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Bern Out? Absolutely Absurd: The Life and Times of Bernie Sanders by Donald McNowski


Published December 19, 2001 at 4:00 a.m.


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. Michael’s 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 couple’s thoughts and life together through the seasons of the Earth’s 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 Adam’s and Eve’s 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, it’s 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 Earth’s 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, it’s 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 Adam’s. 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.