Nola Weed Garrett: The Imaginative Sestina and The Pastor's Wifeby Patricia Callan
ola Weed Garrett's bold approach to form has made her book of 27 sestinas The Dynamite Maker's Mistress a standard text in university poetry courses. As observed by Mihaly
Csikszentmihaly in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, "The Major creative use of language…is poetry. Because verse enables the mind to preserve experiences in condensed and
transformed form, it is ideal for giving shape to consciousness." (FTPOE 130) An adherent of "Flow" Nola Garrett used life's experiences to transform not only sestinas but also her personal activities: child raising, teaching, making a home, and cooking. One can see that from an early age she unknowingly espoused the optimal experience but could not yet name it.
Nola Garrett is from Mill Village, Pennsylvania, a tiny hamlet settled in the late 18th century. In Erie and Crawford Counties, the Weeds were a well-known and respected clan, descendents of the early settlers. Despite the slim resources of this small town, there was a county traveling library. Like Harry Truman, who read all the books in the Independence, Missouri library by the age of fourteen, Nola Garrett, too, read every book in the Erie County Traveling Library when it arrived every three weeks with new volumes. History, biography, novels, botany, cook books, all were devoured by this young girl. Her maternal grandmother also had books; Nola was "allowed" to borrow them with the admonition "books are special and to be cared for." Although her grandmother was poor, she had magazines and Nola read those too.
She recalls her poetic awakening occurring in the seventh grade when a poetry booklet with ten poems was given to the students. "Everyone memorized one poem such as Joyce Kilmer's 'trees' or Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae's 'In Flanders Fields', poems typical of the era. In that seventh grade class there was no discussion of poetic meaning but this teenager would have welcomed such a process.
In Nola's senior year of high school a newcomer to the high school English faculty introduced her to Shakespeare's plays, spiking the enthusiasm of the soon-to-be English major at Clarion University. Despite hours long rides on the daily school bus, she managed to sing in the chorus (where the relationship between music and text is honed), to write humor pieces for the school newspaper, win the United Nations Essay Contest 4 years in a row and to graduate fifth
in her class.
Education: The Parental Situation
In the nineteen fifties it was not uncommon that many men believed college educations were wasted on girls. Her father, whose education ended after eighth grade, was one of those men, and he refused to sign Nola's college application. Garrett's mother, having been denied a college education due to the depression, took the paper and signed her application to Clarion College. Her mother's signature enabled Nola to not only obtain her education but made her the first in the family to graduate from college. Years later, Nola wrote the following:
While my mother's heart waits for the medical courier
making his way along I-79, steal a look at the Times—
other drivers out of my way on this boring road. My bold
plans will keep my faded mother alive: at some point
life and death will merge with a part of Mom saved...(DMM 24)
The above lines are from "Courier," Garrett's sestina in which the speaker wanders in the universal confusion of death's details while the medical courier carries on a resentful monolog about the ordinariness of his job. The persona tells of a mother with conviction as Nola Garrett might have spoken of her mother.
Garrett attended Clarion from 1958 to 1961, graduating in three years. At Clarion the English Department boasted several excellent teachers including Dr. Lester Moody, mentor to Nola and many in the field of literature. Garrett, already employed at Beaver Falls Junior High school, took courses during the Interim and Summer Sessions at University of Edinboro in order to obtain her teaching certificate. Her courses were mainly in English Literature, but also teaching reading, and even one in oil painting. Her intent was to pursue a Master's Degree at the University of Pittsburgh when finances permitted.
While pursuing a course in pre-romantic poetry (in order to qualify for a teaching certificate) with the head of the English Department, Dr. Everett, he asked her to consider teaching Freshman English. Startled by this request, Garrett demurred. Still living at home while teaching junior high, she told her parents of the offer. Her father, having an eighth grade education, was resistant, wondering why she would want to earn "the devil's money." The response was typical of a man with limited education and the uninformed belief that higher education was wasteful, prideful and wicked for any man or woman. It's also possible he was threatened by his daughter's ambition and intelligence. Her mother was certain Nola would be a successful college professor.
