In Leaves of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection (Red Dashboard Publishing) with poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman and art by Sally Deskins, our capacity as women to thrive or wilt, is revealed through daily garden life. In between these detailed poems and exuberant paintings, there are paragraphs of facts and plant history, to teach and temper the budding words. It is a reminder that caring for nature, like caring for a person, is an investment. As Wiseman writes in “The Family of Magnolias,”
“planting the wrong tree or doing it in the wrong way is something better left undone.”
When one plants a tree from seed, it is a lifetime commitment or at least half a lifetime. The gardener is caregiver: watering a seed, protecting a sprig from frost, watching for signs of disease or insect invasion. After many years a tall sturdy tree is a crowning achievement while a failed plant can be heartbreaking. Like life is with relationships. Yet we plant again in the spring, measure out garden plants, look for new loves. To garden is to hope. All living things, however, die, or “leave,” eventually. But isn’t biting an apple or smelling a rose worth it? Wiseman and Deskins explore this journey through these intricate poems and bursting water colors.
One of the first metaphors in the collection is “A Wrong Tree.” The tree is almost described as a stumbling Civil War soldier, suffering without anesthetic:
“Limbs are sawed off as amputated stumps and oozing wounds.
The canopy won’t shade you no matter where you stand.
…Evenings on the lawn chair you slouch with cheap beer.
You gaze at the green lawns around you—
You imagine hopping the fence to a new home…
I could leave…”
We assume the underdog status through “A Wrong Tree,” judging it’s low hanging branches, it’s lack of leaves and structure. The tree is a symbol for living the wrong life: the wrong yard, wrong car, wrong house, wrong neighborhood. We hunger for the other: the perfectly manicured lawn or mini barn shed. Even though disdain is present for this ugly duckling, there is some sympathy. The tree is surviving, it does not appeal to the masses, have “curb appeal.” But it is unique. These hiccups in nature reflect on our own quirks and flaws as humans. We must “go on” too, no matter what.
Deskins splatters her drawing of “A Wrong Tree” with the brightest colors imaginable: greens and blues, pinks, and oranges. Her tree is a helpful reminder that beauty is found in unconventional shapes and places.
Likewise, another painting that shines with self-love is “Take Leave.” (There is lots of “leave” and “leaf” word play throughout the book and one can also not help but think of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass while reading these poems.) In the painting “Take Leave,” a curvy female shape stretches her limbs within a tree trunk. She is proud, blissful to enrapture the tree’s magic, her torso blending into the bark. She is serene and one with the tree. It is powerful.
Today, with all women’s rights and freedoms under attack this image is refreshing. If only all women could arch their elbows to the sky, strong: feel their power. This painting is a wish.
In the following two poems: “Leave off Husbandry,” and “Weeping Hawthorn, A Friend and Neighbor,” tree and woman blend but manifest that all allusions to trees are not beautiful. In “Leave off Husbandry,” Wiseman writes:
“you axed us in my dream. I awoke
to my heart scudding, a thicket of birds.
Your will to destroy left me shaken…
I was putting out roots, leafing at the base.”
Arms are swinging an imaginary ax., cutting off our limbs, our ability to run, our ability to flower. Giving something “the ax” is a synonym for finishing it. Wiseman uses the tree as a symbol in this relationship, the stress dream pulling intimacy’s roots out of the ground. The tree is powerless to the ax, does not see it coming, like anyone blindsided by an emotional trauma. (Again Deskins paints an effective image to be paired with this poem: a flesh colored woman, slumped by a tree, looking over her shoulder at the reader, forlorn.)
In “Weeping Hawthorn…” the natural world is a metaphor for assault. Wiseman writes:
“her limbs bent to his need, a hot, blind
forcing that once opened would scar.
She scratched at him to stop…”
“…Each of us wants
to blossom, grow, ripen, be
plucked—consent—never like that.”
Through representing the women as trees, the reader experiences not only how our environment cannot speak for itself, but also how women are silenced, how casual violence is prevalent. Like a new sapling, a girl, a woman should be cared for, should feel free to shout her voice to the world, not prove how her existence should just be tolerated. At least the trees have the forest.
Whether these poems are witnessing women’s plight, or a childhood memory (Wisemen playfully quotes “let the wild rumpus start,” from Where the Wild Things Are and there are allusions to a swing hanging from an oak tree,) or exploring word play, Deskins accompanies these fevered words with light and spirituality.
In “Common Prayer to Tree Gods and Goddesses,” the outlines of women are in a forest with the orange/reddish colors atop the tree canopy. One does not know if it is dawn or dusk and it doesn’t matter. These tree spirits are timeless.
Our tree lined streets or lone tree in a yard or tree standing tall in a park are us. Wiseman teaches us the mind might forget certain slings and arrows, but “…the body can remember what we carved.”
This collaboration is a tour de force of word and color, a wonderful blending hybrid creation, as can only be found in nature.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. Her chapbook “Clown Machine” is forthcoming from Grey Book Press this summer. Her first full length collection is forthcoming from Lucky Bastard Press. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Pith, Freezeray,Entropy, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Right Hand Pointing, Cider Press Review, Inter/rupture, and decomP. Visit her here.