trouble.

Nodding mandarin (Disporum maculatum) © Amy Ziffer

A number of years ago, I installed a large deep-shade garden for a close friend, and I wish I had had this book—the plants Ziffer profiles would have been far better than some of the choices I made at the time, creating a garden that incited many skirmishes between warring factions and scads of random suicides. (By the way, don't plant the carniverously invasive Aegopodium Podagraria [goutweed] near anything, especially not small children.)

When I chose plants for that garden, Cimicifuga, Hosta, Aruncus (Goat's Beard), and Lungwort formed the framework, and Lamium and Lamiastrum Galeobdolon were the only good options that I knew of for the dry shade under those really inconvenient pine trees at the edge of the yard. These mainstay plants are, indeed, included in Ziffer's guide. But she goes way beyond that, recommending plants that I would never, otherwise, have the courage to try.

She begins by presenting a good-sized list of plants that can be used to create a backbone for your shade garden, both for deep shade and light shade—plants that she has worked with a lot and knows perform well. We see names like Kirengeshoma (Yellow Waxbells), Stylophorum diphyllum (Celandine Poppy), and Sarcococca hookeriana (Sweet Box), none of which I'd ever paid attention to before, possibly because I couldn't pronounce the darn names and didn't want to embarrass myself in front of my local nursery professional.

We learn about culture, light requirements, form, size, bloom time and all the other get-to-know-yous for each plant. And she very kindly lets us know if a plant may have a teensy bad habit or two that can be forgiven. Armed with this thorough information, I can say that I would now feel confident marching right down to the nursery and giving some of these new plants a try.

Marginal fern (Dryopteris marginalis) © Amy Ziffer
From this basic backbone, Ziffer makes recommendations for "accent plants," bulbs, spring plants that go dormant in summer, plants for neutralizing, and even some native ferns that will actually behave in the garden and can be left in place for years. And—get this—she has unearthed an ornamental grass that will do well in light shade!

Ziffer loads her book with handy features, including index markers at the edge of each plant's page with its USDA zone, so you can flip through the book and stop at the plants that won't give up the ghost during their first winter in your garden. She lists her best picks for groundcovers, native plants, choices for moist areas and rock garden, and plants that will do well in either shade or sun.

All this great info-at-a-glance is good for my inner-adolescent needing instant gratification—without the fluff!

I'm adding this one to the shelf in the shed.

Follow the Shady Lady, Amy Ziffer, on Facebook and find out where she'll be speaking around New England this spring and summer.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

This Poetry Month, Enter the Sestina Arena

by Tom Haushalter

Here we are again, a week into April, a.k.a National Poetry Month, the de facto period of time for everyone who's generally not that excited about poetry to be inordinately, often uncomfortably excited about poetry.

Honestly, it has done a lot of good for poetry education and dissemination

But while National Poetry Month is busy turning the masses into poetry enthusiasts, what's really in it for, you know, actual poets? If every month is poetry month to us, what can we usefully make of April's magnifying glass on our craft? How do we up our own ante?

One off-shoot initiative is National Poem Writing Month (hashtaggably #NaPoWriMo), a challenge to anyone bold enough to write a new poem every day of April, which everyone (and I don't mean everyone) should try once. For the slightly less insane, I recommend trying your hand at a poetic form that is as far from contemporary fashion as can be. If you think I'm talking about a villanelle or a pantoum, you're getting warm.

I dared myself to write a sestina. Not wanting to go down this road alone, I dared a friend to write one with me. Nor was I ashamed to keep close at my side a copy of the newly published collection and celebration of the form, Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Carolyn Beard Whitlow and Marilyn Krysl. With this book, along with Daniel Nester's own clarion call for more sestinas, The Incredible Sestina Anthology, the form felt suddenly less intimidating—and new, not so twelfth century (when it first appeared).

One way to entice a friend to write a sestina with you (take note) is to appeal to his classic sensibilities. I shot an email to Adam L. Dressler: "Have you what it takes to step inside the Sestina Arena and subdue the beast?"

Dressler didn't flinch.

The sestina takes its unique form by employing the same six end-words (teleutons is the technical term) in each of six six-line stanzas, in a pre-set rotational pattern. But the kicker is that the final three-line stanza, called the envoi, must use all six end-words—two per line, with one in the middle of the line, the other on the end. These six teleutons act as the scaffolding by which you build the poem.

Dressler and I each submitted three words that, put together, would be our teleutons. I can't speak for his source material, but I scanned my copy of French poet St.-John Perse's Collected Poems; here are the six words that paved our way to the Sestina Arena:
Not what you'd call the breeziest set of words, but there they are.

