Book-length poem traces man’s attempt to maintain order in the face of transience


There’s a famous shot in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in which a prehistoric ape hurls a bone high into the air. As the bone descends, the camera cuts to an object with a roughly similar shape: a satellite cutting a solitary path through space. Over the course of millennia, we have certainly grown to understand nature more. But we can bend it only up to a point, and in our need for shelter and sustenance, we are not much stronger than our forebears.

Grant Hier’s “Untended Garden (Histories and Reinhabitation in Suburbia),” a book-length poem that came out this year from the Poetry Press, takes a similarly whirlwind view of the history of time — an alternate title might be “2015: A Suburban Odyssey.” Instead of Kubrick’s celestial travelers, it focuses on an Orange County dweller who does his best to maintain his childhood home, even with signs of impermanence all around him. At one point, he imagines the roots below the house pressing up against it, “relinquishing / the bind of nail in wood.”

This premise may sound like the portrait of an everyman, but it’s really the portrait of an academic. Hier, the chair of Liberal Arts and Art History at the Laguna College of Art and Design, devotes a considerable portion of “Untended Garden” to describing his own research process: studying maps of his region, brushing up on history, even flying a plane to view the coastline. Placing himself in context, he compares his writing to an ancestor’s pursuit of prey:

all unseen beneath and before

contributing to the story of here

blunt residue of night colors

coating the hunter’s mouth at dawn

my lead shaft scratching paper

wearing shorter with longer lines

With the book’s narrator so often captured in a state of solitude — writing, exploring or simply pondering — those forebears serve as more than simply a link to the past. They’re also company, in a way: an imagined presence that chips away at the loneliness of existence. From a poet’s perspective, they also provide the roots of language; Hier, who mentions in the book’s notes that his wife is Tongva, scatters words from the tribal tongue throughout.

In one memorable passage, the author describes sneaking out of his bedroom at age 13 and taking a moonlit walk that leads to a crawl through a concrete pipe. Then, in the present day, he imagines a tribal woman years ago taking the same path:

our footfalls lacing now

odd dance partners in perfect step but for

centuries between

One of the blurbs on the back cover of “Unintended Garden” equates it with Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It may take a century to vindicate that comparison, but Hier, like Whitman, works on a canvas that is both grand and shimmeringly specific. As the milky way and the roots of civilization flow through the book’s three sections, the poet lights down constantly on images of the moment: fruit falling from the vine, birds twittering, classical music playing two rooms down as the narrator bathes in his tub.

Fittingly, the central metaphor of “Untended Garden” comes down its title — the home garden, our attempt at order in the face of transience. Describing his narrator after a hard day with the spade, Hier writes, “Tonight I will lie with the ache / of today’s futile gardening / still thrumming in my limbs.” It may be futile, but we ache for it regardless. In our brief time, in our small place, that is how we live.