What the Herb Girl Likes: An Old Poem, with Backstory

1997 was the year of my greatest poetic recognition, and I’ve never lived up to it since. It’s a bit tough when that happens at age 18 to ever feel like you’re good enough. To begin with, I was chosen to read at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, which is held every summer in Connecticut in a beautiful sunken garden and attracts crowds of 3,000 people. No kidding! 3,000 people come to hear poetry. Complete strangers come on a weekend evening and sit in humid Connecticut outdoors, risking mosquitos, just to hear some poetry. I, along with four fellow Connecticut young poets, and four Irish young poets, was chosen to read in front of that crowd. Don’t think for a moment I didn’t realize how amazing it was. I loved doing that reading.

As part of the prize, the four winning Connecticut poets all expenses paid to go to the Aran Islands Poetry festival, where we also read (though to a smaller audience), and participated in workshops, and got to meet kind of big deal poets, including the Nobel prize winner Czeslaw Milosz.

On top of that, the small print shop that hosted open mics in my town offered to print my first poetry book. So my chapbook was coming out! In retrospect, I could have mentioned that at the reading. I did not yet appreciate poetic self-marketing.

Finally, one of my poems was published in the local newspaper, the Hartford Courant, in a story about the poetry festival. It’s only searching for more information about the festival later that I realized it happened, because by the time the story was published I was already in college, and somehow all my youthful success didn’t count any more. New York was bad for me as a writer and I lost all my confidence and all my inspiration. Everyone I met told me poetry didn’t matter and wasn’t real and no one wanted to hear it, and I believed them instead of looking for a poetry community which I no doubt could have found. Ah well. At one time my little poem was printed right next door to a poem by Czeslaw Milosz in a newspaper ordinary people read. I should have taken that evidence more seriously than the opinion of 19-year-old men.

 

What the Herb Girl Likes

I like sorting the seed packages on a windy day,
weighing them down with the miniature shovel and rake.
I like pulling up long crabgrass roots
and lining them up on the driveway to die in the sun.
I like mixing up black, muddy, earth with my hands.
I like the cold, the soft gritty feel.
I like broken nails with dirt under them
that I can’t clean out because it hurts.
I like putting the seeds in the furrows
with the plastic labels next to them.
I like watching green things sprout,
picking leaves off of them,
and crushing them between my thumb and forefinger,
separating herb from weed by smell.
I like the licorice smell of anise,
the pizza smell of oregano,
the candy smell of wild mint,
and the medicine cabinet smell of sage.
I like when my mother says “this soup is bland”
and I know that it needs savory and three leaves of lemon basil.
I like it when my brother has a sore throat
and I know how to make him a sage gargle.
I like looking in the Polish herb book
and finding the right month for harvest
and looking at the moon and finding the right day.
I like making neat charts in pencil
titled “Harvest Records” and containing three names for each herb:
catnip and kocimientka wlasciwa and Nepata Cataria.
I like washing jars and drying them in the oven.
I like putting dried herbs in the still-warm jars
so their lids make a “pop” when they cool.
I like it when I comb out a knot in my hair
and find a dried sprig of thyme at its heart.