Garden by Monty Reid (Chaudiere Books, 2014)
I first read Garden in late October, about an hour or so before news broke that a soldier had been shot in front of the War Memorial, that Parliament Hill was under siege. Besides my concern for innocent folks living in Ottawa — among them, Monty Reid and the Chaudiere Books team — the timing of my reading felt noteworthy because of social media’s responses to the unfolding tragedy. As citizens and pundits began probing how such an event could manifest at the government’s front door, their questions were framed by cultivation and lawlessness, peace and war, order and disorder, good and evil — binaries and impulses I’d just been studying in Monty Reid’s plot of space.
Comprised of twelve “units”, each named after a month and previously published by a variety of presses, Garden predominantly investigates bounty and decay as gleaned in the backyard. The stanzas inside each monthly unit are also ordered sequentially by month. Taken literally or linearly, all of Garden’s Januarys, Februarys, etc. would span twelve years. And while that extensive timeframe would fit the author’s methodical approach, it’s Reid’s themes that dictate one unit from the next, backing the more likely hypothesis that his raw notes were gathered over one or two years and then parsed as each chapbook narrowed its particular sights.
Perhaps because Reid lays out the project’s rigid timetable in advance, Garden quickly slides into a laissez-faire rhythm befitting its muse. The book feels like a natural marriage of concept and author — the pleasure principle of gardening matched with Reid’s steady, simplified verse.
The old black walnut stump in the corner of the garden
nurses its lichen, its beetles, its ants.
Someone cut the tree down
long before I was here.
The subjects of interest are long gone.
I don’t know who.
Just someone. (“sept unit, August”)
Clear language outlines the landscape as a domain for bit (or bite-sized) players. His tone is conversational but precise. At its most affecting, Reid’s concision creates an echo stanza — space to reflect upon some gently grazed, existential notion. That lucidity, something of a trademark in Reid’s recent work, allows heady concepts to flourish around the consciousness of plant-life — which is best defined here by what it outwardly lacks, a sense of humanity — and how that entangled community functions. Reid invokes the pitfalls of dualistic thinking, distorting the boundaries between domestic and exotic, inhabited and wild, confined and sprawling, etc., as a means of indulging political and personal commentary.
The systems theorists prefer the system
to be people-free
so it’s good to have a friend, here in the garden.
Language has gotten restless, it’s true
but that doesn’t mean it wants you to stop
pulling at its edges.
The dirt doesn’t need a memory
but it has one anyway. (“nov unit, June”)
Well beyond the sensory perks of appearance or taste, Reid’s garden is presented as a self-regulating system and compared as such to market economics and bureaucracy. Strong roots strangle weaker vegetables, predatory bugs and birds feed on the living and yet there’s a palpable sense of order in disorder, a blameless understanding that what happens in the natural world just happens. By the way, that “friend” Reid mentions in the above excerpt is “Jack the pumpkin”, whose decomposition is recorded over November unit’s lifespan. Jack is but one of many characters Reid personifies, both for creative speculation and dry, self-deprecating reflection. Whether he’s getting reports from the sunflowers about neighbours suntanning topless over the fence or merely internalizing Jack’s hollowed out grin, Reid’s good humour offsets the precariousness of life.
Again, I come to the garden
and find no one
except the pumpkin
still weighted with snow and its face caved in.
It has nothing to say
yet its laughter continues
in whatever I still think I might be. (“nov unit, March”)
A book so attuned to the passing seasons requires a writer who’s sensitive to aging, and Reid carries that weight with grace. The garden communicates with its groomer in playful stanzas but also harsh glances, as if asking its creator: why are you still at this?
My garden is there to be eaten.
All writing is about something. (“feb unit, January”)
Month by month, that “something” finds new vantage points of addressing cultivation and conservation — in the home and mind, as much as in the garden. The steps between these temples often feels illusory, in part because the garden’s agency allows Reid to watch from an unspecified distance. But January unit maps out these emotional ties, laying bare the expectations Reid's green-space was intended to fulfill. Here the garden, already a substandard Eden, takes on the metaphor of parenthood, with Reid and his partner acting as guardians jaded by the promise of inner salvation. The effects of assigning self-worth onto nature — trying to make it something other than what is — creates suffering, not to mention a welcome tension in the text.
Not all units leave such ponderous impact craters and, in those cases, I suspect Reid’s subtle nuances either drifted by me undetected or failed to meet his allusion halfway. After so many calendar months spent toiling in soil and grubs, Reid’s theory-based whimsy becomes the chute upon which chapbook-length stretches depend; when it doesn’t develop, the whole unit tends to putter about, awaiting for another to bud. July unit reads this way, obsessed with the man-hours put in and restless to discover new limits. What comes after the garden?
There is an idea in the hollow of the garden.
Is just a theory the garden generates on the other side
of the garden.
All ideas are the same idea.
There is always another one that explains it better.
How then will one explain another garden? (“july unit, April”)
There’s some juicy potential in the theorizing reprinted above but it’s better demonstrated in earlier portions of Garden than written out as such. There are signs of fatigue too, symptomatic of any hobby that tries to manipulate the cycles of nature. One cannot garden forever; there’ll always be more work to do. And maybe Garden’s homestretch is hijacked by the habit of keeping minutes; measuring that pervasive now that keeps neighbours on edge and cities bandied in perpetual bustle. At times disillusioned, often clairvoyant and clocking his share of months in-between, Reid turns his backyard into a microcosm for the collective dysfunction of our hopes and denials, through which all of Ottawa, Canada and the world manages to persevere, together even when we feel apart.