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  • jonathantotman

Poems, Gardens and Care

Updated: Mar 21

how many evenings have I thought the garden done

walked out and seen fresh clumps of weed mithering

the dirt     some people cannot tell the difference

between what should be there and not     I’m one of them

ignorant ’til one thing overgrows another

or gets choked     there is always something needing

to be tended     a small salvage down in the muck

I’ve grown to think if I go out at night

I might catch them at it     but the soil lays still

beneath a harvest moon that is the size

of your sadness     and growing     waxing     until

its whole face peers over at our house     pockmarked skin

like a ploughed field picked clean of all its crops

still     you will not come outside


by Andrew McMillan

Published in 'pandemonium' (Jonathan Cape, 2021)

This poem is the first of the ‘Knotweed’ sequence in Andrew McMillan’s collection, pandemonium, a central focus of which is the experience of supporting his partner through a period of acute depression. The garden in this sequence becomes refuge, symbol, a place in which to rake through the wreckage of depression, to search for “salvage”. A sense of precariousness infuses the poem, an upending of familiar roles and routines, leaving the poet in a kind of suspended animation, “between what should be there and not”. It can be a deeply preoccupying anxiety knowing a loved one’s health – and life – are at risk, a state in which actions and inactions become steeped in meaning. The poem speaks so beautifully to this heightened, sometimes helpless place – the searching for clues, the fantasies of insight or breakthrough, and the desperation of that final line, “still     you will not come outside”. 

“Some people cannot tell the difference”, McMillan writes; a nod here, perhaps, to the gap between the public and the private, what goes unseen. “I’m one of them”, he goes on, and we get a sense of it being difficult, sometimes, to know what to do, how to help. Depression here has a kind of lunar life-force, a tidal pull over the lives and movements of the couple, leaving the poet, quite literally, on the outside. It becomes the moonlight by which the garden is lit, the persistent spreading of weeds. We see McMillan watching, scouring the ground and watched in turn by this “growing   waxing” presence. And we watch too, alongside but also from a distance; we “peer over” at the house, us readers, permitted to witness these hidden, lonely moments. What tremendous generosity, I find myself thinking, to be invited into this deeply personal place.

I love the way McMillan writes about the garden and the ritual of gardening. The idea of sifting through features a lot: gardening here is as much discovery as intentional plan. I’m thinking about the histories held within a garden, how depression and other mental health problems can propel us back into the past as we search for clues or find ourselves face-to-face again with old wounds. We nurture it as best we can but we’re also working with an unpredictable and essentially wild terrain, subject to the changing seasons and whatever seeds happen to blow in, whatever lies buried. Perhaps there are resonances here with the process of crafting and nurturing a poem: the sonnet as a plot within which to plant, rake, harvest and prune. A little thing to nurture. In this book, the white space of the page can feel like a particularly harsh and unforgiving ground. 

On this idea of toiling for the words, one (untitled) poem early on in the collection begins: how long we couldn’t bring ourselves to say the word // ________ attempt. The poem speaks to the clunky and sometimes absurd characteristics of language in talking about mental health, the fear of putting words to our fears. The word “unflinching” is sometimes used to describe poetry that addresses difficult themes, but it doesn’t feel quite right here; McMillan seems rather to be acknowledging and owning the fact that we do flinch, we kind of can’t help it. But we can speak to this too, we can name this and feel our way towards what it means. And perhaps a poem can help us.

One of the cruel paradoxes of depression is that, often, the things and people that might help can feel remote and hard to reach. Energy for what was once loved and enjoyed can become depleted, motivation and meaning can ebb away. And noticing this, in turn, can give rise to further grief, further guilt. Not uncommonly, shame and self-criticism become fuel for the engine of depression, eating away at what is good (that "ploughed field picked clean of all its crops").

How, then, to help replenish, revive? When to step in and when to give space? What if we get it wrong? McMillan’s poems inhabit the precarious space between these questions. There are resonances here with the therapeutic task - how to reach someone in the midst of their turmoil; that paradox of accepting a person as they are whilst also wanting and hoping for change.

The process of recovery from depression is of course deeply personal. In pandemonium McMillan is careful to situate and own his experiences, never speaking for his partner. In an interview, he describes how important it was in crafting the book that the people featured in it – including his partner – had a voice in the process. Over the course of the Knotweed sequence, we see a fragile hope emerge: “the more weeds come down / the more the roses open up their clenched faces”.

McMillan's are poems of witness, and though there is grief here, fear, frustration, confusion, guilt, what I’m left with most is the love and care that runs through the book. Care for a partner (and others too, who feature in the book); care for the self in all its conflict and confusion; care for the garden, for language, and yes – for the reader.

In a recent episode of BBC radio show The Poetry Detective, Vanessa Kisuule explores the relationship between poetry and care:

Care is the invisible thread that keeps the fabric of society from fraying, and yet we overlook the strength it involves to take good care of ourselves and each other, day in and day out. In the midst of this, can poetry sustain us in some way? Could it be an anchor when the ground shifts beneath our feet?

Kisuule speaks to carers about poems that have provided such an anchor, as well as the poets who wrote them. It's a beautiful listen, and left me convinced that as well as offering solace in the midst of care, poems can also enact care. That certainly feels true of Andrew McMillan's work. At a more general level, often (for me at least) in the reading or writing of a poem there's an invitation to attend - to ourselves, to one another, to the world around us - with an open heart. Up against that which would numb or overwhelm us, the silences and cacophonies within which we think, work and feel, this is no small feat. A poem can be a brave, defiant little thing.

I've been out in the garden this week. Every spring, it seems, I'm propelled into our unruly plot with visions of sunflowers and sweet peas. I'll spend a few weeks planting and haphazardly weeding before eventually giving in to the wildness, treasuring my token squash (the one that hasn't been eaten by slugs). When it comes to "what should be there and not", I've little clue. But I feel very lucky to have this space which, like poetry, has plenty to teach me about care.

Thank you to Andrew McMillan and Penguin Random House for permission to share this poem. Love to the gardeners, the carers, and anyone who may be struggling just now.



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