Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems

Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems

Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems

Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems


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For decades a restorer of old homes, Connie Wanek shows us that poetry is everywhere, encountered as easily in the waterways, landscapes, and winters of Minnesota, as in the old roofs and darkened drawers of a home long uninhabited. Rival Gardens includes more than thirty unpublished poems, along with poems selected from three previous books—all in Wanek’s unmistakable voice: plainspoken and elegant, unassuming and wise, observant and original. Many of her new poems focus on the garden, beginning with the Garden of Eden. A deep feeling for family and for the losses and gains of growing into maturity mark the tone of Rival Gardens, with Wanek always attending to the telling detail and the natural world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803285064
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 02/01/2016
Series: Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 200
File size: 839 KB

About the Author

Connie Wanek is the author of three books of poetry—Bonfire, Hartley Field, and On Speaking Terms—and the coeditor of the award-winning anthology To Sing Along the Way: Minnesota Women Poets from Pre-territorial Days to the Present. She has been a Witter Bynner Fellow of the Library of Congress and was named George Morrison Artist of the Year, an honor given to a northern Minnesotan for contributions to the arts over many years. She has lived for decades in Duluth, Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt

Rival Gardens

New and Selected Poems

By Connie Wanek


Copyright © 2016 the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8506-4


Selections from Bonfire


    When the snowbank dissolved
    I found a comb and a muddy quarter.
    I found the corpse of that missing mitten
    still clutching some snow.

    Then came snow with lightning,
    beauty with a temper.
    And sleet, the compromise that pleases no one;
    precipitation by committee.

    Out on Lake Superior the worried ice
    paces up and down the shoreline
    wearing itself out.

    Chimneys have given up smoking.
    In the balcony of the woods,
    a soprano with feathers.

    And upon the creek
    the wicked spell is broken.
    You are free to be water now.
    You are free to go.

Red Fox

    He lived all summer on the great man's estate,
    the red fox, like a concubine.
    The sight of him taking the bait
    made the old gentleman tremble —
    his modest toilette at the fountain
    observed through binoculars,
    his unmolested naps near the gray rock
    where sunlight streamed through a dying birch.

    Over and over the fox saw the old man hobble out
    and fill the meat bowl. His was a pungent,
    almost medical smell, that clung
    like a tendril to the complicated air of human places.
    At first each nerve objected. The fox
    saw two dogs at the bay window, watching,
    their coarse, domesticated faces
    full of eager malevolence, like ex-wives.

    Then overnight the sumac turned red.
    The creeper suddenly blushed at its own rapaciousness.
    How hard the wind tried to pick the trees up
    but leaves only came away.
    That summer, like all the others,
    fled while the old man still wanted it, and the fox, too,
    vanished into the copper-colored undergrowth
    as into the magician's sleeve.


    The story begins a hundred years ago,
    notations in that fine antique hand,
    the getting and losing of a piece of land
    ending with us.

    Two wives became widows in this house,
    walked from window to window looking out,
    shrinking in their dresses,
    padding their shoes with Kleenex.
    The lake was always there, the fog climbed the hill,
    and the moon grew stout and thin
    per the promissory note.

    Teeth fell out, there was a divorce
    (Solvieg got the house),
    and at last the two children who fought so bitterly
    had to "divide by equal shares, share and share alike"
    the southerly 100 feet of lot 9 Endion Subdivision
    together with all improvements.

    It was the sister who stayed on.
    It was she who saw the peonies through the dry year,
    who took the broom to the wasp nest in the soffit,
    who embraced those endless domestic economies,
    and who penciled into the margins
    padlock combinations, paint colors,
    the Latin names of her perennials.

    Her bones grew hollow like a bird's
    so that when it was time to fly
    she had only to spread her old wool shawl
    and drop the ballast of this abstract.

Wild Apples

    The tree is old, hidden behind
    a veil of Virginia creeper,
    the apples astringent, misshapen,
    green with red tiger stripes,
    misguided adornment or miracle
    in the logged-over third or fourth or fifth growth
    along the creek. I gather a few windfalls,
    too hard to bruise,
    as I pass from nowhere to nowhere.

