A Garden of Forking Paths
A review of The Gardens of Flora Baum, by Julia Budenz, 5 vols. (Chelmsford, Massachusetts: Carpathia Press, 2011)
It is, perhaps, asking too much to expect a reader, who has not lived in the inner world of a major poet’s imagination, to recognize its flavor and trust a nascent feeling from just a few lines of poetry. Try these:
Love of a Lover
Was it a week ago the lilacs gleamed
Maddening soul and body while the oaks
Still glinted bits of gold amid the verdure
Of leaves succeeding bloom as after thunder
Into the gray the azure came advancing
Hinting divinity, irrational?
My God, my God, was it my God I loved?
Was it myself? Was it myself I loved
Deep among lilacs, high above lilac skies
Over the freshest foliage of oaks,
Old strength enduring, new in soft, new green?
Was robin’s song a throbbing holiness
Of spirit subtle, spirit overwhelming,
Infinite passing, surpassing endless heavens?
Was it the pulsing heart that kept on beating
Material, in matter, passing, passing,
Kin to the infinite since infinite
In its desiring, infinite in its lack?
(Book IV, part 3, p. 498)
Or if these lines, seemingly naïve until one parses the complexity of their argument and recognizes the authenticity of the vision, do not catch fire, perhaps one’s trust will be won by something more spectacular. These lines, for instance—a Petrarchan sonnet, hardest of all forms in English, a pun in five languages, and a meditation on gender and the soul that invokes Plato—might help:
Arbor victoriosa triumphale
Might be in Latin till the final e.
The only neuter names I know for tree
Are tree itself and dendron. Ideale
Neither, O deep, sweet, lofty immortale
Pneuma, do all your adjectives agree
That yours is triumph, yours the victory,
Or shall I slowly, fondly bid you vale?
O animus or anima or both
Or two by two or two and one or one
In three as four or single file
Of five, of nine, of all—for I am loath
Even to posit that dread pronoun none—
I breathe parole: I am the dendrophile.
(III. 3. p.438)
Why even try to write a review of Julia Budenz’s The Gardens of Flora Baum? Of course, the poem is enormous in size—five volumes long—and this in itself is a formidable obstacle. But the problem is deeper than this. If one is not a poet, one might, if one had a decent literary education and had come across the peculiar nobility, grace, and joy to be found in her poem, want to express one’s gratitude by bringing it to the attention of others. But because the style, assumptions, aesthetics, and logic of the poem are so radically different from anything one had encountered before, one might simply draw a blank: the vocabulary of our contemporary literary culture simply doesn’t have the right terms. And if you are not a poet, you might not have ever tried to get under the hood of the language you use and change the principles of the engine—or if you did, you would find, as the deconstructionists did, that you knew how to take it apart but not how to make a new engine, or even the old one, out of the parts.
And if one is a poet, many other hurdles stand in the way. One hurdle is that though you might have some experience at wrenching the language around to say different things, you have your own poetry to write, and to give the creative effort required to retool your poetic vocabulary to deal with Budenz’s immense poem is to neglect your own children. But some tasks are enjoined upon one as a poet that cannot be evaded. This is a great American poem, and its author is a great American poet. She has provided resources to the language you write in that are so copious that they demand acknowledgment and recognition.
The bigger problem is how to embrace with one’s limited arms a work so enormous in size and meaning. The poem is, like certain other masterworks, a “loose, baggy monster,” as Henry James put it, thinking of Moby-Dick. (Is this itself an American characteristic—to spawn from time to time a work that must be encyclopedic, sprawling, a compendium of different genres, languages, value systems, dictions? Consider The Cantos, The Changing Light at Sandover.) The poem is indeed immense, at over 2,200 pages perhaps the longest American poem ever written. It may be the longest poem by any single author, rivaling Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Its composition took place over about forty years and was unfinished in 2010 when she died at the age of seventy-six. There are Asian epics more than a million lines long, but they are the product of a long accumulative process including many poets over hundreds of years. Flora Baum encompasses many genres: lyrics, narratives, treatises, prayers, invocations, letters, riddles, birthday cards for the dead, autobiography, philosophical speculation, eulogies, diary entries, and many others; it contains many languages, including Latin, Greek, Italian, German, French, in all of which she was fluent. Its subjects range from the latest science to the most ancient history and mythology. She was a world traveler, in the flesh and in her imagination, and this poem is in many ways a world epic as well as one rooted in the tradition of Rome.
