Several years ago the late Louis Daniel Brodsky wrote and shared this suite of poems about his visits to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, with an emphasis on the Japanese garden. Visit his site.
In the Japanese Garden
For Masako Umegaki
This fourth day of April, so joyously warming,
As glory-born as ever the Botanical Garden has seemed to me,
Was a pristine flowering of preening fruit trees —
Redbuds, pears, crab-apples, quinces, cherries —
Dappling my eyes, with dazzling pastel pinks and whites,
Efflorescing, this one brief season, each year,
Before disappearing into the humdrum viridescence of summer . . .
Tiny, delicate petals drifting through the air, on gentle breezes,
Like confetti, snowflakes, angels in Renaissance paintings.
Tonight, while I sit by myself, in a quiet restaurant,
Contemplating my time in that sublime time-out-of-time estate
Akin toEden’s not-yet-inhabited garden,
My mind, heart, imagination — all my soul’s senses —
Yet apprehend the lingering essence of spring’s benison,
The legacy of unadulterated beauty it’s left in my keeping.
And as this day slips swiftly away, I weep silently, privately,
Realizing it will never, in quite this way, come again,
To make, of me and my solitude, friends.
II: Grand Prize
I award my own rendition of a grand prize,
Whenever I go to theMissouriBotanical Garden,
Which I do, with a reverence bordering on spiritual fervor,
At least every few weeks, month in, month out.
Today, with exhilaration and just a hint of nervousness,
For wanting to assign my best subjective criteria
To the worthiest of exemplary contestants,
I finally settled on the common hyacinth,
With its palette of purples, reds, pinks, whites, yellows, blues.
Selecting a winner, from among all the entries,
Was far from a pedestrian task; indeed, it was daunting.
Creeping junipers, rhododendrons,
Daffodils, tulips, bluebells, pansies, and phloxes
Offered a formidable array of spring blooms to judge.
Even the dazzling, immaculate fruit trees —
Cherry blossoms, redbuds, quinces, and crab apples,
With their ballerina petals pirouetting through the air —
Lost out to the hyacinths’ spikes of basal-whorl flowers.
They’ll keep the ribbon . . . at least until the next competition.
Albeit completely man-made, sculpted by hand,
The Botanical Garden is all the more natural,
Hardly redolent of the fabricated,
For being so profusely planted with exotic flowers and trees.
Indeed, it asks nothing of us,
Who come here seeking a momentary stay against stress,
But submission of our psyches, to its calming balms,
And a willingness to let our senses override our intellects.
This glorious April afternoon,
My only motivation for exploring these blessed premises
Is to locate the Koreanspice viburnums
And surrender to their intoxicating, aphrodisiacal fragrance.
IV: Making Love, in the Garden
This pollen-hazy sixty-five-degree May afternoon
Is all azaleas and rhododendrons.
Every other growing thing pales, in their presence.
Their whites, pinks, reds, purples, and crimsons
Are so beguilingly vibrant, yet so soothing,
They seduce my eyes, into undressing them.
Oblivious to hundreds of strolling souls,
I luxuriate amidst these voluptuous ladies.
Making love like this is such exquisite fatigue.
As I sit cross-legged, relaxed, contemplative,
On this grassy green knoll,
Overlooking the Japanese Garden’s placid lake,
Rimmed by indigenous trees
Alluring, for their contorted and curiously leaning shapes,
I see a pair of mallards plying the water, nonchalantly,
Oblivious to myriad visitors —
Grandparents, moms, dads, kids, in family groups —
Come to spend the afternoon
Basking in the perfectly natural artificiality of this refuge.
One of the ducks, lackluster brown, flutters its wings,
Leaps up, in a huff, onto the shore of the largest island,
Even as her brightly colored mate continues on,
Carefully calculating the distance its webbed feet weave,
Then reverses heading, returns, emerges on the islet.
Perhaps we’re watching each other, possibly not.
Ten minutes later, they plop into the water,
Paddle toward me, as if my gaze were attracting them.