Following Dr. Everett's next class, he met and escorted the then Miss Weed to the Dean's office for an interview, one week before her teaching job was to resume. After telling Dean Early that she liked seventh graders, he responded, "Freshmen are just older seventh graders." In her presence, he called the Superintendent of Schools in Beaver Falls, informed him Miss Weed was resigning and that he was sending him two candidates to be interviewed for the now vacant position. By the fall of 1965, Nola Weed Garrett had her own office at Edinboro State University, PA, becoming a tenured professor with a prestigious 32 year career.
The Poet and the Poems
It is not surprising then, after the obstacles she endured, that on her 45th birthday, she announced to her family that she was a poet and whenever she had an idea for a poem, all else would cease—dinner, even a burning house. Her theory being: if 45 were half of 90, she had better get started: "Then I waited. While I waited I read poetry: Donne, Milton, Sexton, Jong, and whatever poems were in The New Yorker and The Atlantic." (TP: PWCP, 1)
Having claimed her vocation as a poet, she kept in mind Milton's opening lines of "When I consider How My Light is Spent" to inspire and guide her:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
my true, lest he returning chide....
Waiting for a poem to find her and considering her "...one talent that is death to hide..." a poem appeared, oddly, while dyeing her hair:
I never saw my grandmother twice
with the same colored hair.
Instead of the world she traveled the spectrum—
Romanian Gold, Raving Russet, Tahitian Brown—
without even the pretense of reclaiming colors once hers....
...when the early snow
on my unraked leaves looked like me
looking out of my mirror at my old self,
I wasn't quite ready. Not yet.
But unlike Grandma my staid self
departed on Light Brown #7.
This poem later evolved into a tribute to both Grandmothers.
While her 45th birthday may have been the occasion of the official statement of her stance as poet, there were earlier rumblings in her poetic past. In 1989 Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, sponsored a community poetry workshop; through the auspices of the college the chapbook Wives was published. Wives includes Nola Garrett's section, entitled "The Hardening Heart," as well as poems of Angela Elston. "The Hardening Heart" foreshadows a sequence of nineteen revelatory poems with this opening quote from the Gospel of Matthew: "He said to them, for the hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so." (Matthew 19:8)
According to Garrett, "The poems just tumbled out." These frankly confessional poems reveal an abusive marriage in disarray; poems perhaps written so that the burdens of that disastrous first marriage would not influence her later poetry. Writing the "The Hardening Heart" poems freed her in the same way that those entering the field of therapy must undergo analysis. (More than one writer has been healed by her work.) The first poem foreshadows divorce:
My husband used to say:
"Someday we will be flying
over the Atlantic Ocean
and the pilot will come on and say,
'We are going to crash land.'
And you will say brightly,
'I've never been swimming in the Atlantic.'
And I used to agree with him:
"Yes, that is probably what I would say."
Then one day he said,
"And that is why I hate you."
and number 14 in Wives is a graphic, chilling display of abuse:
There were black hand prints all over Chan's bottom.
Chan, six months old, had not quit crying
while I went out.
(Garrett later became a guardian ad litem for 9 years, in Hernando County, Florida, perhaps influenced by personal knowledge of child abuse.)
Despite the fact that the above poems were written during a period of despair and stress, there were indications of her evolving gifts: wry humor, metaphor, analogy and general sense of optimism evidenced in number 17:
…and I hope
he has forgotten to change his beneficiary
and I will spend all of January
on a pink beach in Bermuda.
As Garrett's section of Wives draws to a conclusion, we find the relentless optimist emerging in number 18:
But surely the great gold seal
on the divorce is tight
and all of the flourished signatures
are written in indelible ink.
After finishing her M.A. in English/Creative writing in 1964, at Cleveland State University, she gave herself an assignment to write 39 sestinas, each with some variation of the form. In her words...that assignment has been both a curse and a blessing. (Briefly, the sestina is a six stanza form with each stanza repeating the same six words which end each line in a different, prescribed order than the first stanza. An envoy of three lines occurs at the end.)
