In the first sentence of Vigilance Is No Orchard, a garden turns Hazel White’s head:
“Finding a photograph of the Valentine Garden, my gaze locked. Then my elbow dropped. I was holding something” (3).
The backdrop: “Writing had become turgid, ordinant” (3). The mundane, and then sudden, vivid inspiration. Whatever lies in this charged space, it sets White out, advancing “beyond habit” (3), and leading to the garden entrance (no longer just the photo, but a place with dimension and texture in White’s mind), which “landscape architect Isabelle Greene shaped low and open to draw a visitor forward” (3).
Vigilance enacts the shock of encounter, directly, physically expressed, and then the ease of a courteous design: “real work is hospitality” (9). This play between hospitality and palpable sensory experience is the dance of the book, beginning with White’s first sight of that photo of the Valentine Garden, then into the garden itself in Santa Barbara, California, continuing through White’s admiring study of the work of Isabelle Greene, and then in her friendship with Greene. White spent nearly twenty years chasing this event in her writing—that visceral pull and the tender care felt in the enclosure of the garden.
White’s encounter with the Valentine Garden was not that of the naïve romantic unhinged by the natural sublime: she grew up on a farm in rural England, driving agricultural machinery. She studied crop agriculture, then landscape architecture, writing articles and books on that subject professionally. And yet here, in a magazine photo of a garden, she felt jolted from rational or even purely aesthetic appreciation: “Let me turn up the volume: My acquaintance with the image did not begin dimly./I lost my brisket, I mean basket” (4). Trying to capture this event, White addresses the reader directly. As much as this book delicately and precisely describes, it’s grounded in the quaking present-moment of White’s discovery. You, the reader, are there with her (embodied) when her elbow drops. The site of this book is the body as much as it is a real, photographed, or imagined garden: “This all explorative along a midrib” (26). When White does find herself in the garden with Greene, “blood beats in greeting” (10).
Of course, there is nothing experienced that is not experienced in the body, even if a garden moves us psychologically and emotionally into a space between bodies and beyond what’s tangibly there. “I, in my soft container,” White writes, wanting to be “A body in 3D” (20). Doesn’t everything in a garden feel more animated than you, the visitor? Even when the garden presses your imagination, the body hangs on, a leaf in the breeze which will eventually settle to ground: “I bowed low to Greene’s motion. Accepted the blow of it—I must know the how of its thinnest leaf on its strongest breeze, be sure, as my back was bending in astonishment” (4). In a garden, the liminal is physical, and vice versa.
At times White almost speaks in tongues: “brisket, I mean basket” (4) and “ Then was no time for figuring, fingering, if this hillside might stall all navigation”(5). That’s what one does when moved spiritually, when pressed beyond oneself (with oneself clinging) into…what? Being so touched is a mystery. To articulate it rationally, one would have to be divine, omniscient. To speak it feelingly, one stumbles toward poetry. That is indeed what happened in White’s life: prior to her encounter with that magazine image, White was not a poet. It was in the process of trying to write her experience of the garden that she arrived at poetry. (In a series of in-depth interviews with poet Sarah Rosenthal, White describes this journey in detail.) For those reasons this book offers to the reader a rare enactment of ars poetica: tracing the moment of initial inspiration through the mystery that compels one to seek out a particular and enigmatic form in words.
In Vigilance, White reminds us that an experience of art may be felt before—or, perhaps, alongside—intellectual comprehension. She tells Sarah Rosenthal, “It’s that placement of the human-made lines and the wild lines I described earlier, that reduces me to a noodle.” Attention isn’t just an act—something you do—it’s what you feel. Being simultaneous along multiple trajectories: what I see, what I think, and what I feel woven into what I am and more that I can’t quite name. “My know-how/, willow it.//Crack/ to make place/grow again” (38). That’s an invocation to the muse (or an entreaty to one’s own creative powers), one to which White spent nearly twenty years summoning a response, attending to herself and her craft as instrument. That work is evident. White’s concern with how to be physically present in a space can also be noted in her debut volume of poetry, 2011’s Peril as Architectural Enrichment (Kelsey Street Press), which indicated White’s sophisticated and perceptive understanding of space aesthetically. Vigilance enacts a more intimate and corporeal journey, all the more impressive for noting that the underlying account “wants not to be a strong narrative” (12).
