The Garden Inside Her by Isobel O'Hare
Isobel O'Hare starts her chapbook The Garden Inside Her (Ladybox Books, 2016) with a quote from Penda's Fen, a dreamy TV play by David Rudkin that aired on the BBC in 1974. The play is remembered for its mythical visions and poetic language, which suits this collection of surreal vignettes; much like the images in Penda's Fairy, the poems in this collection twist around each other and touch for only seconds on complicated subjects – sexuality, death, the crevasse between technology and experience – before they drop off at the end of each page.
O'Hare quotes, “What is hidden beneath this lovely shell of earth.” Indeed, the poems that follow are grounded in two images that revolve around upheaval and gazing into the earth; the first a cliffside that the narrator is terrified to approach, and the second mossy green vomit, which erupts from the narrator and other characters in the chap like an alien dredged up from the gut. O'Hare focuses in on that image of vomiting more than any other, referring to it often as “the green” or the “green inside me” which transforms the puke into something amorphous, natural, even precious. This green is O'Hare's garden, which disturbs the more mechanical and technological moments in the chapbook the way vegetation reclaims abandoned buildings. In her poems, O'Hare plays with that balance of natural and virtual space, never letting one win over the other.
While exploring these themes, O'Hare is brutally vulnerable; in one vignette she says quite plainly, “I've always felt that if someone loves me, it's my job to love them back.” The poem is self-critical, honest, but reads like a revelation. It continues:
I'm not sure that I know
what love is, other than the systematic
wearing out of my body after so many years.
When you say yes that often, you forget
what yes is supposed to feel like.
How rare a yes should be.
O'Hare talks about her body like a system in this piece – again trying to balance the natural with the technological. Love is a “wearing out of the body” after years of use, as if she were more machine that human, unconsenting, programmed to love because there isn't another choice. She builds on this in the next vignette, which is brief; it reads, “Known as a broom // as a woman. / She who stands in the corner / until she is needed.” Again, the female body is a tool, used for one purpose, ignored when it is no longer needed.
What I admire most about The Garden Inside Her is the way it reads like a meditation. You get the sense that this book was what needed to come out of O'Hare in order to heal, the way the green vomit burst out of her body and piled on the floor. The last poem reads like a letter, perhaps to the self, perhaps to the audience that at this point in the chap is desperately seeking closure, guidance, some solution. “I want to tell you that sometimes these things happen,” writes O'Hare,
You will find no comfort in anything. You
will stare at walls until your minds feels
You will be forced into silence and made
Your thoughts will circle in endless
Green will spill out of you like moss to
cover a forest floor.
This poem solidifies the collection, transforming it into a series of poems not about binary code or love, but about healing. This is the true beauty of O'Hare's work. At the same time that it stirs up difficult feelings of loss, pain, loneliness, and death, it fosters hope. Early in the chapbook, O'Hare repeats the lines, “It rained this morning. Maybe something / will grow in this city; become green.” The Garden Inside Her is a cleansing of the body, an embrace of the violent, wild green inside everyone, a prayer for newness. This book read like a mantra and a journal, an embrace of the difficult and the beautiful, an acknowledgement of the balance that those diametric forces can create together.
Rebecca Valley is a poet and freelance writer living in Olympia, WA. Her poems have been featured most recently in the Pickled Body, M Review, and Rattle. She is the poetry editor of the Drowning Gull, and editor-in-chiefof Drizzle Review. You can find her on Twitter at @rebecca_valley, or online at rebeccavalley.com.