While embarking on her project, she received validation at the 1999 Suncoast Writers Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, when Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky answered her question from the audience, "Why do you think many editors refuse to read sestinas?" Pinsky replied, "...I suppose it's because there are so many bad sestinas."
He paused, "I take that statement back. That's prejudice.... Think about the sestinas of Elizabeth Bishop and Tony Hecht."
In Anna Evans' practical article "How to Write a Sestina" she says, "Critics of the sestina claim that they are too often repetitive, end-stopped, dull narratives, and it's true they can tend that way from inexperienced writers."
In the hands of Nola Garrett the sestina is none of these things and is demonstrated skillfully in her book, The Dynamite Maker's Mistress, a collection of 27 sestinas. Garrett's sestina journey was given further support when she applied and was accepted for a residency at Yadoo, the artist's colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Included among her twenty-nine sestinas are tributes to Arnaut Daniel, the inventor of the sestina, an elegy for Anthony Hecht, a narrative about Decoration Day and four sestinas in the voices of guests at a psychiatric residence.
In Garrett's well-known sestina "Decoration Day" (included in the 2014 publication Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century) we find this poet not only in command of the form but displaying a profound sense of place and her relationship to it.
Driving to the cemetery with everything
you need for planting geraniums, you
hear the water slosh, the spade settle, and know
this grave gardening isn't
easy. The flowers are the wrong
color red, Aunt Martha tells you. Honey
we've always had magenta. Honey,
now turn left here, then right. Everything
seems confounding: your parents' graves on the wrong
side of the cemetery lane. You
haul the flowers and what water hasn't
spilled to where you know.... (TDMM 16)
Theology within the Sestina
"The Pastor's Wife Considers her 57th Birthday" is an alphabet sestina; the six end words all begin with Y. She addresses the Old Testament God:
of cubits, of multiples of 40 yards,
take my measure. Say, in that delicate way, Yes,
woman, with whom it has ceased after fifty seven years
to be as it is with women, take yarn,...
This imagined answer from Yaweh has the familiarity of Gabriel's announcement to the young Mary. Whether a consciously written phrase or not, the poet, not some big-name theologian, is comfortable with the positive aspects of aging and the confident Lutheran that she is. ("The Pastor's Wife Considers her 57th Birthday") was nominated by the editors of The Georgia Review for a Pushcart Prize. It is fitting that her sestina "Elegy for Anthony Hecht" includes references to Hecht's parody "Dover Bitch" and to his own remarkable sestina, "The Book of Yoleck." Placed near the end of this collection, the poems have become more daring in the intimacy of impersonation and the solemn. The last poem in the collection, "A Cadenza for Arnaut Daniel," is a tribute to the inventor of the sestina and riffs cadenza-like in its complexity, from theme to theme to questions that move from an uncle's drunken suicide to the examination of the speaker's soul which is juxtaposed against Daniel's "...ordinary of uncle and sister." (Ordinary, here, is the liturgical meaning: not seasonal. The service readings outside of a liturgical season instruct one how to live one's life.) Garrett wrote of the sestina journey in the June 2004 issue of Arts & Letters: "I miss the consolation of writing sestinas. I've written double sestinas, triple sestinas, metered, free verse sestinas, fat sestinas, skinny sestinas." This erstwhile junior high school teacher has evolved as one of the most prolific writers of the sestina.
In keeping with the style established in The Dynamite Maker's Mistress, Garrett's second full length collection, The Pastor's Wife Considers Pinball, continues to push the boundaries of subject matter and form. Garrett, married to a pastor for many years, is familiar with Lutheran orthodoxy but boldly challenges expectations poetically and theologically. Her first poem, "The Pastor's Wife and I" prologue to The Pastor's Wife Considers Pinball, is a daring revelation of life as a pastor's wife. Jill Baumgaertner, poetry editor of The Christian Century where several of The Pastor's Wife poems were published, says, "She challenges the subject no one talks about, pushes boundaries, shows the difficulties but there is no hand wringing over her fate." According to Baumgaertner, the poems were well received, even loved, by Pastors. (Personal Interview 6, June 2014.)