The word “review” is inadequate for what needs to be done at this point. The term connotes a more or less stable literary world that welcomes (or turns away) a newcomer to its large community of accepted adepts. But what if the newcomer is in many ways a larger entity than the community itself? Budenz was not arrogant, and she did seek entry, but for this reviewer it is the community that should be knocking on her door—and this “review,” I suppose, is an attempt to do so. This can only be a launch upon a vast ocean, a short walk through the foothills to camp 1 (camp 6 high above in the whirling snows)—a few scrawled pentimenti that at best may help guide future limners who will try to represent her grand design.
To paraphrase Budenz’s own essay “Query Regarding One’s Work” (in Poetry Porch 1997, and quoted in Emily Lyle’s brief and useful foreword to the volumes), the work consists of five books organized both as a concentric or chiastic structure and as an ongoing journey or argument with a beginning, middle, and end. Each book is a garden: the first is entitled “By the Tree of Life,” the second “Toward a Greek Garden,” the third “Rome,” the fourth “Towards Farthest Thule,” and the last “By the Tree of Knowledge.” The first is centered around biblical and liturgical images, the second around the matter of ancient and classical Greece, the third around the city and history of Rome, the fourth around the matter of Britain, and the last around that of her native America. In sequence, their general subjects are respectively the holy, the beautiful, the true, the good, and the whole. She had conceived of this structure fairly early in the process, I believe shortly after the midpoint of the first book, and elaborated it as she went on. The poem is emphatically not just “the collected poems of Julia Budenz” or a record in time of the poetry she happened to write. She was at any point adding poems and passages to earlier sections while continuing to add new ones and even composing work to be inserted in later, hitherto unbroached sections. She knew what the whole should look like.
Perhaps one way of characterizing the argument of the whole project is that it actually pursues the project suggested in Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning, “that is, the reclamation and reappropriation of the images, beauties, joys, colors, and enlightenings that Paradise has, over the ages, stolen from our dying world of Time.
And what, then, is the whole? In one sense it is a sort of argument (in Milton’s sense when he describes his Paradise Lost), but an argument that is conducted by and embodied in its own history, like that of Wordsworth’s Prelude. Perhaps one way of characterizing the argument of the whole project is that it actually pursues the project suggested in Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” that is, the reclamation and reappropriation of the images, beauties, joys, colors, and enlightenings that Paradise has, over the ages, stolen from our dying world of Time. As Stevens puts it:
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical . . .
Yet Budenz does not just bewail the theft, but marches, as a novice nun in her twenties, right into the garden of Eden, meets and is courted by her divine lover.
High God, yes. Today I offer the burning
Incense, my flesh,
To rise to you.
Beloved, yes. Today I offer the redolent
Myrrh of my soul,
To stay with you.
You have saved the good wine until now. From your mouth
I have taken honey and milk, and your blood
Has adorned my cheeks. Now dismiss me, Lord.
(I. 3. p.49)
And then she marches out again with his magic under her arm to turn the ordinary front yards of Cambridge, Massachusetts, into the highest verdant courts of Paradise:
I have stolen your feasts.
I have stolen your golden gowns
And recut them to fit.
I have set up your smoking perfumes
And sent up your glowing resonancies.
You thought you could keep them stored,
But I have made them mine,
Plucking them from your rejected hoard
For my workshop, museum, and shrine.
(II. 1. p.48)
Her recurrent image for this act is the fire escape (which is outside her little flat in Cambridge). Is she escaping from the fire of the Lord? Or into the fire of temporal memory and desire and suffering? Or is she, by incarnating Paradise in Cambridge, continuing the sacrificial mission of her divine lover, offering the world an escape from the fire? She herself as the burning bush, whose flame is her central character, Flora Baum?
Budenz is going to live, not just advocate, the reincarnation of paradise into the world. To do so, though, she must recapitulate the whole course of human history, which she sees as an attempt to build a city by human means that will fully match the delights of any imaginary Jerusalem.
She is going to live, not just advocate, the reincarnation of paradise into the world. To do so, though, she must recapitulate the whole course of human history, which she sees as an attempt to build a city by human means that will fully match the delights of any imaginary Jerusalem. As we know from the Bible, such an attempt is threatened by the fate of the city of Babel, the falling-apart of language and its dissipation into warring factions and petty specializations. So her work is to gather together (under the mantle of our beautiful English) all the rich languages of the civilizational enterprise and make them work musically together. She does it first by taking the Greek ideal of beauty as a general theme, then by an appeal to the grand tradition of urbane rational intercourse and historical analysis we get from Rome, then by the cultivation of human individuality and loving story-making that resulted in and also helped to create the English language, and finally by the world-synthesis project of the United States.
I will catch them with my song,
Star by star.
My song will make them move
Toward me or take me far
Toward them. Where is my song?
O song, where are
The English words, the French,
The Latin and the Greek,
The Sanskrit, the Chinese,
Squeak by squeak?
Where are the words to wrench
The meanings from, to seek
The meanings of, to squeeze
Tunes by the cheek?
