This Old Poem #77:
Deborah Keenan’s Garlic Trees Incest
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/25/03
Deborah Keenan? And why does she have a TOP essay? Is she a poet of any stature
or rank? Why haven’t you heard of her before? If you have not heard of DK the
reasons will be obvious & you will nurse an enmity against me for exposing
you to her garbage. If you have heard of DK, & read this essay, you will
likely want to reward me with physical pleasuring. The divide is clear. I will
take my chances.
1st the ‘official’ DK:
Deborah Keenan is the author of six collections of poetry: Household Wounds, The Only Window That Counts, How We Missed Belgium (written with Jim Moore), One Angel Then, a limited edition text designed and illustrated and hand printed by Gaylord Schanilec, Happiness, and Good Heart, her newest, from Milkweed Editions. She is, with Roseann Lloyd, co-editor of Looking for Home: Women Writing About Exile, which won the American Book Award in 1991.
Keenan has received two Bush Foundation Fellowships for her poetry, an
NEA Fellowship, The Loft-McKnight Poet of Distinction award, among other grants
and awards. In both 1994 and 2000 she was named professor of the year for
teaching and service in the MFA/MALS program at Hamline University.
Deborah Keenan lives with her husband, Stephen Seidel, Executive Director of the Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity Affiliate. She has four children, and is an associate professor and faculty advisor. She also teaches once a year at The Loft Literary Center, and for Compleat Scholar at the University of Minnesota, and also runs private classes.
homeys? Roseann Lloyd- herself the recipient of a TOP essay, & the damnable The
Loft- the Twin Cities’ most prized contribution to bad literature’s
hegemony. DK is amongst that tribe of Minnesota vagabond poetastric professors
intent on ruining the creativity of any marginally talented poetic wannabe-
others in this tribe include Poetry’s Harlequin Of Hate Robert
Poobah extraordinaire David Mura, toilet paper connoisseur
Dennis Browne, the aforementioned horror that is Roseanne
Leslie Adrienne Miller, & would-be Native American icon Diane
all of whom have gotten their own TOPs.
The truth is, doing a TOP on 1 really equates to doing 1 on all- but, there’s never a bad time to rip on a bad poem- so here goes- whoops! Before we do, let’s see what other experts have to say about DK’s oeuvre:
"A very satisfying cumulative beauty. . . . These are, simply, poems
about love (while not exactly love poems) and the many forms it takes. They are
finally not about happiness. Best of all, they are smart enough to know the
difference." - The Nation
gives you an insight into what the hell her poems are about. How about: poorly
conceived & executed diatribes about how unfair the world has been to her
"Intimate and fierce, ‘holy and carnal’ at once, Deborah
Keenan’s poems move between extremes of temperature, the landscapes of Greece
and the wintery backyards where the snow woman seems ‘ready to embrace us.’
These poems are quick-witted, tender, and generous, and they are so truthful to
the passionate trials of familial lives that they seem eerie - they are that
accurate." - Charles Baxter
[OK- are they
simply poems about love, or are they intimate, fierce, holy, & carnal? You
know that the blurbs/reviews are phone-ins when they totally contradict each
To be fair, let me give
another online bio/snip:
Keenan is also the author of The Only Window That Counts, and, with Roseann
Lloyd, co-editor of the award-winning anthology Looking for Home: Women Writing
About Exile. Keenan lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The point? Roseann Lloyd & Deborah Keenan have built careers blurbing for each other, yet neither ever is up front about their connection [see above blurb]. This is known as literary incest. Excelsior!
Before I tackle the poem in question, take a look at this proem from DK.
I will underline all the clichés- & bear in mind their egregiousness rises
exponentially since they are in such close proximity to each other in a poem
about- oh, read on: [Underlined are clichés & *** = a bad line break]
Hands in the Garden
The hands were
weary. The living hands of the woman who worked
Alone, yes, she kept trying to invent beauty, didn't realize she was***
Ahistorical, just tried to believe in beauty one more spring, and the other***
Hands, too, all the gardeners who planted, murderers who murdered, then***
Moved on to other plots, weary, too, and hands of children, who played past***
Exhaustion in the garden, in the garden that stayed garden, or stayed a place
Of death, they were tired, past happiness, far past, and ghost hands, too,
Long dead, all lost in agreement about what to do with the garden,
And from their fury, their deadly arguments about what beauty really was,
Really meant, grew certain flowers. The living hands of the woman
Coaxed, in a limited way, trillium, poppies, wild roses, yellow violets
Into the space of her garden, but all the desiring, angry hands of the dead,
The murderers, the murdered, the children, the ghosts were finally too much
For her. She might be leaving the garden now, she might seek another kind of***
Beauty, less entangled with all these hands thrusting upwards, and we might***
Go with her, take her hands and wash them for her. She did not ask for our***
Company, but we love her, and though she might start out for the ocean,
The desert, we know she belongs in the garden. We will guide her back.
