A Review of Catherine Esposito Prescott’s Accidental Garden

“Did we plant a butterfly garden or did monarchs?” Catherine Esposito Prescott asks in her luminous debut collection, Accidental Garden (Gunpowder Press, 2023), selected by Danusha Laméris as winner of the Barry Spacks Poetry Prize. These fiercely beautiful poems conjure the quotidian and the wondrous; in Prescott’s hands the two often become one in the same: a wait at the bus stop with sleepy sons, the tracks of raccoons on a back porch, homemade jam swallowed hot, “molten like the core / of the earth itself,” or a bedtime story that begins with gemstones and ends with a consideration of the divine. Prescott has organized the collection around yoga, specifically the subtle body and its energetic centers, chakras—think wheel, disc, portalwhich are opened through yogic practices. She’s a master of form, from lyrics and odes to other traditional forms and free verse. By turns vulnerable, intimate, and wise, Accidental Garden is a meditation on the wild and the domestic, on spirit and body, on braided strands of identity and continuance.  

In “6 AM,” Prescott renders the bus stop with her two boys, “a ram and a twin,” in exquisite, mythic detail in this place where “The sun is a rumor. The sky blinks / with hunters, warriors, and every human’s fate.” The speaker contemplates the right words to break the quiet, hoping to say something witty and lasting, “but the silence between us / insists on staying empty / like a bowl of air…” The image of held air—empty yet full of neutrons, electrons, protons—is arresting. To our unaided eyes, empty; yet, in fact, teeming: “every energetic particle / moving in its own orbit,” and ordered. Yet not seeable, “the invisible threads of all / I must leave unsaid.” The lyric beauty of that line sings with interior rhyme, with rhythm, with the truth that important things sometimes go unsaid. Still, the music and the word thread and its association with life, imply that the unspoken might not be lost.  

Children tear round a track where charioteers once raced in “Palm Sunday” at Circus Maximus in Rome. It’s a paean to the richness of silence and family moving as “one,” yet each in their own sacrosanct worlds, telegraphed shorthand “daughter leaping into air,” one son, soccer player, surely, “kicking rocks from foot to foot,” the other older brother, “listening / to scratchy music from thumb-sized earbuds,” husband “harnessed to his thoughts”that verb calling to mind the concentration of charioteers and galloping horses. The poet-speaker conjures the present as overlay to the ancient past, where “as usual the women are missing, their stories / uninscribed.” Prescott remedies that absence, summoning goddesses “like spices to a feast.” Time collapses, worlds align, and children, “meeting at the oval’s apogee, breathless,” return us to the everyday asking, what’s for dinner

Most would react to the holy mess of raccoon scat and tracks on a back porch with swearing, not generosity. In a move reminiscent of the indigenous storytelling of Robin Wall Kimmerer, the speaker questions the notion of trespass and the ethic of human dominion in “Earth Day 2020”:   

How do I know the raccoons don’t find pleasure
in their hose shower? Why do I believe their paw prints       

are evidence of trespass and escape,
not of skilled choreographed feet— 

every mud-print not a direction, not a clue,
but a turn toward ecstasy?    

There’s the thin scrim of a creation story in these poems, not the J-writer’s hierarchal, Adam-centered garden of Eden, but Prescott’s own egalitarian vision, more feminist in cast, attuned to manatees and mangroves, “the womb before the womb,” moon, tide, and “first light.” You can’t quite see it, then you do: the beginnings of life, the continuance, the disappearance, the metamorphosed return. It’s as subtle as the hidden acrostic in “Accidental Garden”: Did the big bang have intention or are we a divine accident? The world she describes in this volume is home, it’s Miami; at the same time, it feels primordial. Sea-turtles return to natal beaches to lay their eggs, prehistoric saw-toothed sharks rise from the deep to cruise the shoreline with nurse and bull sharks. It’s a world full of wind in the palm trees, iguanas like sages, limestone that turns to marble, “carbon cooked in the earth’s mantle for at least one billion years” before becoming diamonds. It rains so hard here, so suddenly, that a mother offers up every dry piece of clothing she has to her children, drives home in just underwear and considers herself blessed, knowing as she does that there are other mothers in the wider world making harsher journeys in deserts, rationing water. The figure of the mother is utterly human, then more than human. It’s gendered divinity, it’s sea: “a woman is an ocean, a / mother before eggs are harvested, harboring sacs, / nesting thousands….”

The odes, too, bear distinctly feminist revisions. Pindar’s odes were celebrations of male athletic victory; Prescott’s sing of beginnings, “I am the daughter of the daughter of the daughter of immigrants” and the mastery of the ordinary and impromptu, “I am the daughter of kick-the-can, of sardines and hide and seek, of roller skates and hopscotch.” They move like quicksilver, “I prefer books. / I prefer children. / I prefer non-linear to linear time.” Like Whitman, she sings of the body, her own, her children’s, the body of pelicans, the body of Christ, the “subtle logic” of the body’s intuition. If she takes anything from Keats, it’s not the apostrophe to the urn, but the high register of imagination: “What pipes and timbrels? “What wild ecstasy?” 

I am the daughter of one life, of many lives, of sub-atomic particles of light.

I am the daughter of the spoken and the ineffable, of one expression in time,
like you and you and you and you and you.  

Read this book, readers; it’s her story, it’s ours. Watch Prescott rewire the engine of the ode. Watch her walk through the fire of illness into some of the most beautiful poems of the book, “The Day I Lost My Fear of Death,” for instance, where her bodily return makes metaphor of the earliest childhood game we all learn, peek-a-boo. Keep your ear to the ground of her lines for she’s subtle and allusive and her poetry bears rereading. Let the nuanced last lines of “Accidental Garden,” with the mention of the transformative power of touch, take you from the near touch on the Sistine chapel ceiling to the mystery of pollination. “Who is divine?” Catherine Esposito Prescott asks in the butterfly garden where creation is a jumble of inclusion—mortals and monarchs, green parrots, ants, and bees—“All of us scattered together on this earth like thrown dice—all / accident, all planned—with little more to do than to touch one thing, / transform another.”  


Catherine Staples

Catherine Staples is the author of The Rattling Window (Ashland Poetry Press) and Never a Note Forfeit (Seven Kitchens Press). Her new poetry collection, Vert, is forthcoming from Mercer University Press in spring/summer 2024. She teaches in the Honors and English programs at Villanova University.

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