“Between Life and Death There is Nature”: A Review of Smoky Zeidel’s Garden Metamorphosis

“Between Life and Death There is Nature”: A Review of Smoky Zeidel’s Garden Metamorphosis (Deltona, FL: Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC, 2018), ISBN-13: 978-0-9979517-4-5

Smoky Zeidel has a way with words. This five-time Pushcart nominee is able to plumb the depths of human experience with a simplicity of language that makes accessible what the philosophers, rhetoricians, and many poets render (at times on purpose) vague and therefore useless.
Garden Metamorphosis is much more than a book of poems (and a bonus short story that rends the heart); it is a meditation made in nature’s Cathedral—the garden. As Voltaire advised in Candide, we each must “tend our own garden.” Gardens have served for centuries as masterful metaphors for the soul, the human condition, and the mystical nature of Nature. Zeidel’s powerful poetry captures this alchemical mixture-in-a-bottle in book form, and the reader is wiser for the journey.
Monarch butterflies figure prominently in the collection, in both poems and the short story. The transformation of the butterfly (caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly) is perhaps the most tried and true metaphor of all of the many nature metaphors that have graced the page from the author–mystic’s pen. It is the three-act model in action, a pattern that happens not once, but many times in a person’s life. It is proof that our lives are a process, a chance to continually move from “I am this” to “I am becoming something new.” Another core theme is the sacredness of the soil, the plant life, the bugs and beasts encountered when one is down in the dirt—rooted and connected, away from the brain-draining, connection-dampening technological construct into which so many of us are patched.
There is a lot of talk in recent years in the scientific world of entropy—the natural decay and death that drives all of existence. Playwright David Mamet has made it the center of his work and Dan Brown’s most recent novel, Origin, explores entropy in existence-critical ways for humankind. Zeidel advises in “Sacred Soil” that we to “celebrate decay.” She then asks:
“…when I die/bury my ashes in a garden…/and plant a tomato or orange tree/as my grave marker” so that she may become “sacred soil” and “nourish new growth.” Entropy in action.
Interdicted with the garden poems are poems that create a push and pull in the author’s life, from past to present and back, revolving around key people she has known (see “Guitar Man” and “My Father’s Trains”). Here again is the three-act structure at work—metamorphosis comes in stages, and Zeidel takes us to childhood, to young adulthood, and to the present. In “Wind,” stanza one ends with her “aged, arthritic hands” while the second stanza takes us back to when she was six. It is a poem about Kennedy’s death, and death is perhaps the ultimate metamorphosis—a theme prevalent in the poetry in these pages.
Zeidel is also working here with schisms and gaps—those created by or between such things as young/old, magic/logic, the safety of “grandmother’s arms”/the bombing of Aleppo. These are the ritual spaces for transformation.
All of this leads seamlessly to—and operates as a primer for—the short story “Transformed.” Reviewing Zeidel’s prose is always tricky (I have reviewed three of her novels) because, like in her poems, she moves back and forth in time, creating mystery boxes that are only opened in the final act. It would be a sin to reveal a single secret thing. Thematically, “Transformed” is closely linked with the poems in the ways I’ve already discussed. The protagonist, Marina, is isolated, her garden having become her whole world. She styles herself (like Zeidel in her bio) a “monarch rancher.” How she comes to this place of isolation, awaiting the cracking of her own chrysalis to become something new, something transformed, is unfolded through Zeidel’s beautiful, evocative prose, which, in this particular tale, utilizes the syntactical simplicity of Hemingway with the depth of the great Persian poets. All surfaces are reflective here—of Marina, of monarch, of us. Nature is never one thing, though it always is the Teacher—and the lessons can be hard.
Read Garden Metamorphosis multiple times. Read it a poem at a time, and meditate in between each of them. Carefully, spiritually cultivate your garden or, if you don’t have one, create one—even if it’s on a windowsill, in an egg carton (something new from something old). And, should you see a monarch butterfly beating its wings against the breeze, think of who you’ve been, who you are, and what you might become.
And when you do, say a silent thank you to Smoky Zeidel—monarch rancher and writer extraordinaire.


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