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In the Image: “The Gardener” by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes

Can dealing with emptiness lead to new growth?

Silence is a kind of void, a space empty of sound, or at least of human language. The poems we examined in the two previous columns dealt with silence—its profundity, its ability to communicate meaning. As we consider Suzanne Underwood Rhodes’ poem “The Gardener” this month, we see a similar paradox at work: a thing that cannot be named, an absence that is present, a hollow that creates the possibility of fullness:

Suzanne Underwood Rhodes

The Gardener

I haven’t talked to you about
a dark space I dug up.
Clods and rocks I can pick out of soil,
blue-veined clay I can nourish;
weeds, yank up; shade, cut back.
But this

hollow where no seed is meant to grow
astounds.  I go back to basics,
trusting my hands to find the dirt
as it always was, humid and maternal,
easily worked to hatch seeds,
but this

breach of earth voids every breathing
speck so that the spade of my hand
weighs more than death, and the leaves
I touch are stillborn.  Tell me,
must I keep tending, must I 
turn this

blank into myself and vanish,
or is the hole an entrance
into some new ground that is yet
familiar, tilled and fertile, vast
as my loss, tenderly sown with
this?

Using the metaphor of a gardener working in a garden, Rhodes writes,

Clods and rocks I can pick out of soil,
blue-veined clay I can nourish;
weeds, yank up; shade, cut back.
But this

hollow where no seed is meant to grow
astounds. 

The gardener, in the semi-surreal world of this poem, is faced with an unexpected emptiness, a void she has no name for and can’t seem to do anything to fill or make fruitful. Notice how the word this hangs at the end of each stanza in the poem, emphasizing the speaker’s inability to articulate the thing she has encountered, because it is an absence—a non-thing. She is deeply troubled by this void, by its deathliness: “this // breach of earth voids every breathing / speck….”

And yet she does not turn away from the void . . . and this is the all-important fact. Although she does not want to—is terrified by the prospect, in fact—she asks (of God, presumably) whether she must take hold of this emptiness, “turn this // blank into [her]self and vanish,” or if she must enter into the emptiness.

Part of the power of this poem lies in the fact that it presents to the reader a moment of turmoil and dilemma—with only the suggestion of a possible redemptive outcome. When the gardener enters into the void, will she find a place where the emptiness itself, though painful, becomes the seed for new growth? Will she find that it was planted intentionally, a harsh but necessary grace (“tenderly sown with / this”)?

Notice how the poem ends with questions, not conclusions, and the gardener has not as yet taken the action she is contemplating. In this way, the poem compellingly renders the way many of us have likely felt when we have encountered the darkness, the emptiness, the void that terrifies us, but which we pray might be the place where God’s grace can enter more fully than would otherwise be possible.

“The Gardener” is reprinted by permission of the author from What a Light Thing, This Stone, copyright © 1999 by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes, published by Sow’s Ear Press.

Related Topics:  Spiritual Life

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