And again, they gather themselves up, in a flutter,
Leap onto this grassy bank, thirty feet below me.
I’m not conversant enough with Eastern thought —
Ancient and modern philosophy, poetry, calligraphy,
The subtle scrollwork of master painters —
To interpret, from this harmonious tableau,
Anything more transcendent than the tableau itself.
VI: The Last Thought
Youths, old folks, parents with babies,
Couples holding hands stroll, peacefully,
Along the path contouring the serene Japanese Garden.
On the lake, below where I’m seated in the grass,
Mallards and Canadageese float obliviously;
Stoic flowering plants, shrubs, and trees just grow.
In this quiet, inviting retreat,
The last thought any of us likely would have,
I tend to believe,
Is of those who’ve sacrificed their lives, in combat,
That we, this Memorial Day weekend and always,
Might enjoy the freedoms that define us.
Then again, what could I conceivably know?
Perhaps most everyone here has lost a dear one
To the sad, savage ravages of man’s brutality
And is paying tribute, in the gentlest possible way,
By strolling, peacefully, through this garden,
Hallowing harmony and love, a footstep at a time.
VII: Garden Strolls
They started in the last two and a half years
Of my estrangement and disengagement from Janie —
My strolls through the Missouri Botanical Garden.
They’ve become more frequent than I’d have imagined,
Averaging every other Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
Something about these transcendent walks
Provides my weary spirit with curative powers,
Locates my solitude, there,
Anoints me, with happiness, serenity, hope,
As I walk those labyrinthine, flower-dappled paths,
And suffuses my lonely soul, with natural sympathy,
Lets me know, in my aloneness, that I’m not alone,
When I’m in the garden’s embrace.
Today, I spoke with the crape myrtles, rose of Sharons,
TheVictoria water lilies, caladiums, Russian sages,
And I carried on a measured, intimate conversation
With the pin oaks, Japanese maples, maidenhair trees.
All of them seemed to be in agreement
That I’m healing nicely, achieving contentedness.
They asked me if I’d consider never leaving.
VIII: The Recessional
Last-minute bees, this heated October afternoon,
Perhaps the last warm day for months,
Are mindlessly busy, gathering the rest of the nectar
From every available flower yet growing
And delayed, tantalizingly, in its imminent letting go.
Each intransigent tree and plant in this retreat —
Osage oranges, ginkgoes, pin oaks, Japanese maples,
Feather celosias, rose of Sharons, chrysanthemums,
Autumn crocuses, caladiums, Egyptian star flowers,
Water lilies, arrowheads, papyrus sedges —
Knows, by heart and smell and terrestrial breath,
The telltale whispering crispness lifting its spirit,
The seasonal confluence it’s reached,
Where finish and beginning are indistinguishable —
Fall and summer swaying in the same breeze.
Another mere spectator to this recessional,
I too sense, with regret, the inevitable evanescence
Settling into the days just ahead, rushing toward us.
Like the flora, I know that the sowing and winnowing
Are necessary destinations, stressful, blessed incarnations.
I’ve come to the pristine, serene Japanese Garden
Just to get away from the trinity of my identity —
I, myself, and me.
This sunny Saturday afternoon in October,
Sublime chill fills my cells,
With an overwhelming sense of fluid ambiguity.
I could just as easily be who I’m not
As who I was before I entered this moment of repose
And became suspended in undefiled transcendence.
In the near distance, I hear a minister’s voice
Articulating a marriage ceremony,
Initiating the next episode in the lives of two souls,
And with it, I try to triangulate the hour of my days,
The span remaining for my vibrant psyche to thrive,
The visions left for my imagination to harvest.
Gradually, as the sun descends,
I rise from my trance, assume my waiting identity,
And exit the garden, glad to be new to who I now am.
It’s that exotic phase,
When all the trees are disrobing immodestly,
Throwing off their vibrantly painted summer clothes —
Cotton frocks, diaphanous scarves, silk blouses —
Draped in nothing but autumn’s compromising majesty.
This immaculate Saturday afternoon,
I’m the lone witness to their seductive show,
Sole beholder of their blessed letting-go —
Nature’s rites of change and renascence.
