"I am tired."
The first line of Walahfrid Strabo's poem “Rose” is perched among the perennials in The New York Botanical Garden as if it grew from soil. And it’s how you feel when you take the bus from Manhattan to the Bronx, seeking refuge in the vast and peaceful acreage here.
This moment of resonance is what the Poetry Society of America had in mind when it partnered with the garden to create annual poetry installations, bringing verse to the masses in an unexpected place. It began in 2010 with Emily Dickinson’s Garden, an exhibit that showcased Emily’s poems alongside replicas of her beloved flowerbeds.
Next, they brought together Spanish gardens of the Alhambra with poems of Federico García Lorca, and Monet's garden with Mallarmé's verse. This year, they’ve reached farther back in time, recreating the first medicinal herb garden of the Italian Renaissance—lush with opium poppies, milk thistle, cypress and poems inspired by nature.
The PSA hosted its spring benefit here on May 23 to celebrate two successful public poetry projects -- Wild Medicine and Poetry in Motion, the latter of which features poems inside New York City subway cars. It honored Sandra Bloodworth, executive director of MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design, who revived Poetry in Motion after a four-year hiatus.
"It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not need to get credit for it," she said as she accepted the award.
PSA Executive Director Alice Quinn and her team curate the short, memorable poems you see on subways. For Wild Medicine, they dug up verse from Renaissance poets Thomas Campion, An Collins, Edward Herbert, John Milton and Edmund Spenser. And in a stroke of brilliance, they included Strabo "the Squinter," a ninth century Frankish monk who tended a cloister garden and penned the book Hortulus about the experience.
Translated from Latin, Strabo’s poems are the oldest in the garden yet they feel the most modern. Much like Whitman, he has the uncanny ability to reach beyond the cloister walls and through the ages to speak to us today.
He’s not afraid to begin with the blunt (“I am tired”) or the quirky (“let us not forget to honor fennel”). He paints a poignant picture of the changing seasons, then confides that nettles are so annoying. We see him rush to his flowers with sloshing buckets and fret about which ones are bathed in sun and which are doomed to shade. He knows instinctively that a garden is ripe with metaphor for the poet willing to dig.
If you go between now and September 8, 2013, stroll along the Renaissance Poetry Walk to enjoy poems on giant placards, and duck into The Italian Renaissance Garden to learn about the wonder drugs of old. (Did you know fine hairs on a stinging nettle irritate healthy skin but relieve pain in an injured body part? Or that ethanol extracted from the cones of Italian Cypress trees boast antimicrobial and antimalarial properties?) Visit on June 22, July 27 or September 7, and you'll be treated to music and dramatic readings by Rafael Campo, Elizabeth Alexander and Linda Gregerson.
While you're there, look for Strabo's poem "On the Cultivation of Gardens," an artist's mantra and gardening metaphor that has not wilted in a millennia. The subtle observation that “a quiet life has many rewards" -- like the joy that comes from devoting oneself to a garden -- bursts open in the second stanza:
For whatever the land you possess, whether it be where
And gravel lie barren and dead, or where fruits grow heavy
In rich, moist ground; whether high on a steep hillside,
Easy ground in the plain or rough among sloping valleys --
Wherever it is, your land cannot fail to produce
Its native plants. If you do not let laziness clog
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
The gardener's multifarious wealth, and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil –
Then, you may rest assured, the soil will not fail you.
This, the poet says, he has learned from common opinion, searching around in old books, and experience.
At last, a good trip to the garden begins with exhaustion and ends in rejuvenation. If you’re looking for fresh inspiration after a long winter, get your soles dirty at Wild Medicine. This soil will not fail you.
Stephanie Paterik is a journalist and poet in Brooklyn. She earned an MFA in poetry from The New School and, as David Lehman’s research assistant, worked on The Best American Poetry 2010, 2011, 2012 and Best of the Best. She has contributed to Anderbo, PARADE, Glamour, Adweek, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. The Sonoran Desert is her native soil.