Not a word. Not from me. Not from you. We will move on from this FUCKING HORRORSHOW OF PHONY ‘DEPTH’ & ‘SUFFERING’ & ‘OVERINDULGENCE’! Onward, in silence, to the poem in question:
Garlic Trees Incest
In all the cultures of the world
Three and only three nouns,
And the meanings of those nouns,
Are held in common.
Take moonlight. Somewhere a group
Of humans, apparently, do not believe
Take leopard. Leopard, famous around the world—
That's what we thought.
But we were wrong. Somewhere leopard
Does not exist, perhaps in a culture that only sees
Stripes, or animals of a single color.
Take ocean. Take sorrow.
Take mother, take baby.
Take your cherished list of nouns—
They belong to you, but not to the world.
The world gets: garlic for health,
Antibiotic from the gods who say in booming,
Genderless voices: if you can't be healed
With garlic stop your prayers.
The world gets: trees, for holiness, for beauty,
For the idea of a forest, for poems written
With desperate longing to escape the self.
All over the world the third word babies say
And then incest: as in taboo,
One noun of the three signifies wickedness—
Two nouns for protection, and one noun
That tree and garlic cannot guard, cannot cure,
One noun not strong enough to stop
The meaning of itself from happening
In every culture of our world.
nothing poetic. This is not a poem- but a small paragraph straining for depth.
Trust me. Look:
Garlic Trees Incest
In all the
cultures of the world three and only three nouns, and the meanings of those
nouns, are held in common.
Take moonlight. Somewhere a group of humans, apparently, do not believe in moonlight. Take children. Take road. Take willow. Take spark. Take leopard. Leopard, famous around the world— that's what we thought. But we were wrong. Somewhere leopard does not exist, perhaps in a culture that only sees stripes, or animals of a single color. Take ocean. Take sorrow. Take mother, take baby. Take your cherished list of nouns— they belong to you, but not to the world. The world gets: garlic for health, antibiotic from the gods who say in booming, genderless voices: if you can't be healed with garlic stop your prayers. The world gets: trees, for holiness, for beauty, for the idea of a forest, for poems written with desperate longing to escape the self. All over the world the third word babies say is tree.
And then incest: as in taboo, one noun of the three signifies wickedness— two nouns for protection, and one noun that tree and garlic cannot guard, cannot cure, one noun not strong enough to stop the meaning of itself from happening in every culture of our world.
See? Now, as
for what this slop is trying to say- simple: Incest is bad. I know, I’ve
been there. Men suck. Got it? I don’t care if DK’s uncle diddled her
when 6, or if she & her brother ‘experimented’. I just care if she has
the cojones & talent to even attempt to write a ‘good’ poem. She
doesn’t. Don’t you know that wrongs must be righted with poetry? Don’t
you? Let’s not even talk about the bad enjambment
Let’s try to make this atrocity mildly diverting:
Garlic Trees Incest
And the meanings of those nouns.
The world gets: garlic for health.
The world gets: trees, all over the world the third word babies say
And then incest: the meaning of itself
In every culture of our world.
As in a # of TOPs I can only improve this ‘poem’ to a better sort of
doggerel- in this case I’ve tripled its relative valuelessness. But what of
the poem’s meaning? She is not even correct sociologically. Eskimos, or
Inuits, for 1, do not have a word for garlic or trees, & dozens of cultures
that evolved in the deserts &/or Arctic regions, lack words for trees, &
many lack a word for garlic. While all cultures have an idea about what we call
‘incest’- that is close genetic relations engaging in sex- not all have bars
on it, & some even encourage it amongst ½ siblings & 1st
cousins. A failure as a poet & a sociologist! That’s the answer to Who
is Deborah Keenan?, aside from I don’t care. Don’t care? Good for
Final Score: (1-100):
Deborah Keenan’s Garlic Trees Incest:
TOP’s Garlic Trees Incest: 15
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