Continuing with confessional truths that could threaten the person in the pew, the first poem "The Pastor's Wife Considers Theology" melds memory, observation and commentary:
What's that word for remembering?
Anamnesis? Yes, like when I hear him
murmuring his way through them toward me.
The body of Christ given for you.
The body of Christ given for you.
He might as well be a bread machine....(TPWCP 9)
One sees here further evidence here of the influence of Flow, derived from Mihaly Csikszentmihaly's discoveries. "Happiness does not depend on outside events...its condition must be cultivated, prepared for and defended." Garrett, a poet of fortitude defends her observations of the secret life of the man of the cloth who surfs pornography on the internet:
You take a chance, enter your usual search,
then slump-shouldered leer into the yielding
windows past women open as lilies,
linger among the slick girls pierced by strangers...
This poet has both a familiar relationship with the Old Testament and a husband.
In the same collection, the ironic "Why Break the Line?" which uses only broken lines, the epigraph hides a sly joke by leaving the end of the quote unsaid. "I sat down under his shadow with great delight...." However, the final words are "And his fruit was sweet to my taste." (Song of Solomon 2:36)
In "Game 2" Anthony Hecht's poem "More Light! More Light!" appears as the Pastor's Wife flees the intended good of church committees into the luminous intensity of the arcade. There, the poet describes the machines "...like alligators at the edge of Lake Kissimmee." A list bemoans not having the required material for memoirs: (no) immigrant parents, early rape, Ivy schools, expensive wine, and an absent child. As if pinched, the writer returns to the reality of "too many young girls in tight jeans..." and waits her turn for a game. "Game 3" is a charming analogy of the pinball player as a kayaker teetering on the edge of a waterfall like the poet beginning a poem. (TPWCP 17)
"Game 5" is written from the interior of a pinball machine using quirky, unexpected analogies: the cover glass is the lid of Snow White's coffin and the playing field is opened like a car hood; then a tour of the machine's interior: wires, coils, circuit boxes, bells, cogs, a light bulb and dust. Then she detours into a philosophic litany of things that can go wrong (the innards of a machine): walls "loop and twist", boulders crash into a farmer's crop and life returns with each morning. (TPWCP 21) In "The Pastor's Wife Considers Gray" she whimsically connects our views of the Hebrew God Yahweh and Crayola.
Some days Yahweh's crayon box
holds colors for tip-toeing within regret's bold
lines, and others from scribbling acceptance's
Wild Blue Yonder on bathroom walls...
And there's this crayon's violet wrap,
labeled Purple Mountain's Majesty,
Crayola's Rosetta Stone, a god gone corporate,
an international company to grab a child 's soul.(TPWCP 11)
As in the previously quoted poem, Nola Garrett would form an "international company" of her own when her son married Natasha Crvenkoska from the Republic of Macedonia. (In 2013 The United Macedonian Diaspora named Natasha Garrett, Director of International Services at LaRoche College, one of the 40 Under 40 Young Macedonian professionals working in the United States.) On September 8, 1991 the Republic of Macedonia became an independent country; poetry, like their folk music, is revered there, preserving and reinforcing the Macedonian culture. Macedonia, a landlocked country bordered by Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Serbia, has always battled for its place in the world. This accounts for its very political poetry, poetry that displays a hardcore use of metaphor. Annually, Macedonia sponsors the famous international poetry festival, Struga Poetry Evenings.
Nola and Natasha Garrett have translated the prominent Macedonian poet Radovan Pavlovski's collection God of the Morning. Pavlovski, a resident of Skopje, is renowned in Europe, and has also lived in Croatia. Natasha describes Macedonian poetry this way: "There is metaphor upon metaphor upon metaphor." (THI, 7) The collaborators had to discern what the metaphor meant, who is the speaker and to whom the poem is addressed.
