As a young girl I attended a small fundamentalist church in the south. In Sunday School we watched the Old Testament stories acted out with paper-doll style cut out figures that were pressed onto a green felt board. They were removed or pushed aside when they lost importance. My favorite, in his coat of many colors, was Joseph, whose brothers were quickly swept asunder, as they well should have been. Though we touched on the tales of Genesis, we had no felt board figures for that first story. Serpents. Nudity. Too much for little ones. Our sin was intangible and therefore hard to comprehend.
The Garden of the Fugitives, winner of the 2013 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, is a collection by Ashley Mace Havird. In it, we fugitives have built quite a garden for ourselves using the blessings of knowledge, nature, and direction. Being cast out from Eden—and therefore made fugitives from Paradise—may not have been the worst that could have happened.
Havird’s collection is divided into three sections, the first being “The Tree of Knowledge.” I researched “The Tree of Knowledge” and rediscovered that there are two trees in the Garden of Eden. One is “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” and the other is “The Tree of Life.” Nordic cultures believe one tree provides both. Which led me to wonder why Adam and Eve made the choice they did. And then I remember what little joy there would be in an eternal life of not-knowing.
Knowledge. There are the things we want to know, and things we don’t want to know. We do not get to pick and choose. In this first group of poems, the reader is given an opportunity to explore the usefulness of God (or as the poet names him, “L.G.”), disturbing secrets, the thorniness of posing and competition, and the notion that some things are just what they seem to be. And of course, exile. In this section, Havird introduces us to her unique recurring theme; nature can be very ugly but nonetheless striking and inspiring. One of many fine examples can be found in “Lunar Eclipse,” a poem that describes the discovery of a dead animal in beautiful, evocative language. Another, from “At Stonewall,” reads:
I kick the head off the blister
of a fire ant mound to open
tunnels like cigarette burns
veining through cemented red clay.
“Every Living Thing” is the second section of the volume. I am driven to research everything. The phrase “every living thing” appears well over ten times in the Old Testament and several times in the New Testament. Must mean something.
The poems in this section are very diverse (not unlike living things). They rely on images from the Cayman Islands to the ruins of ancient Greece. Last Judgement to harvests. Hurricanes to Alice in Wonderland. These poems are more reflective in style than the first section. I especially enjoyed “Pan’s Shadow,” with the phrase, “Tomorrow, you swear, will be different.” I responded in the margin, “not enough different to feel better.” But nearly all Havird’s poems encourage a written response. They are intimate like that. My favorite poem from the second third of the collection is “Alice Gone Under,” but to give a hint without spoiling, Alice is in a special land you would not imagine at first. Read it.
Havird closes with the “East of Eden” section. My original thought was that this could not be based on a novel by Steinbeck. So, I asked my resident Torah expert in what direction we got thrown out of the Garden, and he assured me it was toward the east. So now we all know.
Several poems herein rely heavily on the theme of impermanence. The final poem, “The Garden of the Fugitives” sinks us into the soul of a fellow wanderer, “as if there were a prayer for a way home.” We will never return to Paradise nor the felt-board stories of childhood.
I read a great deal of poetry, and take a lot of pleasure in analysis. Havird’s volume outshines nearly everything I have read in the last year. I regret that I came to it late, i.e. four years after its original release. I might have missed it altogether had it not been for sitting in a café on Main Street eating, yet again. “Lightningstruck,” Havird’s debut novel was on display, and I am grateful that the publisher thought to put a few copies of “The Garden” alongside.
Ashley has been kind enough to grant us an interview regarding her work as both a poet and novelist, which appears here.
Ashley Mace Havird grew up on a tobacco farm in South Carolina. Her debut novel, Lightningstruck (Mercer University Press, 2016), won the 2015 Ferrol Sams Award and was named an Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society. She has published three collections of poems, including The Garden of the Fugitives (Texas Review Press, 2014), which won the 2013 X. J. Kennedy Prize. Her poems and short stories have appeared in many journals including Shenandoah, The Southern Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review, as well as in anthologies such as The Southern Poetry Anthology, IV: Louisiana, Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry, and the forthcoming Nasty Women Poets, An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse. She and her husband, the poet David Havird, were writers-in-residence at the Chautauqua Institution in July 2017. Visit Ashley at ashleymacehavird.com.