Poet's garden tale gives insights into restoration, Anne Spencer

2012-05-06T00:00:00Z Poet's garden tale gives insights into restoration, Anne SpencerBarbara Mahany Chicago Tribune Arizona Daily Star
May 06, 2012 12:00 am  • 

What it is: If not for "Lessons Learned From a Poet's Garden," the story of Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer's garden would have been lost.

Through the pages of this fascinating book, the story - as well as the garden itself in Lynchburg, Va. - has been resurrected and its lessons laid out for learning. Told by Jane Baber White, the unlikely restorer of the garden who was swept away the first time she saw it nearly 30 years ago, this is many stories folded into one. It is the story of a garden used as a sacred retreat by the African-American poet during difficult times; it is the improbable story of the garden's rescue, from the remnants of a once-loved sanctuary to its eventual reblooming; and, above all, it is a blueprint for anyone who might aim to be a resurrection gardener.

What makes it armchair-worthy: If you know little about Spencer, this might be your springboard to deeper reading of her life's work. If you are curious about how one restores a garden that has crumbled into bits, these pages will hold your attention, as if unraveling a long-held mystery. It's not every day that we are invited to poke around the attic of a great literary mind who, for 70 years, labored in this once-profuse poetic garden. In poems and pictures, in typewritten and hand-scrawled scraps from Spencer's garden notebooks, we find here a nearly extinguished treasure.

In her lifetime, Spencer, who counted W.E.B. Du Bois among her frequent visitors, called the garden "half my world." And we are all the richer for its robust return to life.

One fine line: "God never planted a garden/ But He placed a keeper there/ And the keeper ever razed the ground/ And built a city where/ God cannot walk at the eve of day/ Nor take the morning air." (from Anne Spencer's poem "God Never Planted a Garden")

The book is sold via the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum: Go to annespencermuseum.com (click on the "Shop" link). Proceeds from the book defray costs of maintaining the garden.

"Lessons Learned From a Poet's Garden: The Restoration of the Historic Garden of Harlem Renaissance Poet Anne Spencer" By Jane Baber White (Blackwell Press, $45)

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