    If I had roots I would put them down here.
    Living roots, roots with feeling.
    The apples are placed on the windowsill
    where they can see out —
    morning windows, sun coming out of the woods, disentangled.
    How freely it floats before the clouds,
    then willingly enters them.
    And my daughter, scowling all day,
    how she smiles when her friends come for her.

    The hard brown boys find the apple tree
    on one of their patrols
    and load up on ammo.
    One apple penetrates the storm window
    but not the sash, and so glass separates
    the curiously reunited offspring of the tree —
    the litter brought together as dogs —
    while the boys have of course scattered,
    careening downhill on their bent bicycles.

    The unburdened tree stands straighter,
    smoothing the wrinkled skirt.
    After all these years, some time apparently remains,
    another evening, another autumn,
    a tender half-inch of growth on each arthritic branch.
    Apples lie soft and brown in the underbrush,
    waste and redundancy, windowsill apples
    sitting on their weeping mold.

    Once you took my picture under this very tree.
    I was holding the child, who was holding wild apples.
    Fourteen months, I wrote on the back.
    She and I both looked pale after that first intense year,
    milky, like the edge of the sky,
    slightly translucent, slightly grave.
    She was mine. She didn't belong to herself then.
    It was September, just as it is now,
    the sun listing to the south,
    the hill's shadow crossing me at the knee.

The Girl and the Horses

    I woke to find the gate open and the horses gone
    and I thought, "What haven't I given you?"
    Dawn was drying the gravel on the road;
    the bridle I carried clinked against my knee.
    They hadn't gone far. They stood at the corner
    where the road turned toward infinite places
    and raised their heads from their grazing to watch me.
    I walked toward them, falsely confident,
    like a teacher, unable to disguise
    the nature of my duty.

    The big roan played a vital part in my success,
    turning his ears forward as he smelled sugar,
    two white, pure, perfect cubes. And then,
    because he had so often done so, he accepted the bit.
    I drew him out of the ditch, two legs leading four,
    seventy pounds leading seven hundred,
    and the other horses, sighing and snorting, followed.
    It looked as if we'd been on some field trip,
    saw how money was made, or how trees
    are stripped and turned into toilet paper.

    That morning I thought myself lucky
    and the beasts immeasurably foolish
    as I led them back. All in, the gate locked,
    I pulled the roan's head down to me
    and slipped the bridle off, and he nipped me,
    nipped me with his huge teeth, yellow as corn,
    near my ear, and bolted into the pasture.


    If these yellow daylilies
    made the sound suggested by their anatomy
    we couldn't have them in the garden —
    great gold horns
    on stems that would support them,
    like some stage mother, on a world tour.
    But they're rooted here in the red clay,
    noisy only by virtue of their color
    and posture, that desperate leaning away
    from the leaves, that sun hunger.

    Perhaps they know they have only one day.
    One cool morning, a wind off the lake,
    and one noon under a sun
    that returns the most ardent affection.
    One evening watching the shadows
    of the porch spindles lengthen without tangling,
    and the day is done. A day
    that might have been worse or better,
    that was never ours alone
    though it seemed so.

The Wandering Sky

    It's the wind that drives the sky to one side
    and herds the stars along, and pulls
    the thread out of the needle.
    A lifetime frugally spent
    but gone all the same, and the chair
    that has become your tame little horse
    tethered beneath the wandering sky.
    The grandchildren dash through the room
    like comets leaving a brilliant trail.
    They have left the door wide open
    but the wind will close it.

    Wherever we go the clouds have preceded us.
    Clouds of the vast transformation.
    Thin clouds that thinly cross the bald dome.
    Clouds like fish bones, like ribs
    protecting the lung of the atmosphere.
    Sometimes there are long words in the sky,
    a sentence finished beyond the horizon.


    A blossom on its long stem
    the broom is a hag of a tulip.
    It is a woman who ties back
    her hair with wire,
    who wears burlap,
    who eats clay.

