By PATRICK BIZZARO SEPTEMBER 28, 2015
Domestic Garden, by John Hoppenthaler. Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015.
Even in this moment of solemnity, Hoppenthaler juxtaposes the high church holiday with the music of John Denver, not in itself funny, but surely irreverent. He concludes, “Yes, I’ve got on John Denver, and it’s West-by-God heaven.”
In his title poem, which serves as a kind of epigraph to the collection, Hoppenthaler employs a similar juxtaposition to place misarranged flowers alongside an unnamed other who is absent, though not really: “you aren’t really gone, except in the way/presence sometimes contradicts itself." This powerful statement, coming as it does as our first encounter with the volume, sets up a series of poems in which gaps in our experiences—including what we can know through our senses and what we cannot—are reconciled through acts of imagining. Later in the book, in "the way to a man's heart," Hoppenthaler asks, quite appropriately in this context, “and who is it / who says poetry makes nothing happen?” The act of imagining makes everything possible: “I could spin / that scene . . . / into imagination, all / possibility . . . ” Imagination in this volume is redemptive. Its natural products are irony and whimsy.
The fallen world as it is portrayed in Domestic Garden is best characterized as a world of contradictions, uncertainties, indeterminacies. At the core of Hoppenthaler’s ethic is the effort to find the self’s fulfillment in a reconciliation of opposites. An excellent example of this turn in consciousness from the inside to outside is “Vacation,” where the poet is most transparent. He situates himself as poet and man: “I don’t want life / to open out; / I want it to open / in.” What’s outside “is obedient confusion,” insofar as events we might find upsetting occur nonetheless in predictable ways, making us believe life is indeed predictable, even if fear-provoking. But all needed adjustment is internal, “sifting what’s been thrown / together in our hollow / bodies.” Any adjustment we are capable of making requires an act of cognition, an imagining of things reconciled and harmonious.
That thought leads directly to the underlying theme in the excellent “eminent domain.” The world thus created by Hoppenthaler is dichotomous: the garden in Eden and the one outside it, which are parallel to the world of sensory experience and the world(s) beyond that experience. “eminent domain” shows this dichotomy at work, bringing to mind the Wordsworthian “correspondent breeze.” The narrator of this poem, like narrators of many other poems in this collection, shares his experience with an unnamed other. This strategy gives the poet room to speak and think, both.
After the narrator and a person we assume to be a sibling are “forced” from the place they lived, and “moved into a farmhouse at the edge of the fairgrounds,” they are excited “to see / that the circus was in town.” Like Adam and Eve in Hoppenthaler’s “the garden of eden,” these characters are able to move freely from one side of the fairgrounds to the other, where the circus was being constructed, and, in this place within the place they inhabited, they “saw the big top arise.” They passed among the circus folk and found themselves “sneaking under the fence to have a look around.” Thereafter, imagination takes over:
Fittingly, in the ongoing context of fear and potential dissolution, these two children note that “Evening grew uneasy” and “Mother agitated the rusty triangle.” The Edenic setting becomes a place of worry and distress. They choose to return to the other side together, the figurative Eden. But by now they have lost innocence and understand their danger. The fence they easily crawled under now has changed to accommodate their new knowledge.
In the hopeful world of Domestic Garden, it is possible to return to Eden, but with some effort.
For Hoppenthaler, reconciliation of the known with the unknown requires love, as it does in Shelley’s most hopeful works, for instance. It is no surprise that many of the poems of consummation are ones in which he, his wife, and his stepson transcend boundaries placed around them by the world they inhabit and exist unharmed in the domestic garden of their making. In the poem “deciding to marry,” the decision to get married is an easy one to make, demonstrating Hoppenthaler’s humor and sense of the ironic that enables him to reconcile himself with another: “It became so obvious: / you at the top of the lighthouse stairs, the red dress." In this, as in other actions taken in a world that constantly threatens our extinction, any decision requires strength: “I summon my last nerve,” we find out in “waterfall two,” “and cross / over."
For all of this book’s complexity, resolution seems to come easily to the committed few. For Hoppenthaler, reconciliation of the known with the unknown constitutes love and commitment, both of which come to us in these poems in acts of deep imagining. Hoppenthaler seems to record these acts of imagining as they happen, not after the fact of an occurrence. By understanding this much about human distress and survival, Hoppenthaler can show his readers how to accept the inevitable dissolution with grace and to see life’s ironies in it.
Domestic Garden makes a reader think and feel and smile. That’s a lot for one book to do. Unless it is a very good book.
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