Lee Herrick’s Gardening Secrets of the Dead

Reviewed by Suzanne Roberts

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The poems in Lee Herrick’s second book, Gardening Secrets of the Dead, are love songs to landscapes both foreign and domestic, imaginary and real. The tension in the poems results from oppositions and the poet’s refusal to reconcile the irreconcilable. Herrick, who was born in Korea and adopted by American parents, sings to a lost landscape, one which is at once strange and familiar. In the poem “Rhyme,” Herrick writes:

All we want is to not be watched.
All the glitches hiss.

Medicate. Meditate.
Korea, homeland. Go quietly

then resist
how perfect you are this time.

The poem idealizes Korea and at the same time recognizes its otherness, leaving the narrator caught between two worlds, yearning. Many of these poems are elegies to place, to the lost homeland and the lost parents. In the poem “Stars,” the speaker searches for his birth parents and wonders “Do you have a sister in this world?” Because neither the speaker nor the reader can answer this question—nor the other rhetorical questions posed throughout the collection—we are again left with the divide between the knowing and the unknowing, longing and loss.

In the poem “Spectral Questions of the Body,” the speaker wonders about the body of his mother and,

how the cage of bone
protects the heart,

imagining her body

like gel
in a body of water, a jellyfish in the sea,
a gasping squid.

The attention to detail and the sensual language create poems that are at once ferocious and heartbreaking.

In “Exile,” the speaker says, “I have almost freed myself of the verb want.” Through these poems, “the almost” of desire is explored again and again, yet the longing is satisfied through small moments of connection, which often come via the sensual: the smell of blossoms, lavender, cold beer, raspberry wine, fresh French bread.

In the end these elegies give way to chants of the earth, the beaches and daisies, but also to an enigmatic lover. Yet the beloved and the land are twined together, borderless, as in the poem “Field.”

she pointed out constellations
we created new ones with strange names

she named each bird
as it sang its brilliant whistle
past the moon and its hope

this is a field in America
here is where I fell in love

Gardening Secrets of the Dead takes the reader across the earth and back again, finally grounding in the body, in the heart. Herrick invites the reader into the garden of his poems through the use of the second person, asking rhetorical questions such as “What if the dead knew about each of our dreams?” So that finally, when the speaker wants to know if he has a sister in the world, it is the reader, who has traveled to foreign lands and back with him, who will answer, Yes, you do. She is your reader.


Suzanne Roberts is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Plotting Temporality (Pecan Grove Press, 2012) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Bison Books, 2012).

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