I’m in her throes, the thick of things beginning to end
Or, if not, to enter evanescent coalescence
With the orderly coronation of the seasons,
From which they’ll awaken again,
Dress in regal greens spring will breathe into raiment,
Once they’ve completed sleep’s quiescence.
The hour of their coruscating immortality and mine is now.
In this warm-weather embrace, we’re inextricable.
To remain transfixed, like this, is my wish; it’s theirs too.
Even in winter’s frigid grip, we’ll still be here,
If our intimacy has anything to say about it.
XI: Epiphany’s Leaves
With a small container of garlic-and-olive-oil-infused hummus,
A package of mini-crackers, and a plastic knife,
Hidden in my all-purpose burlap knapsack,
Which I slip, surreptitiously, past the lady taking tickets,
I enter the Missouri Botanical Garden’s pristine purlieus,
My appetite exceeding my excitement on just being here.
If this is the worst transgression I’ve ever committed —
Bringing a picnic lunch when I know food isn’t permitted —
Most likely, my soul’s sinful trespass will be forgiven.
After all, I’m a frequent and highly appreciative visitor,
A devotee of these premises sacred to me,
Who comes to this retreat every several weeks or so,
Even more frequently, each end of October,
When its epiphanies exhilarate my spirit to its limit.
It’s the trees, their ever-evolving gradations of colors,
Their sense of rendering a renaissance from the throes of death,
As if they’re decorating the sky’s walls, ceilings, transepts, vaults
With freshly painted frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue,
In hues of red, scarlet, crimson, burgundy, vermillion, cabernet,
Amber, umber, burnt sienna, rust, yellow, orange —
A Joseph-coat of nature’s most arresting sunrise/sunset gestures
And those last, gasping greens, seen before they submit,
When winter’s traces, hints, tugs, rubs, and nudges
Begin prickling, ever so discreetly, the flesh on my arms and neck,
Putting me in mind that our time —
That of the trees, the leaves, and, least of all, me — is fast arriving
And that before we awaken from the truth of our deep sleep,
Winter will have tempered our steely resolves to persist,
In its bitterly chilled alembics, into spring, beyond,
All the way through summer, to another fall, like this one,
When, with a degree of providence, good fortune, kismet, luck,
I’ll again be an October’s-end visitor,
Picnicking on garlic-and-olive-oil hummus, in the garden.
XII: Garden of Eternity
This wondrously sunny first day of November,
Not even the robust roses are growing.
The pools are devoid of their lilies,
All plants, save for the hearty papyruses.
The garden is resigned to its slumberous designs,
And so am I, to its and mine.|
At peace, in this sweet, pungent retreat,
The brittle leaves invite me to sleep beside them.
Sadly, I have to decline,
Though my soul knows, full well, its inclinations,
That its sensibility would acquiesce, in a heart-breath,
Were it not that my destiny has other inspirations.
There are yet too many undisclosed seasons,
For me to be saying yes to death,
Too many ecstasies, epiphanies, efflorescences left,
To let my essence fester in quiescence’s keeping.
There will be time and time, beyond timelessness,
To press the limits of ever-after life.
For now, I have no choice but to bear witness
To this short-lived withering and sigh.
How, otherwise, might I realize my own immortality,
That state of blessed perpetuation
In which flesh imitates silence, silence flesh —
Eternity’s inexorable earthly incarnations.
“Seiwa-en” translates, from the lips of my new Japanese friend,
As “garden of pure, clear harmony and peace.”
This invitingly warm late-November Friday afternoon,
At the Missouri Botanical Garden,
Far, yet not far, from Nagano, Hiroshima, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka,
She and I walk slowly, contentedly, side by side,
Around the fourteen acres of this blessedly serene sanctuary
Alive with lanterns, lake, waterfalls, islands, bridges, basins, pines,
Gazing at the few remaining Japanese-maple leaves
Fluttering from their limbs’ shivering tips,
As sunlight penetrates their flesh’s and veins’ reddish hues.
