Sunday, September 16, 2007

In the Garden + Rich's Kessler Lecture & Duncan Poem

Today felt like autumn, which is only a few weeks away on the calendar. It was one of the last days I could work in the yard and garden before I head back west and plunge into teaching, and so in addition to cutting the grass, I snapped a few shots of some of the plants, which have far exceeded our expectations.

Here are the basil and tomato plants. C has repeated taken cuttings from the basil, and the tomato continues to produce fruit. We harvested the first batch back in June, and I was able to make homemade marinara sauce for the first time. (It actually turned out well.)

Some of the first batch of tomatoes

This was an early batch of blackberries (and one blueberry near the center of the bowl). The blackberry plant produced fruit just once, and then decided to try and spread across the entire lawn. It is a warrior so I warn anyone: be ready to do battle with it. The thorned bush has grown twice as fast as the thornless one, and it sends its shoots far under the ground so that they turn up in the unlikeliest places, such as under tables, other plants, beyond fences. When you try to get rid it you have to root it, and the thorns on several of the stalks, which cut through my gardening gloves, as well as the tenacious roots, which refused to loosen, provided more of a workout than an hour at the gym.

The mint plant, in front of weeds. This is a very hardy plant that has come back in several spots.

The rosemary and sage have grown steadily all summer. I need to figure out what to do so that they'll return. The prior rosemary plant flowered for a year, then died off this past winter.

Brussel sprouts! I took me a month to figure out that like other plants of this sort you have to remove the lower leaves, and then when I snipped off the first few heads I thought we were done, but now there are about a dozen or more new sprouts coming in, which amazes me. I was worried that they hadn't received enough water and would be, as I saw online, "bitter," but the first batch tasted fresh and mellow in flavor, so I'm not worried about the upcoming crop.

Here are the red cabbages, which looked sickly earlier in the summer, but which are steadily growing. Caterpillars were devouring the leaves, but eventually they passed on to the next stage of their existence, sated with cabbage, and now the plants are nearing harvest. In fact, I think the one at the center of this picture may be ready, though I keep thinking it's still got a ways to g(r)o(w).

The strawberry patch is even thicker than last year, but only the tinier Alpine strawberries (the little leaves at right) produced fruit, which is about the size of a thumbnail and swiftly devoured by birds, stray cats, ants, or whatever gets to it before we do. Something else is pocking all the strawberry leaves, so I need to figure out if we have to cut them back and how much so that they'll produce fruit next year.

The honeysuckle is again flowering, though it's not so fragrant these days. It has had to battle for survival with the blackberry bush, though C gave it a leg up a few weeks ago. Earlier in the summer its blooms were so bright it looked like it was filled with birds of paradise. I think these are its last blooms of the season.

We had no luck with the arugula or the spinach, which produced its leaves and then withered. The fig tree did not take root, and when I touched it for a brief examination, it toppled over, the roots having shriveled so much that it was basically hovering in place. The dill plant also flowered, allowing C to harvest it, and then died, but I hope it will return as the thyme has, thick and ready for harvest. We had to replace our back porch, and the lavender, one of my favorite plants, took a beating, but I've figured out the trick to propagate it in the future: the soil must have enough lime. So next spring I'll be back, planting more lavender, and I hope we can get a fig tree that survives and produces fruit as well.


Once upon a time I was very active with the Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York's (CUNY) Graduate Center. I'm still a member of CLAGS, but I have not attended or been able to attend any of CLAGS's events in years. One of the events I most miss is the Annual David R. Kessler Lecture, which celebrates a major living figure in the development of LGBT and Queer Studies. Scholars offer brief remarks on behalf of the speaker, who then delivers a keynote. Previous Kessler honorees have included Joan Nestle, Monique Wittig*, Barbara Smith, Esther Newton, Samuel R. Delany, Judith Butler, Cherrie Moraga, Isaac Julien, and Edmund White. (In fact, there's the fine anthology, Queer Ideas, with a foreword by CLAGS founder Martin Duberman and with an introduction by former directors Alisa Solomon and Paisley Currah, which presents the lectures from the first 10 years of the award.)

This past year's (2006-2007) honoree was Adrienne Rich, about whom I've sung praises more than once before in these pages. Rich's lecture, as I read it, sought to connect the academic field of LGBT studies with its non-academic, poetic, everyday roots in the public and private activism, avant la lettre, of figures such as Walt Whitman, Robert Duncan, and Judy Grahn. In evoking these figures, she also noted that in addition to their work and lives creating and advance a discourse and traditions on which future LGBT and queer scholars, as well as LGBT and queer people in general, might build, they also sought to challenge other limits, other restrictions, other constraints, by positing more complex notions of identity, community, citizenship, an expanded social and political imaginary (in the non-Lacanian sense, I think), particularly in light of the voracious commodity society we live in--that they lived in and saw evolving towards what it has become.

