More Than Grief: "When the Gardener Has Left" Review

Jess Waters ‘17/ Emertainment Monthly Assistant Books Editor
In his autobiographical poetry collection, When the Gardener Has Left, Kieran Collier addresses those things which are larger than life: sports stars, superheroes, silence, grief. Themed around the degenerative illness and eventual death of Collier’s mother from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — more commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease — Collier loosely traces the parallels of his journey from boy to man and his mother’s journey from parent to ghost.

"When the Gardener Has Left" Cover. Source: Wilde Press
“When the Gardener Has Left” Cover. Source: Wilde Press
The poetry of When the Gardener Has Left feels like a dialogue. Parts of it read as direct address, like Joke, in which the narrator speaks to “the boy [who] makes a joke / about fucking my dead mother” — the boy who “is my friend and / knows everything about my mother / (except, apparently, how important she is to me).” Collier addresses his younger self, his step-mother, his father, his classmates. He takes on the role of Lou Gehrig, captain of the New York Yankees who died from the same illness that Collier’s mother developed, rewriting the dialogue between Gehrig and the teammates he left behind. Most of all though, Collier addresses his mother, who talks back through his voice in poems like My Mother’s Ghost Visits our Living Room: “Your dad changed everything again, didn’t he?.” The dialogue between the Collier and his mother is the beating heart of the piece, that which drives the sorrow of it forward to something like catharsis.
The language is small and specific, without excessive flourish, casual as a family’s private dinner conversation. The recurring imagery deliberately avoids the cliches of grief poetry, calling instead upon the author’s private associations — the New York Yankees, wheelchair ramps, wedding rings, Detective Comics, minivans — to build an image, an individual microcosm of grief. This is a poetry of watching Saved by the Bell reruns with your sisters, of wine stains on the couch, of your parents conceiving you to the sounds of “All the Love” by Sting. It’s funny, at points, in the way that only sadness can be. It’s honest.
When the Gardener Has Left is a short read — maybe just over an hour’s time cover to cover — that packs a lot of emotion. It opens with the poem My Mother Becomes a Ghost whose title alone sets the theme and tells the subject matter, and from there is divided into four untitled sections. Like grief, the sections aren’t neatly organized or perfectly ordered. Chronologically it flips and shifts, even within the same poem. Yet the work has a feeling of purpose, of building towards something the way a novel would. These are poems which very much deserve to be collected — each one gives vital context to the others, each one feels like part of a whole.
When Collier writes about the things that are bigger than life — team captains, comic book heroes, dead moms — he doesn’t try to make them feel any smaller than they are. Instead, he writes in a way that makes it okay to talk about them; to attempt, at least, to make sense of the senseless. He makes it okay to not always have the right words, and he makes it okay to try anyways. He writes about silence, yes, but it is a “silence of knowing.” Perhaps he describes this feeling best in Photograph #3:

I’d call it love,
but it’s more than that.
It’s more than grief, too.
Maybe I won’t know what to call it,
and maybe that’s the last gift
she left me.

When the Gardener Has Left is launched April 28th and can be purchased through Wilde Press.

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One Comment

  1. Well, I can’t wait to read more… I am so proud to have known your mother and she is so very proud of you now, I am sure.

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