The pulse of the book increases with actual visits to the Valentine Garden: “This isn’t voice, but sinew in the summer heat . . . Harvest uttering carnally” (30). In sentences lush and knotty, White animates: “While the intellect is confounded, I tattle over the threshold as the eucalyptus beats the house and sets off again sailing in air” (21). As much as the journey to the garden is outward, it is also inward: “By habit, I smooth my skirt. It takes courage to enter my geometry” (36). Understanding how the garden works on her means acknowledging that the body is its own dynamic biological system. The garden works on your interior by working on your exterior; it invites you out by first extending in. This could feel invasive: the garden could be abrasive in its sensual confrontation—there’s the potential for “Brazen goings-on” (28)—which is why it should be created hospitably, with care. The vision captivating White is a generous one: “the land lets me down gently, Greene made it so” (71). Greene explains to White: “‘Low where I want you to go and feel welcome, and then high to cradle you’”(49).
Considering the work of a different (unnamed) landscape architect in Napa who designs in bolder strokes, White describes her experience: “It othered me, gave me a big earache, threatened to take down my pants” (22). It is in this sense that Vigilance explores radical hospitality as a poetics: the poet is aware of the sensitivity and intimacy of the experience just as Greene is aware of the garden’s sensual power and of her own power in crafting space; she tends to the visitor’s vulnerability, rather than assume a threatening or imposing posture. Greene again explains, “‘I hate being told what to look at!’” Without needing to state so overtly, White finds a feminist reading in the Valentine Garden: let the body be free to have the experience on its own terms; allow for multiple movements of limbs and eyes (multiple readings); don’t be so didactic or pushy with a visitor. Another way of putting it, perhaps with Napa’s pantsing landscape architecture in mind: “Perspectival purity a large hand on our knee” (64).
Vigilance tells of many relationships: White’s relationship to poetry as she seeks to enact what she intuits in Greene’s garden; White’s relationship to the Valentine Garden itself (as photo, imagined garden, actual garden, ruined garden that is not hers to revive); her relationship to Isabelle Greene (as admirer of her work and as friend). At the nexus of these relationships, I find a singular and compelling account of the experience of the body in response to inspiration: in art, in the garden, in friendship, in how one woman regards another’s work with awe.
Early on, in one attempt to convince Greene to show her the garden, White writes, “my desire” comes across as stuttering admiration, “I would/I wished/I would/ write about her” (6). There is a jittery charge from both the artwork and the artist: “[Greene] spilled a fierce polyandrous vocabulary of making” (6), and so this is a book by one woman artist enthralled with the art of another. In her interviews with Rosenthal, White mentions that editors frequently counseled her to include more of her relationship with Greene in her manuscript, and the book benefits from White having taken that advice. It seems that the magnetism between these two women is generated by admiration of artwork itself, and admiration of Greene’s ability to create. There’s something unnerving and redefining in artistic admiration (unpairing the path of vitality from oneself to someone else). When White’s initial request to meet Greene was denied, three years later she tried again, when, as she puts it, “my devotion steered language to volume” working against “recalcitrant orientation” (6). One could argue that the difference between an inspired observer and an inspired artist is the artist’s persistence in subsequent pursuit.
The garden steers White toward contemplation of limits/boundaries, and their blurring: the animal and the plant; the cultivated and the natural; curation and chance (a rabbit!); interiority and external sensory stimuli; beauty and safety. There is what I feel, and something just past that, provoking my feeling: what happens when I feel past my limit? As a reader, I found this such a powerful question considered in the context of one woman artist energizing another. Greene receives White’s admiration with her own awe: “‘I’m speechless to see myself through your eyes. I almost blush. Does the world dare know that?’” (48). There’s wonder at having been felt through one’s art (not just seen): the viewer feels because the artist made her feel, and so the artist is felt, and they are both transformed in this kinship.
