Here are three poems from Lee Herrick’s Gardening Secrets of the Dead. He was kind enough to share these poems and some thoughts on his dream dinner, what’s on his playlist, and what poetry means to him.
Of Lee’s new book, poet Brian Turner writes: “Lee Herrick’s Gardening Secrets of the Dead is a lyric exploration of the fractured and fragmented landscape of the self, where the body is a song composed of many selves. Whitman revised, the poems “celebrate and assemble/ from around the world” with a voice that is politically engaged and rooted in compassion. Gardening Secrets of the Dead is a wise, gorgeous book—one steeped in the deeply human process of living in what is often an untenable world, where we are instructed to “breathe as if your chest is an ocean.” A poet’s poet, Herrick’s work is a gift for us all.”
Let us remember the heart.
You can stir it up or stone it up,
carve out a moat to blockade it
with murky water and little alligators
to protect it, or invent stories
with limping villains who scratch
their names into its chambers
and assign natives the blame.
You can pray to reshape it or
re-imagine it as an open hand.
What if it could atrophy or implode?
What about xenograft?
The butterfly’s long chambered heart
forms after the chrysalis splits.
The little beauty lives for only
two weeks, so its heart would not do
or maybe you would take flight.
What about the heart’s ambition,
the drunk pianist’s secret love
arranged near the tall vase?
Imagine Christian Barnard’s hands.
He performed the first heart transplant
in 1967. Imagine the size of Kelly Perkins’
new heart, when she scaled Mount Kilimanjaro
with it. Take yours and its aspirations,
what it wants to scale or embrace.
Let us remember the heart beats
thirty five million times per year,
the size of a child’s fist, a child’s
question, once around the sun.
Spar, reunite—take truth, death, faith,
and myth—mix with water and patience.
I apologize for my imperfections’ open mouths
touting their little slogans in the moonlight,
but not for my heart’s little beating into
the morning hours, a pulse, a mountain,
but mostly I do not apologize for my heart’s
late surfacing, its perfect missing chunk
from the upper chamber that takes five years
to properly close and then, once more, open.
GARDENING SECRETS OF THE DEAD
When the light pivots, hum — not so loud
the basil will know, but enough
to water it with your breath.
Gardening has nothing to do with names
like lily or daisy. It is about verbs like uproot,
traverse, hush. We can say it has aspects of memory
and prayer, but mostly it is about refraction and absence,
the dead long gone when the plant goes in. A part of the body.
Water and movement, attention and dirt.
Once, I swam off the coast of Belize and pulled
seven local kids along in the shallow Caribbean,
their brown bodies in the blue water behind me,
the first one holding my left hand like a root,
the last one dangling his arm under the water
like a lavender twig or a flag in light wind.
A dead woman told me: Gardening,
simply, is laughing and swimming
a chorus of little brown miracles
in water so clear you can see yourself
and your own brown hands becoming clean.
This poem was first published in The Packinghouse Review.
SPECTRAL QUESTIONS OF THE BODY
When I imagine my birth mother’s body, spectral
questions float: how the cage
of bone protects the heart, how she sounded
near death once or if bird cried
a song near the river. I imagine it like gel
in a body of water, a jellyfish in the sea,
a gasping squid.
If I could touch the body,
I would go for the neck
where air meets air, despair swapped for light
flashes, cusps of cut lavender,
cups of the silkworms you may have loved,
the new breathing.
This is how I imagine
your body: brown and surfacing, a changing shape
of grace and light to mirror
the foreboding chant of my own death,
or the true loss of a child in Korea
who goes West to become a child in America,
full of spectral images distracting him from
all the Korean trees, the clashing bodies,
all the animals and angels calling out his name.
All poems copyright Lee Herrick
To spend more time with Lee, read his At Table with Lee Herrick interview,