We stop, on the flat bridge, to watch whether the massive koi
Will turn into humans, as legend has it,
If we disturb the water, with our quarter’s worth of feed.
Then, we resume the path that echoes the shape of the lake.
Pointing, Masako whispers to me,
Gently, in her mother tongue, “Tokiwa,”
Translating “evergreen” into its symbolic equivalents —
“Longevity” and “happiness.”
Standing on the edge of a fine-white-gravel dry garden,
We contemplate the exquisite fluidity of the undulating waves
In a sea carved with a five-tined rake —
Movement that arises from the essence of perfect stasis.
Then, she gestures me to stop, accept her humble gift:
An ivory envelope shimmering with a floral design,
Wombing a purple card, decorated in kindred symbols,
Its interior unveiling six vertical calligraphic columns
Of beautifully scripted blue-inked Kanji and Hiragana characters
Delineating a poem composed by Jun Takami
And a separate handwritten translation, on rice paper,
Rendered by Masako, to honor me as a poet,
Who would understand the symmetry of artistic harmony.
Five hours later, I can still hear my friend’s soft voice:
“This is my favorite time of the year,
When the flowers die and shriveled leaves litter the ground.”
And I understand. It reminds her of the mystery of existence,
The nature of what remains hidden from common view,
And the idea that within the seasons, forever is never far away.
XIV: Japanese Garden
Many hundreds of uneven steppingstones
Lead me through the English Woodland Garden,
Along a meandering footpath following a stream
(A singing sluice spilling, by slow degrees,
Past all twenty-four of its miniature rock falls,
Under four inconspicuous bridges),
Deliver my spirit to its water’s plunge into the lake.
I descend, as if materializing out of sheer imagination,
Into the shimmeringly exquisite Japanese Garden.
That I’ve reached this source of the life-force itself,
The origin of harmony, peace, contentedness,
Is evident by the sense of inner serenity
That has slowed my worldly thoughts
To the heartbeat of tranquility,
My blood to the rhythms of solemnity’s whisper,
Which seems to be enveloping my breathing,
Beneath a bell jar of gentle, deep sighs
That keep existence echoing with its hopes for eternity.
Now, as if floating in a mist of invisible synthesis,
I stroll to my left — the only hand on a mystic’s clock —
Around the rim of the timeless lake,
Past the lotus bed, surrender to its white purity,
Despite its being flowerless, this late November;
Past the gravel dry garden (karesansui)
Containing a sea within its sinuously raked perimeter;
Past the flat bridge, spanning swarming nishikigoi
(Colorful, finned symbols of courage and strength);
Past the eight-sectioned zigzag bridge (yatsuhashi);
Past the stupa (stone pagoda honoring Buddha,
Its fire boxes signifying earth, wind, fire, water, sky);
Past lanterns, basins, lake islands, a waterfall,
To where the English Woodland Garden released me,
Two hours earlier, which I enter again,
Retracing hundreds of uneven steppingstones,
Following the stream back to the person I never was
Yet know, now, for his serenity.
Sitting just above the ultimate curve
In the slow-flowing stream
Serpentining through the English Woodland Garden,
Whose riffles are on the verge of disappearing
Into the sheer calm of the Seiwa-en, below,
I’ve paused on a wooden bench,
To bask in the end of November’s seventy degrees.
I close my eyes, to heighten listening,
And lose myself to mesmerizing timelessness.
No transgressor, trespasser, am I, in this refuge,
Rather just one more welcome guest,
Invited to participate in autumn’s transfiguration.
Soothing, whisperous water,
Cascading over the rocky breaks,
Enchants me into sleep, with entrancing harmonies,
Transports me, beyond dreaming, to deepening repose,
Farther from daytime’s shores
Than I’ve ventured in more years than own me.
And when I awaken, as I must,
I hope I’ll yet be able to recognize myself,
From among the defoliating trees enfolding my soul.
But if I can’t identify my rested spirit,
I’ll not be lonely, bewildered, sequestered,
Since, coming here, today, I never intended to leave.