Arts Literature

The Literary Gardener: Louise Glück’s Winter Bonsai

By Carol Howard

On a snowy morning’s walk to an arboretum, a young woman is caught off guard by December’s darkness. “I knew to expect this,” she thinks, yet her mind has been unprepared for the onset of winter. The woman’s sense of disquiet is personal, even though feelings of uneasiness about shortened days might seem universal. No wonder so many cultures mark the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year—with festivals of light, as the earth turns toward new beginnings and longer days.

Bonsai. Stephanie Sipp, illustrator

The scene of the young woman’s seasonal meditation is from “Winter Recipes from the Collective,” the title poem of a forthcoming volume by Louise Glück, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature this fall. A New Yorker who now lives in New England, Glück is no stranger to Asheville: she was a co-founder of the innovative MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Known for spare lyric poems that imbue her speakers’ mundane thoughts and domestic routines with the heft of archetypal myth, Glück is attuned to the demands of the natural world and its changing seasons on her speakers’ lives.

In “Winter Recipes,” village elders in an unspecified region of Asia venture into a forest to harvest moss. They meet the prospect of winter famine with forbearance and ingenuity by selling cured moss sandwiches—not tasty, but nourishing—at the local market. Even in the face of such hardship, though, the villagers have other priorities that are no less important than bodily sustenance: the best moss is reserved as groundcover for the landscaping art of bonsai.

Glück’s suggestive telling in this poem captures the essence of that Japanese art form in which specialized methods of pruning and landscape design are used to create miniature trees that imitate the shape and proportions of their full-sized counterparts in nature. As the cold wind blows outside, the narrator watches the pruning artist sustain the illusion of “a pine blowing in a high wind / like man in the universe.” The windswept tree is a traditional bonsai form. Its appearance of being in motion recalls a similar effect in the famous example of Japanese ukiyo-e, or “floating world” woodblock prints, the “great wave” of the 19th-century artist Hokusai.

The poem’s speaker respects, but does not possess herself, the talent and years of practice required of the bonsai artist. She accepts that there are strict rules for pruning that must be followed and that even the most skillful among them must subordinate their individual creativity to the collective discipline. She also understands that bonsai embodies wabi-sabi, a philosophy of imperfection and impermanence. The bonsai tree is always a work in progress, dependent on the artist’s constant care.

Such a philosophy surely resonates for Glück. So much of her poetry feels compressed into a miniature landscape, a microcosm that centers in her speakers’ awareness of their own human frailty and transience. Many of her poems actually take place in gardens or forests and are narrated by speakers whose careful attention to changes in the weather become a kind of religious observance. In such poems, the speakers’ meditations on the human condition are framed by their efforts to know the divine.

Carol Howard is dean of academics at Warren Wilson College.

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