The Great Poem Series: Donald Hall’s “Her Garden”

Donald Hall’s poem “Her Garden” is published in the 2001 Edition of The Best American Poetry. The poem describes a dying garden, slightly melancholy, but implies some sort of release that was holding him back.

What stood out to me first about this poem was the amount of imagery embedded in each stanza. For example, in the first stanza, Hall describes a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flower, “How can I watch the hummingbird/ Hover to sip/ With its beak’s tip/ The purple bee balm — whirring as we heard/ It years ago?” This is a beautiful imagery, showing the energy and color that comes with life, but the question at the end points out that the energy and life is no longer there, and the author wonders where it went. However, as the poem moves on, the imagery shown through the poem slowly “dies”. The next stanza, the flowers began to be replaced by “weeds rise rank and thick/…Where annuals grew and burdock grows,” At the last stanza, the garden finally dies, “Moss turns the bricks green, softening them” and the vivid color was replaced by “gray rocks”. Through the imagery of the poem, I can picture the garden slowly disappearing, as if it is slowly being mummified, frozen in time. However, despite all these descriptions, there is also some level of ambiguity that forces me to mull over. Why a garden? Who is this “she” mentioned in the Poem? What happened to her? (Some of these questions may be answered later after reading Hall’s Contributor’s notes. Keep on reading to find out).

Through this poem, I can also tell Hall knows a lot about gardens. For example, a purple bee balm is a natural hybrid cross of two different flower species that blooms in midsummer with showy lavender-purple flowers. It has a spicy and sweet taste that can be used as a spice. Burdock looks like a plant with fuzzy, cactus like balls at its ends. Hollyhocks are small, trumpet shaped flowers that can be any color. Perhaps Hall is implying that the garden, or someone he loves, is seriously sick. The purple bee balm and burdock are the representations of trying to cure someone, since purple bee balms is seen as a plant that circulates energy throughout the body, like the idea of acupuncture, while burdock is an herb that can be used as medicine. Hollyhocks may imply the strength of fighting against the sickness since they are known to be hardy flowers that can flourish in the most malnourished environments. Even the poem itself is kind of shaped like a flower stem: the lines are centered in the middle, giving it a tall, think looking structure. So, when the garden is dying, I could hear the sadness he feels to let his garden go. All the hard work he put into maintaining it are now put to rest.

“Her Garden” also contains many combinations of rhymes. For example, “Hover to sip/ With its beak’s tip”, or “Where standing she/At once can see”, or even “By the gray rocks/ where hollyhocks”. Each of these rhyming pairs seems to portray different feelings when read out loud. “Sip” and “tip” portrays a delicate feeling. The rhyming pair “she” and “see” makes me think of distance, something far away and out of reach. This fits well into this stanza of the poem because the poet is reminiscing the time when his wife (maybe? I’m not sure who this “She” is) was admiring the garden. “Rocks” and “hollyhocks” give off a hard, lumpy feeling, emphasizing the death of the garden as if it is slowly hardening into stone. Within the poem, there is also a constant repetition of the phrase “let it go” (and no, I don’t think this is referencing Frozen. This was published in 2001, way before the premier of that Disney movie). This repeating phrase was not annoying at all, but instead gave some sort of release feeling for the poem, especially when paired with other lines. “The weeds rise rank and thick/ let it go, let it go”. Here, the poet may feel uncomfortable that there are weeds invading his garden, but since the garden is dying out, he is reminding himself to let it go, let the weeds grow. He no longer has to worry about weeding the garden and can just let nature take its course.

Donald Hall revealed in his contributor’s notes that his poem was based off of the style of one of his favorite poets, Thomas Hardy. He mentioned that Hardy’s poems were derived from the death of his wife, which would explain the melancholy tone of the poem, and how the poet seems to let the garden die and disappear, as if accepting the fact that his wife has passed on. Knowing this, I realized there may be something more than just a dying garden described by the poem. The garden may be the embodiment of the wife. She probably had some sort of illness that she was battling against, but she did not succeed. When she moved on, the garden slowly died out because she could no longer take care of it. The different plants may be representing different memories the poet had of her: bright, colorful, and happy. However, those memories were slowly replaced by sad ones, as he feels the loneliness of not having her by his side, and those lovely memories became frozen in time as the gray world of rocks, moss, and weeds took over. He is letting go of his wife, but also preserving his happy memories of her forever in his mind. (By the way, Donald Hall’s wife is perfectly healthy so he is just emulating Thomas Hardy. I guess he is just imagining how he would feel if his wife was gone and constructing a poem based off of that hypothetical situation.)

If you want to hear this poem, go to https://youtu.be/QEbBW5NQpWE.

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