Review by Max L. Chapnick
THE TRUTH GARDEN
by Emma Neale
Otago University Press
PO Box 56 / Level 1
398 Cumberland Street
Dunedin, New Zealand
2012, 63 pp., NZD $30
Sometime after the sun set but before early twenty-somethings are prone to hit the bars, I went for an evening stroll through my suburban neighborhood. Under glistening streetlights I pondered a recent college graduate’s existential questions: Why are neat lawns so boring? What is the minimum amount of money I must save to move out of my parents house? Immediate follow up: Can I afford a Snickers bar? Turning a corner, a small child suddenly appeared. No older than four, she froze on an abandoned lawn. I stopped on my sidewalk tracks and we stood gazing at one another for a long moment. Then she contorted her blank stare, half-wary, half-laughing, into something more like a scowl. She screamed at me, into the night, “BOO!!!”
Though the yard was as empty of flowers as the girl’s mother’s voice was of a New Zealand lilt, I couldn’t help but hear a personal metaphor to Emma Neale’s The Truth Garden.
In truth, my own life harmonizes more easily with T-Swift’s 22 than it does with Neale’s jingling, Kiwi verse. But Neale’s book was, to use her own metaphor, “like a silver rope flung/ from a drenched and listing ship// … it is the waking cry,” the voice of a baby the speaker doesn’t recognize as her own until a moment of clarity breaks upon her. Despite the disconnect between my own position in life and the one occupied by the young mother who narrates these poems—or perhaps because of that divide—Neale’s scenes awoke in me a remembrance of my earliest years and a new consideration of my future ones. An emerging family might inherently imply growth and beauty, but it is a weighty, confining thing, especially for someone who dreams of escaping, like me. Somehow, when Neale works at it, I, too, am startled into hearing sounds of silvery beauty from inside the borders of family life.
My first encounter with Neale’s work came from a submission to a feature on New Zealand poetry in Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee Literary Review, which I co-edited with professor-poet Lesley Wheeler, and fellow undergrad Drew Martin. The poem of hers we ultimately accepted, “Alchemy,” captivated me with delightful word-pairings but bored me with a motherly plot. Going into it, I figured Neale’s book would focus on “home and garden,” as Cilla McQueen announces on the back cover. Flip over the slim volume, and the front looks like memoirs of middle-aged women my mom brings to her book clubs. I don’t read them, of course, but I’m skeptical and dismissive. Yet, for “Alchemy[’s]” “oxytocin monkeys” and a nagging feeling I’d be missing out, I thought I might as well give it a try.
In an unlikely turn of events, Neale’s opening poem welcomes the listless college graduate, pandering unknowingly to my own waking dreams of wandering far from home,
when you stop in your hot kitchen …
or wait in a foreign city on a crowded train,
and you are lost in some intimate, troubled thought
… you will hear her, you will hear her,
and see clearly where you need to be, and are.
Some might slide easily into a book about motherhood and marriage. But as one who intrinsically resisted, I appreciate the call to appreciate. Neale’s repeating chimes, like clinging, persistent vines nudge the reader to look back as more homey portraits rustle by. The same speaker who might “dream of a dozen other things:/ carnivals, parades; a sprint down the street;/ an open-field dance, the green leap of waves,” also narrates poems about dressing in the morning or watching her son play in the yard. That this young home-maker has also dreamed my dreams fashions her into an empathetic figure of the family-tinted rhythms to come.
But at first I wished for a more extensive struggle: Where was the speaker’s regret at having sacrificed exotic shores for a child and garden? Didn’t she lose some grand sense of freedom, and if so, where is the lament?