Keep in mind: Dressler and I were not competing against one another. The adversary is the sestina, the punishing and unrelenting form itself. We were in this together. As two gladiators in the hold prior to combat, we fired drafts back and forth, rewrote whole stanzas, sharpened syntax, upgraded some verbs. A few screenshots of our late-night text messages:

When finally it's just you and the poem—and whatever attendant god or muse—a quiet spreads over the page, as it would over a crowd in that moment the animal emerges from the cage. 

First challenger:

by Adam L. Dressler

Of what use now to us are angels
when each must hide a heart of stone
that nothing save perhaps for sleep
might pierce enough for us to battle
this locust hum in which we sway
and drift apart like broken music?

We cannot grasp the distance music
or groping fingertips of angels
that, briefly brushing, fail to sway
our desolating faith in stone,
the ramparts we erect to battle
the scenes that seek us in our sleep.

We stir, we wake, and yet we sleep,
as deaf to silence as to music
though either could abate the battle
we will not cease against the angels
until we lift the veil of stone
that over every sense holds sway.

From tepid task to task we sway,
entangled in the hope that sleep
will wash, as water hollows stone,
away the slightest trace of music
so we might wade, immune as angels
into the mindless press of battle.

Let others, younger, stronger battle
daylong against the daily sway
while they can still recall the angels
who sang them out of and to sleep
and hid them safe in waves of music
like ancient leaves preserved in stone.

No miracle will loose from stone
or set beyond the breach of battle
those slivers of ourselves that music
might still possess the strength to sway,
no vision resurrect from sleep
our interactions with the angels.

Are angels locked, like us, in stone,
sleep drowning out our useless battle,
or do you sway to mortal music?

Hold your applause. The second challenger (moi), as night falls, enters:

by Tom Haushalter

We are none to observe the rites of sleep
who pursue an instrument, whose music—
like the map the architect does battle
with nightly, lines drawn and redrawn to sway
outcomes of form for beauty—leaves angels
in the design. Cathedral begun, stone

cut from white hillsides, hewn, heaved upon stone,
will never be done. To succumb to sleep
is really to guarantee that angels
bear us off on the unwritten music
that would have killed us anyhow, the sway
that would have drawn us to battle.

That's not to say I fled the battle
when midnight's arrows, dense as stone,
persuaded me I could hold sway
over provinces less averse to sleep.
Had I never struck those chords of music
that drew from nimbuses the angels

toting their brasses and strings, what angels
would bother? What cries go up in battle
for a cause long absent, for music
without form? In the middle of a stone
between here and the core of the earth sleep
dark records of potential no god can sway.

You can see as well as I how sway
the wintered wildflowers, pale as angels
surrendering themselves to sleep
in their husks, discarded artifacts of battle.
Mere sight of such austerity is a stone
thrown whining through the field—that old music.

We are prone to call a mind for music
apotheosis (a means to sway
secrets from lovers as from stone
the hammer can give breath to angels),
a priestly craft. Not quite—this battle
lays no laurels. To hope to wring from sleep

music's lost chord, that phantom of angels,
to sharper sway the tide of battle,
set your cornerstone on the edge of sleep.

And now, those so inclined should throw thumbs up or down in the comments section. But in doing so, realize that you accept the dare to wrangle your own sestina and share it with us. This is not a democracy.

Stray Thoughts on Writing a Sestina

  1. While writing in a metered line isn't required of a sestina (not anymore, anyway), clearly Dressler's found a home in iambic tetrameter. And mine tends toward syllabic uniformity—typically ten syllables in each line. It might seem like an added restriction, with the teleutons, to work around, but consider how a metered line complements the form—the patterned repetition, the echoing progression of each stanza. It felt, to me, natural to the sestina.
  2. I think one of the challenges of a successful sestina is to proceed as if the teleutons aren't actually repeating themselves each stanza, such that by using them in all their parts of speech or embedding them in compound words, etc., their brow-beating effect is quieted. This is especially the case as a stanza's last end-word immediately becomes the next stanza's first end-word.
  3. Just about anything can spark the start of a poem, but there's a good chance that one or more of your six teleutons will begin to guide what it is you're trying to say in the sestina, to be the thematic driver(s). The rest of the end-words: mere accomplices!
  4. And you may find, as I did, the sixth stanza incredibly difficult to write—if not the whole poem increasingly difficult. After five stanzas pounding out every variation on battle, angel, stone, may wonder what the hell there is left to say. Which of course is followed by that action-packed, buzzer-beating, three-line envoi. The kind-of irony is that, as those six fixed coordinates are compressed at the poem's close, you're expected to send it toward that unseen horizon—to liberate the sestina from itself! Good luck with that.


The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms, by Lewis Turco

The Book of Literary Terms, by Lewis Turco