For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Friday, 12 October 2012

Magdalene In The Garden

I watch you train an olive up the fence.
After your op you weren’t supposed
to pull at weeds or wield a fork —
that’s my job now, exclusively. I dig
a spit. My spade hits root and jars
my arm and shoulder like a jabbed right hook.
I groan a little, once more slice the spade,
slantwise this time. It bounces off the root,
grazes my shin and bruises bone. I curse.

And you, across the pathway, by the fence,
where you are working with peg and twine,
look up from your kneeling mat and ask
concernedly, ‘Are you ok?’ You wince —
your old demonic pain still sharp
after so many months. I say,
‘I’m fine. D’you know, Marlene, I struck
a root thick as my arm?’ I lever in
the spade to prise it out and show you,
but it remains stuck in the earth.

Silent again, sullen as Caliban,
I clamp boot onto metal and resume
digging for clues, airing dark secrets,
preparing the bed, charming my wound away,
while you protect your own across the pathway.

12 comments:

Ruth said...

I am intrigued.

Off the bat I am outside of Jerusalem somewhere, from the title and the olive. Is the poet betrayed by age and wounds of work, and his garden companion is his comforter?

The Solitary Walker said...

I think you are right, Ruth. A few thoughts of my own...

Yesterday in our garden Carmen (who had a major operation several months ago) was training a clematis up the fence and I was digging some very tough and root-bound ground opposite.

This led to a take on the disputed Biblical story of Mary Magdalene (whom Jesus had earlier cured of demonic possession) meeting the risen Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. She does not recognise him at first as he assumes the role of a gardener.

So the narrator of the poem is perhaps Jesus, the gardener — but a clearly unconventional Jesus, who is more human than god-like (though, of course, he was human), who is clumsy, who utters curses, who is an earthy man of the soil, a Caliban in touch with his baser instincts. It seems that Mary (Marlene a form of Magdalene) is the saintly one, who kneels, who is concerned for another, who bears her own pain privately. There's a kind of strange role reversal going on here, for Magdalene is very much the sinner in the Bible story.

In the last stanza the narrator's 'digging' becomes metaphorical — why is he digging such difficult terrain? What are the secrets he hopes to discover? The word 'bed' suggests not only the flower bed, but also the lovers' bed or marriage bed (you know the heretical story that Jesus and MM could have been lovers, or even man and wife).

Finally, this process of digging seems instrumental in healing his wound (ostensibly the injury caused by the spade, associatively the Crucifixion). Mary's own wound (the demonic possession followed by the operation of exorcism) she 'protects', keeping it to herself, but also it's almost as if she still wants to hang on to the memory.

That's my interpretation of the poem, anyway..!

Ruth said...

Completely fascinating.

Yes, I had a sense that those other elements were there, but I did not let myself think upon it long or deep enough. My loss. However now that you have analyzed the poem, I can appreciate its depths and richness more fully.

I believe there is even more to be found. And it brings to mind the topics of relationship, solitude and loneliness that we discussed after my poem "This Particular Loneliness." We keep digging for clues to our own identity, while we also hope that there is someone here who calls out "Are you ok?" regularly.

Just lovely, Robert.

The Solitary Walker said...

Absolutely, Ruth — those layers of meaning too. I purposefully divided each person by the garden pathway (it was a driveway in reality) — yet they are close enough to have a bond, even though each one is immersed in his or her own and different task.

The Weaver of Grass said...

It is good to ead the poem and then your explanation Robert - this makes it even clearer.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for reading, Pat!

George said...

Very interesting, Robert. I came back to read this poem several times before commenting, and I have really enjoyed the exchange between you and Ruth. There's so much to think about here—new beginnings, wounds, digging out old roots in search of new life (or perhaps the remnants of one past)—and, of course, there are the relationship issues, two people wounded, each in his or her own way, but continuing to work the soil within sight of one another. Rilke's image of two people being the guardians of each others solitude comes to mind.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for reading the poem several times and commenting so acutely, George. For the poem is indeed at its core about marriage, as Ruth also recognised — that loneliness and apartness coexisting with that togetherness.

Goat said...

Nice poem, SW, but...where was Phil when you needed him? Honestly, I think a professional's touch is in order, you're too easily distracted!

Susan Scheid said...

What I particularly love about this poem is the way you take a "small" scene from daily life and accrete to it layers of meaning that seem not to end, so that the last stanza speaks for all the complexities of life, together and apart.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for reading, Goat. Phil's gone for now — but he is back for a day or two at the end of the month. How will I cope till then?

Thanks, Susan, for your appreciation of this poem. I love poems which seem, on the surface, to deal with small, everyday scenes, but ripple out much wider. Some of Raymond Carver comes to mind.

Susan Scheid said...

Oh, yes, Raymond Carver. Exactly.