On later readings—or maybe just because these thoughts dominate my inner poems—I discovered the grand dialectic of responsibility and freedom had already taken root in this book’s soil. In “Discontinuous,” a friend mourns lost past and future time, grasping at, “nineteen, twenty, its vigorous dance/ the inevitable/ where-did-it-go toboggan.” But unlike her friend, “our sons, gentle giants in miniature,/ play you be the builder, I’ll be the driver, then you be the boy/ I’ll be the father,” mesmerize the speaker. Neale cultivates an argument less flashy than the dances of wild adolescents, but centered more on the potential of budding seeds. Creative freedom—an ability to imagine, to play and to pretend—flowers here, too. In one of her final poems, the patter of “Drummer Boy” recalls an earlier parade,
but the be-doom-doom-be dap in him
insists he tips this I’m alive! high-hat
to anything passing by:
sparrows, strangers, day-sky, grey-sky
rubbish truck, brother, fog-cat, snow-sky.
Though these floats are more mundane, and the beats simpler, Neale asks aloud whether the sights are any less glorious and whether the music is any less moving.
One of my personal favorites, “Fidelity Sestina,” locks Neale’s mostly tight-lined free verse into this form’s dependable, end-word gates. Focusing on a related subject with which I have similarly zero first-hand experience, marriage, Neale digs her playful wit deep into strict boundaries. She puns liberally, for example, employing the verb and noun forms of “stage,” including the splashy variants “backstage” and “stagey.” Besides these tricks, the lines grow and shrink organically,
the cost of being allowed
to share another person’s life again,
now we thought we’d grown out of the old coat of our own families, their
cupboards, junk shed, go carts, chores, the unspoken sores it’s a fair
bet every family has and thinks their own affair.
Neale treats marriage, the ultimate way to become stuck, I think, with one of the stickiest forms. But as a yoga instructor reminds the speaker in an earlier poem, “don’t get sticky with it, let it all go.” Neale likewise deploys formidable skill un-sticking herself, getting as close to free-verse-dom as possible. The energy expended seems to be her message: old coats of familial baggage inherent to marriage need not hinder it’s elegant ballet. The play often comes from dressing up inside these heavy, repeated word-rules and, sometimes, leaping out of them. In the final lines of this poem Neale breaks form, proclaiming, “Pray I’m game enough to concede, the heart’s allowed so few dances, let it play/ let it play, till its brief light’s done.”
Whether it be the vision one struggles for or the one that appears spontaneously, often the description of light constitutes a poetic dance of faith. In “Event!” a roadside sign foreshadows some great happening, “… a bomb? Will he jump?” And then all at once, “I see it:/ the harbor glistens,/… like scattered silver shavings.” That’s it. Neale delivers to us a climax of well-illustrated shimmers, a fairly pretty day, but not much else.
It’s this nothing particular moment …
as if some old god
has descended in a shower of gold
turned the body into a bead of light
run on a wire of air.
This subtle shift in perspective and sunshine jolts the reader to a higher awareness, which manifests in this poem when the anti-climax becomes the climax. So what, nothing extra-ordinary happened—no one exploded or jumped off a bridge—isn’t it amazing that the waves reflect and refract light just so?
Though light functions as a useful tool for Neale in many of these “ah-ha” sidesteps, an even better version comes towards the beginning of “Brood”:
The baby is amazed. He points. ‘Duck!’
There is a real thing for the sound we make.
‘Duck!’ As if the word spills a spell,
the word paddles off the page.
Never mind a censoring mother at the poem’s end with whom I can’t properly understand, this internal anecdote entrances me. Words, spells! True story, my first was “duck,” also.
The other day I told my little cousin I read a book “in my head,” and he promptly stuck the book open-faced on top of his head, “He read the book in his head! Max read the book inside his head!” Even though I’ve never raised a child, and don’t plan on it for quite some years, I still get it. To paraphrase “Brood,” the baby is amazed; the baby amazes. Awareness spills over, contagious, paddling even across pages and oceans. The Truth Garden tells the story of a hundred million mothers who’ve married, watched light reflect off harbors, and taught little boys to speak; it is not my story. But Neale cultivates the tale so well, with such jolts of beauty, these poems force even me to pause on suburban streets, stop, and smile.
Max L. Chapnick is an AmeriCorps Volunteer Coordinator at FEGS Health and Human Services in lower Manhattan and a recent graduate of Washington and Lee University with majors in Physics and English. In January, he will travel to Wellington, New Zealand on a US Student Fulbright grant, where he will study and write poetry at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University.