Poetry Review: Gardening With Deer by Kathy Miles

Poetry Book Gardening With DeerGardening With Deer is a full-bodied, elegant yet accessible collection of poems which hold tightly together but also incorporate a range of topics, from art and myth to personal experience. It opens with an unnerving poem entitled ‘Bear’, which creates a sense of underlying fear, as we contemplate the “growling dark” and “the shadow on the wall that could be bear”. This theme continues throughout, as a prowling, dangerous presence, lurking just beneath the surface.   

The title poem takes this theme to another level, describing the anxiety that comes with watching a loved one suffer, hoping for recovery but, at the same time, aware of the possibility of death and destruction, as the deer stand on the garden’s periphery, ready to slip in and destroy at a moment’s notice. It is subtle, yet moving, ending with these words:

“You hold her hand,
anxious, yet dreading her waking.”

There is a strong garden (and nature) theme running throughout the collection, with bears, deer, crabs, bees, rooks, whales, larks and gulls starring alongside strawberries, sorrel and narcissus. Gardens are shown to be a metaphor for life and also a metaphor for the process of writing, cultivating memories into words. This brings with it a theme of impending, immovable time. Life continues, as we grow ever older.

The poem ‘Giving Her Brahms’ is a sensitive portrayal of someone with dementia who has begun to lose “the litter of her words” but is able to accept other things: “the pearl of the violin’s tone” and “the print of pollen on her fingers” as gifts which “her heart” can understand, even when “her head no longer knew”. Its partner poem, ‘The Man Who Wanted To Play The Violin’, also deals with the distress and pain of old age, as:

“This was a man who longed to play.
Whose fingers straddled the frets as easily
as a cranefly tremulous on a window pane.”

Characters from the past (or from myth and legend) are brought to life in these poems, including Alice, the poet’s ancestor, from whom she inherits a “shy glance” and an “awkward smile”, along with a ‘Garden Dragon’, King Richard III, the famous female fossil collector, Mary Anning, for whom “Only the beach would do”, and Penelope, waiting for Odysseus to return, as her “youthful blush” begins to disappear.

There is another, perhaps more subtle, undercurrent of feminism which runs throughout the book, appearing in ‘The Girl With Pre-Raphaelite Hair’ whose seemingly beautiful tresses become “brave hair, hair with guts, / devious hair” alongside other re-incarnations of women who have gone before, such as the lace makers of Chantilly, and the five maidservants of Aberglasney.

The harsh realities of grief, pain and fear hold a grip on all these poems but, for me, the most moving poem is ‘Veteran’, a depiction of the poet’s father as he walks through life carrying “the terrible load of memory /… like a sack of coal, / aching from its weight, unable to put it down.”

The overwhelming theme of the book seems to be the passing of time. People and things are resurrected from the past, whilst those in the present must live with constant reminders of the approaching end. The style is simple, yet delicate and concise, drawing the reader in to hear the stories waiting to be told. My only criticism is that there are one or two poems (e.g. ‘Crow’, and ‘Fishing’) which seem slightly unfinished, as though they haven’t had time to grow into what they could become. But this is an exceptional, thought-provoking collection, which could be read again and again. The final line of the last poem, ‘Gate Fever’, sums it up well: “the slow unravelling of lives”.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher (Cinnamon Press)