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Paula Meehan's Gardens

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 2, Samhreadh/Summer 2013
pp. 45-61 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0024

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In an interview in 2008, the Dublin poet Paula Meehan discussed the folk roots of a few of the traditional forms in which she works. She spoke of how certain forms can be traced to what she calls the "songs of the people"—for instance, the villanelle's source in the work-song of Roman slaves and the sonnet's origins in an old Sicilian folksong. Mindful that the sonnet was brought into English by Raleigh and Spenser, Meehan makes clear in the interview that she understands the sonnet to be a form that also carries the karma of soldier poets who put to death the last of the Gaelic bards and conducted the ethnic cleansing of their time. Poets, she suggested, are thus working not only with the rhyme schemes, stress patterns, and syllable counts of a received form, but also with its socio-historical accretions—in the case of the sonnet, with the colonial history of its early makers. This multileveled approach to the art of poetry informs Meehan's poems, old and new; indeed, in an era of social and ecological crisis, the marginalized spaces she occupies with such awareness—not male, not middle class, not Christian, not capitalist liberal—provide her poems with surprising and necessary perspectives. The gender, class, and ecological concerns of Meehan's poems are interwoven, mutually informing and influencing, and, in a very real way, inseparable.

Addressing her work fully thus requires an expansive ecocritical frame, one that acknowledges the interconnections between exploitative economic systems, social inequities, and environmental degradation. Meehan's representations of gardens—liminal and mediated spaces between human dwelling and wilderness or cityscape—offer a way to explore these interconnections. As Meehan is an urban poet, one might expect gardens to be at most a quiet subtext in her work. We find instead an acute awareness of the garden as a historical structure and a socially constructed form. Meehan works with the colonial history of gardens and the gender politics of the Christian garden story in order to dismantle the garden as the emblem of empire and bourgeois privilege, as well as a site of oppressive gender relations. In the process—or rather, because of this process—she clears the way for the poet as seer in the service of community. That community includes as equal partners, in the ecofeminist philosopher Karen Warren's terms, women, other human Others, and the non-human living world of nature.

The environmental historian Carolyn Merchant argues in Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (2004) that, since the seventeenth century, the recovery of the garden of Eden has been the dominant narrative of the West:

Internalized by Europeans and Americans alike . . . this story has propelled countless efforts by humans to recover Eden by turning wilderness into garden, "female" nature into civilized society, and indigenous folkways into modern culture. Science, technology, and capitalism have provided the tools, male agency the power and impetus.

Informed and legitimated by this narrative, colonial expansion engaged both in reclaiming an earth considered fallen and redeeming it through human labor: a lost Eden needed human cultivation to restore it (however much that labor might be forced). This worldview also saw a disorderly female nature that needed containment. Thus, the Christian doctrine of the Fall made use of sexist gender ideologies to justify the improving mission of empire:

In the 1600s, Europeans and New World colonists began a massive effort to reinvent the whole earth in the image of the Garden of Eden. Aided by the Christian doctrine of redemption and the inventions of science, technology, and capitalism, the longterm goal of the Recovery project has been to turn the entire earth into a vast cultivated garden.

Ramóne Soto-Crespo, in the course of discussing the garden books of West Indian writer Jamaica Kincaid, discusses the intertwined histories of horticulture and colonialism as well as "the motif of the garden as imperial trope." He notes that in imperial chronicles, "the myth of the land as garden was concurrent with the erasure of the indigenous population and the depletion of tropical vegetation by deforestation." As imperial powers competed for floral wealth, the term "gardenesque" emerged in the...

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