    For its fidelity
    the broom has been granted
    the ability to carry the witch
    to the clouds. Who was the first
    to slip it between her legs
    and vanish?

Skim Milk

    The weary cow barely made the barn
    and the farmer cleaned her withered udder
    with little hope; but lo, a few drops,
    a cupful, and at last a carton
    of this Spartan beverage —
    tempting, as self-flagellation is tempting.

    Skim milk, reconstituted perhaps
    from the dried granules, the little milk seeds
    we distribute to developing nations
    when what they need is pure butterfat
    that lines the soul like a nest,
    that recalls the sun, summer meadows ...
    buttercups ... butterflies ...

    Forget summer. The doctor hands you a stern menu
    and the brilliant little lamps of pleasure
    burn out one by one, irreplaceable.
    Years stretch ahead, lean and dim,
    like so many glasses of skim milk,
    and the sad old cow looks up sympathetically,
    her mouth full of thistles.


    In this cold clay thrives a hot little vegetable,
    the radish, the sensualist. When you wash it,
    letting water trickle over its swollen root,
    you make it very happy.

    When you're dull, pull half a dozen.
    They're crowded anyway,
    gaining weight on all this rain.
    Eat them red and plain.

    Or eat them sliced and white.
    Bite them and they bite you back —
    you like that; resistance sharpens the appetite.
    Attribute this blush to the effect of radishes.


    Mittens are drying on the radiator
    boots nearby, one on its side.
    Like some monstrous segmented insect
    the radiator elongates under the window.

    Or it is a beast with many shoulders
    domesticated in the Ice Age.
    How many years it takes
    to move from room to room!

    Some cage their radiators
    but this is unnecessary
    as they have little desire to escape.

    Like turtles they are quite self-contained.
    If they seem sad, it is only the same sadness
    we all feel, unlovely, slowly growing cold.

Missed Bus

    He sprinted around the corner to see it depart,
    the flatulent yellow bus,
    its windows inhabited by smug, successful faces.
    A few noticed him,
    his coat unzipped and only one mitten,
    standing in a cloud of his own breath.
    Failure is complete only when it is witnessed.

    A little snow, so light it seemed not to fall
    but to drift down, sideways, and up too,
    pausing inquiringly before his eyes.
    Perhaps the snow would eventually
    end up on the ground. Or perhaps
    it would be called back at the last moment
    by a mother who insists
    on a kiss in the middle of chaos.

    The bus moves through the blue morning
    lit up like a traveling theater,
    a shadow puppet in every window.
    It always seems they are all against you,
    shouting to the driver
    "Leave! Leave! He's almost here!"

Duluth, Minnesota

    A moose has lost his way
    amidst the human element downtown,
    the old-timers waiting out January
    at the bar, the realtors and bureaucrats
    with their identical plumage
    (so that you must consult your Roger Tory Peterson)
    hopping up the steps of City Hall
    eating Hansel's bread crumbs —
    poor moose, a big male who left
    his antlers somewhere in the woods.
    He keeps checking his empty holster ...

    People suffer the winters
    for this kind of comedy.
    Spectators climb the snowbanks,
    dogs bark, the moose lowers
    his shaggy head, his grave eyes
    reminiscent somehow of Abe Lincoln.
    Firemen, police, reporters, DNR,
    two cents' worth from every quarter,
    till the moose lopes down Fourth Street
    toward St. Mary's Hospital Emergency Entrance
    and slips into an alley.

    Later, the same moose — it must be —
    is spotted farther up the hillside.
    It's a mixed neighborhood; a moose
    isn't terribly out of place.
    And when he walks calmly up behind
    one old man shoveling his driveway,
    the Duluthian turns without surprise.
    "Two blocks east," he says,
    "Then you'll hit a small creek that will take you
    to Chester Park, and right into the woods.
    He adds, "Good luck, now."

