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A Bee Garden by Marilyn Gear Pilling
reviewed by Linda Rogers

A Bee Garden
Marilyn Gear Pilling
Cormorant Books


The American poet Marianne Moore wrote that poems are “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” I have known many poets on and off the page and no one resonates Moore’s definition quite like Ontario poet Marilyn Pilling, whose fifth poetry book, A Bee Garden, is a perfect fit, albeit requiring the suspension of disbelief as transformations occur. Her invisible toad, the god within and amphibian archetype for feminine waters and the life cycle, is the poet keeping track of the birds and bees in the garden of good and evil.

From the first poem, “What She’d Sowed,” in the garden inseminated by venomous honey-gatherers, to the last, “In the West Field” where bees and humans have laid down their weapons in an ode to pastoral harmony, nature trumps the ephemeral life of imperfect humans. Having met the narrator of these intensely personal and yet omniscient poems in the Oriente jungle, where she occupied herself with naming the abundant flora and feeding orphaned fauna, I was not surprised by her personal doctrine of signatures.

In poem after poem, Gear Pilling relates the conformation of humans and the natural world, a communion of sorts. In “Catch of the Day”

The man in the white shirt bends, severs
certain ligaments

Bends again, sucks out
the eye.

Faces the small group of tourists,
swallows it,
whole, his eye on hers.

There is magic in poems that belong to the oldest religion devised by gardeners and healers. Her simplicity of voice, incantations and spells dressed in homily, makes Gear Pilling a direct descendent of Al Purdy, our great poet of place, who, in one of his final poems, exhorted all who loved the world with words to, “Say the Names.” Purdy deplored the dearth of Canadian nature poets, another exception being the late Bronwyn Wallace, also an Ontarian. These poets, informed by the land, enclosed and wild gardens, have made poetry an essential component of ethical conservation and rational conversation.

Yet every morning as the earth wakes from dream
each, according to
his ancestral notes and his own voice,
begins the day singing.

…like bees going about their bee business, the communal conjugal life of the hive. This is romance and yet the sting in the nectar of romantic description is the cold eye of the fish in “Catch of the Day.” These poems do not shy from the brutal reality of death, and, like all poems, but only more so, more intensely felt, they are elegies: for a young girl who chose to collide with rather than ride the train, a classic Canadian symbol of sexual power and personal freedom, for youth, for marriage and for the endangered garden itself. The low note in these poems is grief but there is also the descant of joy to illuminate the nerve portal of the human eye.

Transformation, the formula of all poetry and cosmic jokes, is the infrastructure of Gear Pilling’s mythical landscape. In a world where innocence rushes to experience and chrysalis and child become something else, corrupted sometimes beatified, resilience is essential. The garden is seasonal. Love is the catalyst that keeps it sane, but there is always a delicate balance between birth and death, sanity and insanity, male and female. We must adapt, just as the bee with its royal jelly and venom must adapt in order to maintain the life of the hive. “I want them in, want to tell them how they go on changing, even in death.” Love is always the precursor to grief, its rude antithesis felt like pain in a phantom limb, but…“It is not necessarily abnormal to have a chaotic heart.”

Gear Pilling, who edits as carefully as she recently cut the hair of her husband of forty-seven years on a Cuban porch shaded by bougainvillea and hibiscus, selects the way her photographer spouse frames his shots, with care. Coming late to poetry after retiring from library science, she has made a science of language, balancing the agony and the ecstasy in nature and the life of the mind with the perspective of a mature poet who has done her research and discovered her own path to the light, in her words, “…a long journey over treacherous roads…”

Clarity and compassion are the elements of a well-wrought line and her images, luminous landscapes and family portraits exposed by that ruthless but respectful eye, the fish eye, the uncompromising lens, are felt because they have integrity. Just as a child or a cat will sit on the lap of the right person, these poems find their way home, just as she will.

…there will be
no container, no temenos of love
waiting for me at the end.
I don’t want to be dispersed. I want
to be held.

These are tenacious poems. Perennials. They won’t let go. At the core of Pilling’s verses on love and loss there is no sentimentality but rather a sensibility that clings, because it speaks the deep language we shared long ago when we were children, before so called civilization, religion and politics, set up its barricades, the ones she breaks down tenderly and with respect so that we can witness the truths we need to survive.

Linda Rogers, who recently accompanied Mairlyn Gear Pilling on a Canada Cuba Literary Alliance tour of the Oriente Province, was surprised by joy when she read A Bee Garden.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 21.