August 11, 2009KR BlogKR


Coming back from a long trip, I love to dive into the pile of mail. To tow the credit card offers off to their own little junkyard, to tear open the anemic envelopes affixed with my own name that have returned like bedraggled homing pigeons with stock messages, and to stack the magazines in neat piles of reading pleasure. In working my way through the latter pile–specifically the sub-pile of New Yorkers–I came across this article about the recent discovery of the early letters of Edith Wharton to her governess Anna Bahlmann. I read this while riding the ferry to a girlfriend’s bridal shower which felt extra-poignant (as if ferry-travel weren’t metaphor enough) since marriage was never Wharton’s specialty, and she wouldn’t have yet known that at the time that she wrote the letters, as we can never know when XXX (insert your own metaphor of embarkation here) on any journey, be it life or a 40-minute ride across Puget Sound.

Wharton’s greatest love, it turned out, was fiction, and her sub-love number one was house and garden design and sub-love number two was Italy. I don’t think Wharton and I are very like each other, but we’ve been in some of the same places. We share Italy in common, as any reader of my single post would have already surmised, and though I can’t say I’m any sort of expert on house or garden design, but I grew up near The Mount, Wharton’s house in the un-Italian backwaters of Massachusetts. In fact, the Mount was a rather magical place for me. It was the place where, when I was somewhere in the late single-digits, I first saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Karen Allen, about whom I knew nothing except she was a movie star–a movie star!–and even better, the play was staged outside and the fairies perched in actual trees. I had had no idea the world of the imagination and the world that I lived in could splice together so actually.

(“Spliced” is how Wharton described getting married, which she was apparently and secretly supposed to do, but didn’t. It sounds a little surgical to me–too close to “splint.”)

The Mount was Wharton’s recreation of the best of the Italian insides and outsides that she loved and wrote about in the book, Italian Villas and Their Gardens. They were called “pleasure-houses” they were as if some houses were for pleasure and some were not. In the introduction to this book, she writes,

The Italian garden does not exist for its flowers; its flowers exist for it: they are a late and infrequent adjunct to its beauties, a parenthetical grace counting only as one more touch in the general effect of enchantment. This is no doubt partly explained by the difficulty of cultivating any but spring flowers in so hot and dry a climate, and the result has been a wonderful development of the more permanent effects to be obtained from the three other factors in garden-composition–marble, water and perennial verdure–and the achievement, by their skilful blending, of a charm independent of the seasons.

First, isn’t it nice to hear adjunct modifying something other than instructor? I think I’m going to reclaim adjunct from its modern drudgery. Second, I love her definition of garden-composition: “marble, water and perennial verdure.” Something hard, something soft, something green (something old, something, something borrowed, something blue?). Part of me thinks this is brilliant: who wouldn’t want their poems to have a “charm independent of the seasons.” Yet the other part of me thinks: but there is such charm to the seasons! Having been to Villa D’Este, one of her villa-garden combos, only in summer I can attest to the particular charms of its bountiful water on a hot day (especially when one has just come from the broil of Hadrian’s Villa). I can’t imagine its charms on a winter day, but I feel that it must harbor (or arbor) them, as some poems have a wintery feel, or others an autumnal crunch, or others a spring to their step.

And lo, Wharton herself, in musing on the Vatican gardens, writes that “the sunny sheltered terrace, espaliered with lemons, is a good example of the ???walk for the cold season,’ for which Italian garden-architects always provided.” This seems a charm for a very particular season. But why do I feel it necessary to catch Wharton in contradictions? I do not. She may have harbor them. She may feel hot and then cold about her gardens, her love life, her writing. She may not feel anything now, and that is her right, too, being dead and all.

I was in Rome for over a month, and made it a goal to take and post at least one photo a day for the folks back home. Now, being back home myself, I find I’ve missed taking these pictures. It’s garage-sale season here, one of the charms of which is that garage-sale rejects often end up on the poem-sized slice of land between the street and the sidewalk which some call the parking strip and others the planting strip. I’ve been thinking of starting a Seattle series of photographs featuring the adjuncts of the planting strip, my version of the Italian garden. Today, upon arriving home, I found this definitely pre Sub-Zero refrigerator across from my house which had clearly become adjunct to the house:


And on the front, a magnet:


Though the fridge has gone a-planting strip, one can hope that The Answer Line is still good. If anyone questions it, let me know.

And on the back, a papery diagram that once told someone better than me how to hook it up and what must be replaced. Now it only issues commands:


Beware, Reader, we all MUST BE REPLACED. A hot heart is switched out for a cold. Summer for Fall. A first love for the second. What’s above goes sub.

(Dear Edith, the speaker is feeling, if not metaphorically, towards you, then metonymically.)

It’s raining here tonight and though it’s barely August, we Seattleites know that the cold season is coming. I’m building a walk for the cold season of writing that lies ahead and planting lemon trees to splay along its side-frames. They stretch out their arms as if welcoming the sun–or dying, just dying, for it.