Three Poems by Lee Herrick

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.”

THE HEART

 

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,

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