What follows is the Duncan poem she quotes. It's short enough that I don't have to excerpt it, as I would Whitman's "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand," or Grahn's much longer "A Woman Is Talking to Death." One of the things Rich's talk brings to mind is how the poem returns again and again to the notion of an affective collectivity, a circle of friends, which may increase or wane, but whose links Duncan evokes anaphorically at the start of each stanza, to ground his perspective and its authority, the poem's authority, as a statement beyond the merely personal, about desire and the difficulties of love. In addition to its relevance, I think, for a number of friends of mine--for so many LGBT people at this fraught moment in which we are pushed increasingly towards organized, consumerist, post-identitarian normativities into which many of us still do not fit, it is also interesting how the poem's metaphors move increasingly towards Capital; though we begin in a desire to which no set exchange or monetary value can be placed, it is very much a poem rooted in an earlier yet still persistent version of our society and its myths, in which, ultimately, the "honest wage," even of love, remains the desired goal.

But let me stop interpreting, and give you the poem:

Among My Friends Love Is a Great Sorrow

Among my friends love is a great sorrow.
It has become a daily burden, a feast,
a gluttony for fools, a heart's famine.
We visit one another asking, telling one another.
We do not burn hotly, we question the fire.
We do not fall forward with our alive
eager faces looking through into the fire.
We stare back at our own faces.
We have become our own realities.
We seek to exhaust our lovelessness.

Among my friends love is a painful question.
We seek among the passing faces
a sphinx-face who will ask its riddle.
Among my friends love is an answer
to a question
that has not been asked.
Then ask it.

Among my friends love is a payment.
It is an old debt for a borrowing foolishly spent.
And we go on, borrowing and borrowing
from each other.

Among my friends love is a wage
that one might have for an honest living.

Excerpted from Adrienne Rich's 2006-2007 Fifteenth Annual David R. Kessler Lecture,
CLAGS, CUNY Grad Center, Copyright © 1995, Robert A. Bertholf, ed., Robert Duncan,
A Selected Prose (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation).

*I asterisked Wittig's name, because I always remember once telling Reggie H. that I wished that when I walked into bookstores that my books were on the shelves like Wittig's--there was a time in the mid-1980s when it seemed that every bookstore I entered had at least one copy of two of her foundation works, The Lesbian Body and my favorite, the remarkable Les Guérillères--and he rightly responded that, well, perhaps her books weren't on the shelves as much as I imagined. It would be wonderful, nevertheless, to write a book or books, a foundational work, however flawed, to which several generations of readers, even a small number, continue to return. Isn't that what most writers of fiction and poetry aim for?


  1. Hey John!

    You have a garden in your backyard? im so jealous!

    My parents used to grow many of their own vegetables in the backyard of the house i spent most of my childhood at in ohio. she grew brussel sprouts, tomatoes, mint, basil, parents were definitely onto something by growing things themselves and buying from the farmer's markets, etc.

    plus, my mother always did a lot of canning/preserves: pickled peppers, salsa, peach/strawberry/apple/blueberry jams, canned salad toppings, etc.

    I miss that..images of my mom and dad canning food for the winter...

    I hope to do that someday...i wonder how many people have vegetable gardens in their backyards in the bronx? or how many even KNOW what a farmer's market is? much less but at one?

    Ryan--who is determined to start buying organically this fall..

  2. We haven't gotten to the canning stage, but my grandmother used to do that, making all kinds of winter-ready foodstuffs. One of my favorites back then was apple butter, which looked awful but tasted delicious.

    And do buy organic if you can afford to do so. It can empty your wallet quickly.

  3. hey john:

    you are right. organic is expensive. but, ive been doing research and have found that there are a variety of farmer's markets aroun dthe city where i can get my veggies fresh. i know that for meat (which i have been staying away from lately), fish and poultry, ill have to go Whole Foods or a high scale meat/fish/poultry monger for my stuff.

    The reality is that im most healthy when eating organically...and this will be the best way to change my diet and retain my health (which has been in a state of flux for months now)

    Truthfully, I just need to get back to cooking more often...i miss actually baking a sweet potato pie, putting ingredients together to be slow cooked in a crock pot, etc.

    So, one of my birthday wishes (32 is coming up october 4th) is change my diet and start eating, living, and being healthy again...:)