Blue Moon

    for the sisters Jacobson

    This August a complete restoration, a blue moon.
    It hesitates when it sees all of us
    gathered here, watching. What can I do,
    it says, but simply rise —

    The day was so fair, so blond,
    and the great lake becalmed, inviting
    a hardy swimmer and his dog.
    Inside the body the heart throbbed
    like an engine of Swedish manufacture,
    strong enough for a second lifetime.

    A single cloud made the sky seem bluer,
    one cloud against such odds.
    True, we seldom see a day so unblemished,
    so childish, so soon over.
    Let us meet on the rocky shore
    to ask this rare, self-conscious moon
    to intercede on our behalf.

    The lake lifts and sinks
    like a sleeping father's chest, so gently
    that small craft venture forth.
    The stars, too, sense no danger in the heavens.
    Our small fire burns only the sticks we give it;
    we have that much control.
    The moon returns with no assurances
    but spreads a little light on the footpath.

The Gelding

    As I recall, the black horse just appeared,
    undelivered, unrequested,
    dusty and skinny, like a tramp
    with his hat in his good hand.
    He was used to pity. He could work with it.

    His dull eyes were rimmed with red,
    and his habits were all bad:
    he bit, suddenly and cruelly,
    with his ears back flat.
    He kicked the yearling squarely
    in the ribs, so thoroughly
    did he despise innocence.
    The sweet filly he tried to mount
    there, in the pasture, knowing we watched.
    And we added to his scars
    as everyone who owned him did.

    Only once I forced him to take the bit
    and slipped onto his bony back.
    He seemed to acquiesce, then
    threw himself into the fence.

    If an animal can't be used one way
    it will be used another.
    So they came for him,
    four strong men, armed with cigarettes,
    leather, rope, a blindfold,
    in a truck barred like a jail.
    The black horse fought as if
    he smelled a place they'd been.
    Trussed in, he was at last becalmed.
    Almost bored. The truck rumbled away,
    blue exhaust drifting into the cornfield.


    A dragonfly visits me as I take down the laundry.
    He clings to a sleeve like a mighty cuff link,
    gold and purple, with four sluggish wings
    the shape of willow leaves, and will not fly.
    No, he has found the last sun
    that stains the garment and the day, and will not fly.

    Night stands with its goods at the door,
    impatient to inhabit summer's mansion,
    like the unsentimental purchaser on closing day.
    You lead him through the empty rooms a last time
    and give him the key. Somewhere a window left open —
    and the cold rushes in.

    The moon seems always in the sky, night or day.
    All life ends under such a fierce moon,
    sharp tipped as an Abyssinian sword.
    What are your thoughts, dragonfly,
    as my finger comes so near?
    Do you feel the furnace of my red blood?

    Can you trust me? I could put you in a jar
    decorated with clematis, a pleasant room,
    a windowsill, a button to push for the nurse.
    But no, you seem to say no,
    as you throw yourself into the grass.
    I see worn places on your wings
    just as every leaf in the woods
    has its caterpillar hole.

    After our talk, we let each other go.
    In a few steps I enter the shadow of the house
    that rises on me like a watermark.
    All over the sky the nighthawks
    are crossing through the visible spectrum.
    And the day, like a last penny
    pulled from deep in the pocket, is spent.


    When the rain comes
    you don't try to stop it.
    You don't give it a final warning.
    It comes, and the plants look up
    and hold up their leaves.

    It is the age of parents failing,
    asleep in the afternoon, awake in the night.
    The first light enters the east window
    trying to make the nerves come alive
    like leaves growing from a stump.

    When the grandchildren visit
    each must suffer an inspection, a silly joke
    and the reverent touch of the old hands —
    how hard it is to love and be loved!

    Rain, come out of the milky sky
    and wash the dust from the bird wings!
    There is no reason for anything
    yet we live.

Toward Dusk

    My hand on the gate
    I look back into the garden.
    My shadow lingers between the rows
    and pulls the shadow of a weed.

    The seedlings are thick stemmed,
    well begun. Should I not return
    they would still grow, these delphiniums,
    blue eyed, my height and a little beyond.