In "A Man" as translated by the Garretts, we find the poet-patriot examining his country:
I lift this skull that just hours ago
the tempest dug out.
How raw is his innocent death,
exposed after centuries here in this hill
where now I lay him down in a fresh grave,
dewy among wild thyme buzzing with bees.
The hill now seems greater
with a new human stance....
Natasha Garrett, in reference to Pavlovski's political poem, has said, "Here is a country one ought to recognize and here is the proof." (THI 62) The speaker in the above poem might be any Macedonian citizen looking at the past. The reader is asked to recognize the speaker's country's history and to embrace it. These simple sentences are characteristic of Macedonia's poetry.
Together, Natasha and Nola worked through their translation process. Natasha has two degrees in English literature and was on good terms with her mother-in-law, necessary requirements for this partnership. Still, there were problems of vocabulary and cultural references. "Green Market" is an example. Natasha said, "Nola and I spent some time translating the poem 'Green Market.' We began with the literal translation of the title, 'Market People.' The color green is abundant in the open air markets of Macedonia, not only vegetables but the actual booths are painted green." "People Who go to the Market" was too long. Finally, they settled on "Green market." (THI 64) Natasha, the urbanite from Skopje, needed the agrarian vocabulary of Nola, the poet from rural Erie County Pennsylvania. In the back and forth negotiations between the translators their poem "Green Market" was the breakthrough that crossed linguistic barriers.
Mark Jarman, in his introduction to Poets Translate Poets, 2013, presents Pound's theory "...a good poem translated should become another good poem, belonging to the translator as much as the poet." While this theory could have been problematic, the Macedonian translator being protective of the poem and the American poet wanting to free it, the Garretts transcended their stands and reached a translatable understanding.
Nola Garrett gives readers further reasons why they should embrace poetry and womanhood in "The Pastor's Wife Considers her 57th Birthday", a poem of the triumphant woman poet:
I'm no Molly Bloom but I'll say yes
to another year
of choir practice, teas, gossip of yeast
infections, recycled paper, yard
work, committees, pious smiles, yarn,
gelatin salads, and waiting for Yaweh... (TDMM, 60)
Evidenced by her early determination to obtain an education, by her long academic career and in her poetry, as Csikszentmihaly states "...a person has to learn to provide rewards for herself...to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external conditions." Independent and determined, this poet has found rewards and enjoyment through her work and we readers are the richer for it.
The ways in which Nola Garrett has reinvented herself are exemplars in the literary world: the transition from junior high teacher to university professor, her contributions to seminary education, the translations from Macedonian, and her honest writing about the role of a pastor's wife. In the opinion of this contributor, her approach to the sestina form can be called the "American Sestina"—building the old into fearless expansion of the new. Of Nola Garrett's work, Jill Baumgaertner, in the June 25th 2014 issue of The Christian Century, said about The Pastor's Wife Considers Pinball "These are highly imaginative, delightful poems, and like all good poems they are slightly unsettling." Nola Garrett's "highly imaginative" writing moves us from the confessional to the complex; as a poet who displays creativity and boldness to the aspiring writer, she shows us the strong, intellectual woman.
Baumgaertner, Jill, Personal Interview, 6 June 2014
Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, March 31, 1991, Harper Perennial
Garrett, Natasha, Director of International services, LaRoche College, Personal Interview, 7. April 2014
Garrett, Natasha, Transnationalism, Home and Identity: Personal Essays, Ph. D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 2011
Garrett, Nola, Thesis Proposal: The Pastor's Wife Considers Pinball.
---. The Dynamite Maker's Mistress
---."Landscape with Six Plastic Flamingos", Arts & Letters, Spring 2005, Issue 13.
---.The Pastor's Wife Considers Pinball, 2013 Mayapple Press.
---.Wives, with Elston, Angela, 1989, Mercyhurst College Press.
Pavlovski, Radovan, God of the Morning, 1991, MS.trans. Garrett, Natasha and Garrett, Nola.
Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project thanks The Christian Century for their gracious permission to quote "A Man," originally published in the issue of Aug 7, 2007.