She says this in the middle of the section entitled “Floralia,” which is the middle book of the whole poem (III. 2. p.218). She is keenly aware of the significance of the placement, and this passage could be seen as a core statement of her ars poetica. Of course she knows, and says later rather wryly, that she does not know much Chinese; but to reknit together the threads of the Indo-European sparagmos alone is at least a contribution to and example for the reuniting of the whole human diaspora. For her the human languages are the branches of one tree, and this is one of the more important uses of her central image throughout the whole poem, that of arboreal dendrification in general.
Just as when one comes out into the city after seeing an exhibition by a master painter, and the city seems brilliantly posed for a hundred photographs, so after reading Budenz one finds ordinary words blaze with meaning.
In one sense, her poem is a gigantic work of etymology, a literal philology (which means “love of words”). She is always turning words inside out, as Gerard Manley Hopkins did, and with a similar intent. (As Robert Bridges did for Hopkins, some poet must do for Budenz, or as Thomas Higginson—whom Budenz wryly considers in II.315—failed to do for Emily Dickinson.) The intent is to reveal the word’s inscape, its history, the evolution of its meaning, and its place in the ecology of our present vocabulary. Just as when one comes out into the city after seeing an exhibition by a master painter, and the city seems brilliantly posed for a hundred photographs, so after reading Budenz one finds ordinary words blaze with meaning.
Like Milton, she uses her remarkable Latinity to open up the language. Perhaps we sometimes wonder how astonishing Milton must have been for his seventeenth-century audience, with his mining of the words of Virgil and Ovid and Cicero that have found their way into English. Perhaps we have mourned the fact that the sound of Milton has through overuse become banal. What Budenz has done is given us the same amazing frisson that Milton’s readers must have felt; and has then gone on to recover the voice of Petrarch in an astonishing series of sonnets in Book III, where the mainly free verse of the first two books explodes into fireworks of meter and rhyme; and then gone further to unearth, like a ship-burial, the craggy ornateness of the Anglo-Saxon.
“The branching is the beauty,” she proclaims in Book II, in a poem whose epigraph, from Shakespeare’s sonnet, is “To Love That Well” (p.50). (The line in Shakespeare ends “which thou must leave ere long.”) Her etymological philology is also a taxonomy, a demonstration of the genealogy of the languages, of the animal species, of the elements of the physical world. Like the classical shaman-poets she takes the road downward into our past, retraces the track of our original development, to arrive at the ethnic branchpoints whence come our brothers and cousins the Romans, the Germanic peoples, the Greeks, the Indians, the Chinese—and back further to the ancient biological branchpoints that also gave rise to the birds, the flowers, the trees themselves. Like Orpheus, Vyasa, Solomon, Rureke the Nyanga poet, she speaks with the animals and plants. The point is that the recovery of paradise is not to be sought elsewhere but here, hidden in the very process of our biological and cultural and instantaneous mental branching, and our mortal awareness of it. “Be your own prophet,” the Delphic oracle tells her (II. p.144)—an injunction that has at its core the implication that we are indeed time-machines, and deliberate action and utterance are the way that we step into the future. If you come to a fork in the road, said Yogi Berra, take it.
For a branching universe is also one that not only has a place for freedom, but is made of free action throughout. Not random action, but free action; and the only price for this radical gift is death, which, in Book V, Budenz prepares for with meticulous courage.
Budenz was, ever since the midpoint of Book I, already beginning to recognize that other being who inhabited her (and who chose her for patron), Flora Baum. One of the most remarkable literary events I know is the relationship between Julia and Flora: as I put it in a poem I wrote to her (for we were friends for over twenty-five years):
The two penned hands that featly draw each other,
Yolk and white of the same shell,
Helen and Cassandra,
Pollux and Castor,
Maskull and Nightspore,
Dante and Virgil,
Figlia della tua figlia . . .
In David Lindsay’s neglected masterpiece A Voyage to Arcturus, Maskull undertakes a terrifying journey to another world where he attains ultimate knowledge of the spiritual world, a knowledge that finally destroys him. He is, however, accompanied by his brusque and troubled friend Nightspore. Maskull dies, but it turns out that Nightspore is Maskull’s soul, and survives him. Julia creates Flora, but Flora is revealed to have created Julia to be her speaker all along. Flora is still alive, and Flora is Julia. We become her thoughts when we read her garden, and Julia is happy to see through our eyes. These are the last words of the poem:
O all ye that pass by the way,
I, Flora, have been authorized to say
That Julia, my author, is ready to be ended.
She pleads, yet, that I may
Last centuries, outlast her little day,
Be amaranth. Take, read. Be not offended.
(V. 7. p.586)