Winter, the darkest and most elemental of seasons, seems a fitting time to read House and Garden, John Engels new collection of poetry. Written from the points of view of Adam and Eve, relocated in Vermont the next best thing to Paradise this volume explores life in exile: the regrets, longings, existential isolation and, especially, the need to name things and create meaning.
Engels, a Burlington poet and professor at St. Michaels College, has published 10 previous volumes of poetry. In House and Garden, he combines the mythic with the personal. The book has a feeling of one long narrative poem tracing the couples thoughts and life together through the seasons of the Earths cycling, as well as through their individual evolution. Home and garden imagery abounds as the two attempt to bring order and tranquility to their lives east of Eden.
The mysteries of consciousness are expressed through monologues in which Adams and Eves love for and devotion to the garden, as well as the regrets and frustrations of life in exile, are presented in eloquent, organic musings. As the seasons progress, they contemplate their place in creation and their relationship to one another. And while they regret their sins original and otherwise the perennial problem is the desire for connection and meaning. In Adam Suffers Regrets in October, he reflects:
October evenings, in the face of the last
gatherings of light, more largely, even,
in the face of the last gatherings
of all the sweet bodies of the summers
to which in our uncommon time
the earth has given rise, its come to seem
more than ever much to ask
that nothing should be asked, that it is necessary
to be without need, that nothing
in the way of anger, bitterness, death or desire
is forgiven, or even unforgiven
The price of consciousness for the Earths first couple is knowing loss, isolation and awareness of the great silences between the Creator and humanity, and between each other. They are separate even as they live side by side. Adam is shown at a window looking out, or outside looking at Eve framed in a window as she looks out into the dark. This essential estrangement is expressed throughout the book, as in Eve among the Willows:
As for us,
oh, our hearts
beat so inexpertly when we looked
at one another! What he heard and saw
I was never able to tell, so that I
would never become
of like mind with him...
...I think our hearts
may well have outlived our voices.
These big willows seem borne down,
though in fact they strive equally
to sun as to earth. We walked
under trees like these, heavy
on the world, in such a gravity
not even silence escaped us.
Adam and Eve do find some satisfaction in giving voice to their reality both are facile at naming the physical and spiritual components of their world. Engels poems portray the essential struggle to clarify the present, and the attempt to reclaim the past. In the poem Adam Looking Down, Adam does just this:
From the hilltop at the edge of the pine grove
I look down onto the blooming orchards.
I watch the slow emergence
of spring. I feel
obligation of retrieval.
The air carries with it
the taste of mushrooms, apples,
the smell of sour muds. Far below
the orchards blossom, the season
is gathering. I look down
on the resumptive body of the world,
on whatever I am obliged
to make of it to see or touch,
by which necessity
it will bear names, and be.
House and Garden is not exactly bounding with joy, yet the desire for faith is evident, springing from such events as a late blooming of flowers in October. There is even some humor in the poems. Adam may be laughing at himself when he falls flat on his face from a stepladder in the process of pruning lilacs. In Adam and the Cardinal at the Window, hope comes in the form of a bird recovering from flying into the window:
he twitches himself up
and into the air,
and the whole yard,
garden and all, for the instant
ignites, rises from its shadows
everything notices, its forever
in us, this hunger
for rush of color, this strong notion
of the blood.
While it is often difficult to distinguish the voices of Adam and Eve in these poems, Eve is more apt to speak in the first person plural, and her voice is somewhat more gentle and vague, less outwardly angry than Adams. Engels could have played up the gender-specific differences in their perspectives, but instead drafted a unisex voice to address their fundamentally human issues.
House and Garden is a lyrical testament to the promise of redemption through a vital connection to the Earth, and through the creation of meaning and beauty as demonstrated by this poetry itself. Winter-like, it lays bare the landscapes of the spirit in spare and incisive language, presenting a view of the world and consciousness, beautiful and moving in all its yearning and complexity.