While hoeing his garden one day – so the story goes – Saint Francis of Assisi was asked what he would do if Christ was about to return, leading to the end of the world and the last judgement. “I would keep right on hoeing,” said the saint.
I was reminded of this story while reading Mark Frutkin’s new book of essays entitled The Walled Garden (Guernica Editions, 2023). And not just for the garden motif. Like anyone with a green thumb, or pen, Frutkin can’t stop tending to his craft, despite the worrisome drift of the world around him. He’s been writing for close to five decades, with eighteen titles to his credit, including poetry, non-fiction, and novels, including four set in Italy.
He’s best known for Fabrizio’s Return, a lyrical tour-de-force set in Cremona in the 17th century, and his more recent The Artist and the Assassin, a fast-paced, evocative tale about the life of Italian master painter, Caravaggio. Compared to these works, The Walled Garden is the calm after the creative storm. And yet, the 40 or so essays in this book are filled with memorable poetic language, fascinating insights, and above all, connections among ideas and people that one expects from an accomplished writer and thinker.
The essays in The Walled Garden draw interesting links between the future and the past, artists throughout history and prehistory, poetic language and its origins, form and content in literature, reality and emptiness, and wind as a metaphor for the life force.
In his prologue, which reads like a prose poem, Frutkin writes that “a book is a walled garden.” He goes on to say that the metaphor also applies to life itself, “with the wall of birth at one end, the wall of death at the other,” adding that “a rich silence supports growth, ideas, thoughts and dreams, and allows language to sprout and arise. Above all, the garden, with its images of life and death, dissolution and new growth, proves to be a place of harmonious chaos.”
Of course, some gardens, books and lives, are greener and more abundant than others, while some are to be avoided all together. In this vein, just a few pages from the prologue, Frutkin offers a short essay on Conventional Reality that is a thinly disguised, Orwellian warning. “Convention is the willing suspension of the imagination. Its addiction is spectacle. Its city is sameness, on a global scale, while its citizens are either indifferent or filled with blind, ignorant conviction.” In passages of this sort, Frutkin is not afraid to take the reader by surprise. But the warnings are not overdone.
The Walled Garden is structured with the reader in mind. The essays are short, digestible, and written in a conversational style, whether touching on events in his own life or dealing with more abstract questions such as the nature of fate and free will. What ties it all together is the wisdom of a writer who cares about language, poetry, stories and conversation. In the essay, “Time and Eternity,” he writes: “All this world is nothing more than sparks of light reflecting from the mirror of emptiness; words, poems, songs, arise from silence and fall back into silence, breath tasting the air and giving back into the air, rain falling in a river.”
Key themes are also revisited, like the variations in a Vivaldi concerto, as in the four different essays where Frutkin touches on the nature of “the present.” He variously describes it as “the shooting star that never stops,” as something that “cannot be pinned down but can only be experienced in its passing,” yet which nevertheless is “there all the time, in every moment”; and furthermore, which must also be understood in relation to “a future that hasn’t arrived yet and a past that is gone.”
In another essay, as if sensing the need for something simple and affirmative, he tells a story about a trip to the ruins of Delphi in Greece, when he was a 19-year-old university student. At the top of the mountain, by the gaming field, he felt something that has stayed with him since that moment. It was “a charged presence…the ever-present awareness, the force of life, that moves through the world.”
He described this same force in his 2012 novel, A Message for the Emperor, as “a message without shape or form, never spoken and therefore never heard, known only by its effects, and yet a message of utter clarity, the world arising in itself, coming to birth in the light of its own light, a wind in a shining mirror, the sky in a lake.”
Reading The Walled Garden, it’s clear Frutkin has a great deal of respect for a wide range of writers, thinkers and sources, from Samuel Beckett, Ann Carson and Joseph Conrad, to Shakespeare, the Bible and the Heart Sutra. More than that, he thrives in the writer’s life, making connections in the “beehive” of his mind. (Check out his short essay based on this “beehive” metaphor.)
Among his more interesting commentaries are the longer essays on paleolithic cave art and Picasso’s Vollard Suite; the late 20th century films of Andrei Tarkovsky; and the early 20th century work of Ernest Fenollosa, to whom Frutkin is especially drawn. Fenollosa was an original, unorthodox thinker who delved into the nature of language and poetics, with a special interest in the Chinese written character.
Toward the end of the book, Frutkin combines the work of Fenollosa and others, with his own reading and thinking on content and form, textual structure, etymological history, and the hidden images in the English alphabet, to form a theory of what he refers to as the “unified field” of language. In this unified field, he says, all the aural and visual elements of language are brought into play, and thence into harmony.
Which brings the reader back to the “harmonious chaos” of the prologue – and a chance to sit back and re-read this thoughtful book with an open and fresh understanding. It would be consistent with the metaphor to suggest this is the reader’s way of hoeing the walled garden, in the present moment, and the next, and the next.
John Morris is an Ottawa-based writer whose poems have been published in Bywords.ca, and in anthologies of the Canadian Author’s Association and the Ontario Poetry Society. His poem “Prayers for My Father” was an honourable mention for the John Newlove Award in 2022, sponsored by Bywords.ca.