    It wasn't my fate after all
    to do more than plant
    at the proper phase of the moon,
    and love what grows.


    It is winter before we think clearly
    of the peonies. Wind rearranges
    a light snow over their roots,
    filling the faint tracks of the neighbor's cat.
    The wind has forgotten why it feels so unhappy.

    I remember that mild June night
    we sat out waiting for the moon,
    and fireflies appeared, like broken pieces of it
    drifting over the peonies.
    The flowers had a light of their own
    and regarded the world as infants do,
    full of great, unknown capacity.

    The white peony was cooler than the air.
    When I took it in my hand
    and held it near your face
    I saw your unguarded, nocturnal features,
    simple and irrational.
    I believed then in what cannot be touched.

    The sun rose on peonies
    throwing away their petals
    as nuns conceal their hair and bodies.
    They had served their short time
    in the physical world.
    Now it is the snow that falls
    in great soft petals, spent blossoms
    on the year's darkest day.


    A flower needs to be this size
    to conceal the winter window,
    and this color, the red
    of a Fiat with the top down,
    to impress us, dull as we've grown.

    Months ago the gigantic onion of a bulb
    half above the soil
    stuck out its green tongue
    and slowly, day by day,
    the flower itself entered our world,

    closed, like hands that captured a moth,
    then open, as eyes open,
    and the amaryllis, seeing us,
    was somehow undiscouraged.
    It stands before us now

    as we eat our soup;
    you pour a little of your drinking water
    into its saucer, and a few crumbs
    of fragrant earth fall
    onto the tabletop.


Excerpted from Rival Gardens by Connie Wanek. Copyright © 2016 the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction by Ted Kooser    
Selections from Bonfire
Red Fox    
Wild Apples    
The Girl and the Horses    
The Wandering Sky    
Skim Milk    
Missed Bus    
Duluth, Minnesota    
Blue Moon    
The Gelding    
Toward Dusk    
Christmas Tree    
Ski Tracks    
Selections from Hartley Field
The Coin behind Your Ear    
The Ventriloquist    
Red Rover    
Jump Rope    
Horses in Spring    
Summer Night    
Long Nights    
Postcard: Busy Clarence Town Harbor on a Mail Boat Day    
Black and White Photograph    
Memorial Day at the Lake    
The Midwife    
The Exchange    
Children near the Water    
A Field of Barley    
So like Her Father    
The Hammer    
Late September    
New Snow    
Grown Children    
Heart Surgery    
All Saints’ Day    
Christmas Fable    
After Us    
Hartley Field    
Selections from On Speaking Terms
First Snow    
Tracks in the Snow    
The Accordion    
Everything Free    
Fishing on Isabella Lake    
Confessional Poem    
Walking Distance    
The Splits    
Closest to the Sky    
Picture Yourself    
The Death of My Father    
A Sighting    
Green Tent    
A Random Gust from the North    
Musical Chairs    
A Parting    
Old Snow    
Coloring Book    
Blue Ink    
Six Months after My Father’s Death    
Ice Out    
New Poems
Part One
Garter Snake    
Rival Gardens    
The Summerhouse    
The Neighbor’s Pond    
An Ordinary Crisis    
Mysterious Neighbors    
Root Words    
Rain Collection    
Blue Flags    
“Golden Glow”    
Blackbirds at Dusk    
First House    
Last Star    
Part Two
Used Book    
Ghost Town    
When I Was a Boy    
John Q. Public    
A Collection of Near Misses    
Plein Air    
The Death of the Battery    
Parts per Million    
Mrs. God    
Genesis, Cont.    
Day of Rest    
First Love    
Part Three
Artificial Tears    
I Heard You Come In    
Pavement Ends    
The Shoes of the Dead    
A Last Time for Everything    
They Live with Us    
Recalled to Life    
Wild Asters    
Brave Rabbits    
Brave Rabbits, a Second Look    
A Marsh at Twilight    
The Second Half of the Night    
Cabbage Moth    
Garden Gloves    
Also by This Gardener    

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