In her attempt to bring more of the relationship into her manuscript, White includes snippets from conversations, holiday cards, and other correspondence, which also place this book within an epistolary tradition: two women discussing work, home, family, and love. White is a special guest at Greene’s wedding, invited to ride to the church with her: “Though I had writer’s block, I could not fail her, so went early to her house, advised on her corset and shoes” (48). The friendship thrives, even when the art stalls. And yet White continued to struggle to write the garden: “I wanted the journey to assure me, that in rereading this, I would find that I, like Greene, am planting a vine over the facts to welcome a visitor home today” (35). A poem is vastly different from a garden. How can it create its space: how to be generous with the experience, providing its crisp, palpable sweetness, but not saturating the reader senseless? What are the important bits: a path, visible roots, a shady bench?
I confess I feel wary of the phrase, “generous to the reader” (something of a writing workshop cliché), often expressing that a writer has taken pains to make her work more readily understandable; to me, this is a shaky formulation of praise as it implies that readers understand in the same way, with the same neurological/sensory processing, that there is “normal” understanding. White’s more radical generosity recognizes that even if someone can understand an experience with ease, it doesn’t follow that the same person can feel easy in that experience (a range of examples: slurs, a break-up text, someone inadvertently rubbing salt in a wound). White’s hospitality is attentive to how she and Greene experience space, how space can lean toward expressing patriarchal ideas or toward openings for alternate experiences. [For more on White’s exploration of multivarious experience in a garden, see her collaboration with Denise Newman at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, now preserved online as a website: Biotic Portal.] Hospitality concerns how one is present, not just what one is doing. It is real work because it requires such vigilant attention. Certainly, there can be no universal hospitality: part of White’s generosity here is in bringing the reader into her own vulnerabilities, her own tenderness toward space that might make her recoil, thrill, or sigh.
A key crisis in White’s attempt is that what began as ekphrasis extends well beyond that initial moment of sight. The garden continues for White as a piece of music (even when the actual garden cannot continue). Can the poem convey the experience of the now-lost garden: “If there were a manner in which language might push out and touch us—’run through the body like the light before a storm’” (39). In order to finish this book after decades, White “must mash the remaining unspoken underripeness. . . . The garden itself no longer generating where this will go” (39).
Greene herself designed the Valentine Garden for another female friend: “Greene designed it for her friend, fully each for each, weightless/ so no gaze would be shy” (72). Pursuing this path that averts shyness, White finds increasing artistic agency: “I say right now I want to wear a man’s shirt and Paul Smith summer boots—no laces but a full enclosure,” escalating to a quote from Greene: “‘Space exactly the way I want it’” (50). The work White has done seems to carry on in her body rather than being located only in a specific garden or on the page: “On another continent—//dared swing a leg along a French allée . . . The motion feels again alive and mine” (62).
White must be careful to create not only the hospitality of the garden, but also its sensory appeal, its florid eros that allures from the outset: “Move into mouth’s house: but don’t write myself into//a miniaturized shelter on paper” (61). Again inspired by Greene, White urges herself to “‘Work larger’” (31), finding her ambition, as if entreating, “Poet, be like landscape architect.” Writing about loss, White commands herself, “Bare it/bear it, I mean” (73), and there is a sense in which the garden’s absence seems to necessitate White’s own presence in the work. It is, after all, an audacious gesture for a woman to be embodied in her own art: “Just as when ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ was a hit, I wanted very much a strong kiss” (60).
Reflecting on her own creative process, Greene explains, “‘[I] wanted to get something inside me out’” (40). White’s creative impulse mirrors this: “I want to live in the green. And this wants out of me onto the page” (30). Inspiration is an internal response, beginning in the body, and Vigilance Is No Orchard carries the memory and charge of that initial breathless encounter. On the way there, White courteously spells it out for us: “the take-away should be an interior motion, jaw and sacrum, say, letting go together, to release the neck and then the head flies up” (12).