“I will select the epic way”:
The Gardens of Flora Baum by Julia Budenz
An appreciation by Helen Heineman
The Five Volumes of The Gardens of Flora Baum is a posthumous publication. Julia Budenz died on December 11, 2010.
I was privileged to be one of the Radcliffe Institute scholars during the year Julia Budenz was in residence there. We met daily
during that year, and weekly during the next year, when I left to take up a teaching position at Framingham State University, where
I later became Academic Vice President and, for the last seven years of my employment, President. Julia and I, and another of the
scholars, Linda Ty-Casper, had numerous conversations about our work at the Institute. I was writing a biography of Mrs. Frances
Trollope; Linda was composing fiction based in the Philippines, and Julia had embarked on her poetic journey of composition:
The Gardens of Flora Baum. All of us hoped for publication. Linda and I preceded Julia in satisfying this hope; now, in a beautiful five volume edition, published by Carpathia Press, with forewords by Roger W. Sinnott, readers may enter the mind and heart of this remarkable poet, who lays out with both passion and sometimes brutal frankness, her long pilgrimage toward her vocation in poetry.
As is clear from her poetry, Julia’s life and writings were closely intertwined. She graduated from the College of New Rochelle,
and then spent almost ten years as an Ursuline nun. She left the convent in l966, and began writing The Gardens of Flora Baum in l969, when she received a fellowship at what was then called the Radcliffe Institute in 1974-75 for the purpose of developing her work further. Julia also had fellowships from the American Academy in Rome, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Yaddo, among others.
The five volumes, not quite complete at the time of her death, is a work of epic proportions. In it, she writes in many forms: short lyrics, sonnets, rhymed and unrhymed poems, poetic diary entries, letters to her beloved Latin and Greek writers, like Cicero and Tasso, a lengthy sequence of “letters” to Margaret Fuller, Birthday Cards to friends and family, all of it deeply personal. Like Wordsworth’s The Prelude, The Gardens of Flora Baum is a journey from childhood to maturity, a search for vocation and meaning.
This first of the five books, “By the Tree of Life,” begins with a challenge to the reader:
I don’t ask you to believe what I have seen.
I don’t believe it myself. I only see it,
And I tell you as a point of information.
(Vol. I pg. 5)
And the journey begins in the world of nature, and especially the realm of flowers—lilies straining, azaleas
“like lavender luminaries,” the “purple fingers of the crabapple in flower” (I.13), the lilac, the weeping
cherry “in sweet aqueous arrival” (I.18). Nature is epiphany for her, as, on January 6, the “winter witchhazel feels
for spring” (I.34).
At the same time, Julia begins life as a nun, and enters a new land. “Come my chosen,” calls the king. “Take
my veil” (I.39). And she does. In these sections, the verse echoes early Anglo-Saxon poetry. As she addresses the One
who called, she writes: “Who is like you?/ Firmament’s founder, fiercely I cry” (I.41). She also echoes the psalmist:
Arise, make haste, my love, my beautiful one, and come,
. . .
Come into my garden, and know
That I am yours. Be mine. . . .
The imagery is laden with flowers—hedges leafing, cherry trees flowing as a pink fountain. Tulips lifting up “a chalice of red,”
hyacinths curling incense, forsythia glistening. She kneels, singing to the Lord, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord.” The poem becomes increasingly liturgical:
Blessed are they
Who are called to his wedding supper. This bread
Is my body. Take it and eat. And take
This cup and drink my blood.
She wants all of this radiance to stay with her forever. But in Part Four, “The Waves Receding,” the dark
night of the soul enters, and the poet asks,
Why, when he went away,
Did everything go? If the tide
Never returned, would it matter?
Essentially, the remainder of this first book addresses that profound and troubling question. She writes
of “his departure . . . his last dissolution” (I.58). Occasionally, “He returns/ And it is sweet evening” (I.69). But it is not
enough. Her finger is no longer “circled by the firm ring,” and her head is unveiled. There is now “something
infinitely else” (I.75). Still, she won’t deny what she has felt. “I won’t say yet that he didn’t/ Press my chest and
my head/ From within” (I.81). For nine long years, she has heard his call. To express these moments of transcendence,
she uses Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse: “His breath was brooding in the breeze” (I.82). But now, it’s over.
The church is now a tourist spot,
The candle packed in lace,
The veil is folded in a box,
The ring laid in a case.
