Poetry / Reilly D. Cox
:: Robert the Gardener ::
My father, always the artist, loses employment and begins digging holes for a hilly college. Each morning, he wakes from the same dream: he’s back in his youth and gliding down the lane of an endless pool, his long, hairless limbs moving through the water silently towards a Cracker Jack salvation, and he wakes. Each morning, he finds he has sunk into the covers a little deeper, his limbs a little more tired. He rises as his children are still in their troubled sleep, brews a pot of coffee, and pours a river through his magnificent mustache. He eats three raw eggs, chewing the shells until they are a fine powder to protect his poor teeth— holey and golden—and wipes the loose strands of yolk with a slice of rye bread sporting only a few dark blossoms of mold. He wraps himself in the emerald-green uniform with his name embroidered over his heart like a target and heads into the sun-shy morning. With little fires burning in his pockets to keep himself warm, he plumes beautifully—smoke signals trailing behind on his walk to the Great Garden. He’s given up on disciplining the smoke, ignores the incessant beacon of O-S-O drifting past his shoulders. He makes sure to arrive before the other creatures, gathers hundreds of flowers in his battered cart, rides up and down the many hills, and only opens his eyes when he senses a good spot. The college wants to draw in new blood and my father knows how to arrange color to attract anything. Sometimes, he grows bored, creates a trompe l’oeil by a hall, a nature morte by a campus gate, but he is mostly good, cares for the little blooms, remembers the lessons his father taught him: sees that their roots are good and watered, that the sun won’t hurt them or grow estranged. His coworkers— younger, cut from nylon—keep themselves entertained by eating little animals whole. One man claims to have a family of chipmunks nesting in his belly; another, a whole pond of goldfish. Each lunch, he tilts his head back and drops little flakes down the length of his throat, smiles, says it always tickles when the fish are feeding. My father sits alone. He worries that he’s mixed up his eggs, that he has a brood of chicks begging in his belly, hatched and angry, so he won’t eat today. He keeps himself warm with clear liquids, doesn’t dare to light a match. He imagines how much warmer it would be, to fall in, a whole ocean to pickle him into summer. He knows he’s a good swimmer; he won’t drown.
:: Robert the Gardener (Tent Caterpillars) ::
My father is setting fire to the trees again. He drags us from our play this way. My brother and I, split body, jerk awake at the coughing of a chainsaw in our wood. We leave our shallow of mud, with so many good sacrifices buried to the neck, and skulk towards it. In a clearing, our father has downed a dozen trees bearded with tent caterpillars and is lightly shaking a delirious tremens of gasoline over the many nests. He says, If you leave anything too long, it grows. He then takes a rag torch and lets sing the good water. I had never heard such a choir before, it was like the sound of marrow. My brother and I watch our father disappear in the cracking smoke and barely see the rag pointing across the crown of trees, with so many beards waving terribly. Leaning over, it looks as if the smoke is born from our father’s beard, and pours angrily from it. May one day I be so giving. May one day my beard grow so long that the holy spirit come flying out.
From the writer
:: Account ::
My grandfather passed away this past August, well over three years since my father passed away. At the time, I had been wanting to write about my grandfather, and the process of dying that was happening so rapidly yet slowly, and all the things that were slipping away as he did, but I was worried that to write about it would make it happen. Then he died, and, starting with a napkin at a restaurant counter, I started putting down everything that was then slipping away.
I imagined my grandfather as something mythic but dwindling—a storied figure who, while once meaningful and revered, had been reduced by time to hearsay and jokes. I started referring to his mythic counterpart as Sargon, after a Mesopotamian emperor who was the child of the royal gardener. I started the process of unmaking by incorrectly referring to him as Sargon the Gardener. In my imagining, Sargon tended to tomatoes in a dilapidated palace outside of Baltimore.
Other members of my family began finding mythic versions of themselves in the poems—the Witching Daughter, the Son’s Widow, the Bloodless Daughter, and the Son’s Ghost. The Son’s Ghost, my father, was always trapped in a process of dying or being dead; he, having died long before my grandfather, in his dying, became Sargon. He is one of the few members of the family to be named in the collection, in part because he was already gone, and in part because he shared a name with others who had passed away and could serve as a greater evocation.
My father was a gardener, sometimes by choice, sometimes not. He had difficulty maintaining jobs and worked, for a time, as a groundskeeper, knowing enough gardening to be qualified for that. While the focus of the Sargon poems were on Sargon, I was being reminded—more and more intensely—of memories of my father and gardening. So though I wrote the first “Robert the Gardener” as a one-off poem to turn the mythic towards the real and to play with un/making, I found myself fixated on more and more memories of my father and plants. Because I tend to be an iterative poet, I began an iterative sequence to find my father again, in all his burning glory.
Reilly D. Cox is a MFA candidate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. They had attended Washington College and the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. They have work available by the Academy of American Poets and by Iron Horse Literary Review.