She unwinds the security which has wrapped her before, and wants something different now:
I wanted to open my heart to the chill
Of myself, to know I was alone on this darkening
Ocean of rock and dust.
What was before, “was nice,” and she fears to “Be grabbed by another/ Lesser you” (I.93). She wonders:
Is it wrong to be snug
In this cozy shrine
With your warm arm around me
And your fond hand pumping my blood
While your other hand sows hurricanes?
But grown up now, she can’t “swing any more.” In “Playground,” in a startling image, she compares religious
belief, to being on a swing, gripping “great metal-smelling chains let down from above.” She misses it, that forcing
her way “wingward” (I.103). But she will always remember the pomegranate garden where “We met/ For ever” (I.112). She can’t forget former
days, “the black serge skirt on her ankles/ The sagging black belt, black oxfords tightly laced.” But now “Someone different
walked in her shoes” (I.116).
Despite her losses and her leaving, she ends Book I with a positive, if somewhat ambiguous assertion, in the small poem, “Pygmalion.”
You made me.
You knew me.
You came. A sun
Flamed in the room,
Drew staring eyes,
Held blinking heart,
Wrenched self from socket.
I knew you.
I made you.
Julia herself said, in a short essay called “Query Re One’s Work,” that this first garden is the garden of the holy; its book explores transcendence. Yet, despite its strong center, it is clearly a Paradise Lost.
In Book Two, the poet focuses on the aesthetic. “In a Greek Garden,” for a while, it is a Paradise Regained.
Flora regains the
transcendence she has lost, mainly in nature, and specifically, in trees, where her knowledge is extensive. She
knows “the sweet call
of the linden,” the “glittering greens of the pin oak,” the ginko’s “sunny cuniform,” the barberry’s beauty, the
maple, the “gray-bound
beech,” the hawthorn, the cedar. Nature now serves for pew, “the tree for text and tabernacle” (II.32). Again and again, she juxtaposes,
superimposes nature, in both the spiritual and the sensual. She knows of all “the sureness of the trunk,/ The push of the branches,
the abandon of the leaves . . ./ The rivers of the boughs, the leafy showers./ The branching is the beauty” (II.50). But
soon there is conflict, as Flora necessarily enters the world of work. In a superb and sad brief lyric, she
confides to the reader,
I’ll tell you how it feels, she said,
To scuttle by a garden on your way to work
And drop the small blue nucleus of your soul
At a hedge for day care.
It cries when I leave it, and I say to it, Honey,
I can’t take you into that place
To be slammed onto the copier. Rest here. Let the sunflower
Shower you with golden dust.
In “Weekday in Ordinary Time,” she decides to “steal” the feasts of organized religion and recut them to fit her needs.
You thought you could keep them stored
But I have made them mine,
Plucking them from your rejected hoard
For my workshop, museum, shrine.
But here there are no ready-made images, “No angels on the corbels, no demons over the door,/ No mother,
no father, no son, no flaming dove,/ Only the pigeons, the bark-colored squirrels, the sparrows . . .” (II.56). No bells,
only the magnificent elm “thrusting, groping, wrestling into the sky,/ Pouring, prodding, probing, into the
ground” (II.57). She has been spoken to before, by “the hammering Jehovah,” by the “sweet Jesus with sad brown eyes,”
by “Zeus raining the golden petals with which she trembled,” and just once, she was caught “in the lovely
lingering tentacles of the elm” (II.71). She seeks escape from the urban world. “Never live near a red light./ Over and
over it angers the motors/ Like bulls” (II.76).
Yet she must earn a living, and becomes a file clerk. “Fellow-filers of the world,/ Come, let us worship the
machine”(II.106). In the granite cave of the office, she stands “eight hours a day/ With a chain on my brain.” But
“sometimes I steal the key” (II.107).
The Third Book, “Rome,” is that of the true, specifically of academic knowledge, of scholarship and learning.
This book rests on a lifetime of erudition, of a deep and profound knowledge of classical literature, and uses
material from Roman literature, history, and topography. This is the pivotal book in the design and development
of the poem. Its three parts mark a difficult struggle to pass through pedantry to erudition and insight. Before
long, Flora becomes uncomfortable with mere scholarship, and begins to enter the lives of her subjects, not just
write about them. She confesses,
The ancients are becoming so real to me
I seem to be writing them letters,
I find myself in Rome,
I seem to be waiting for answers.
Her topic is Cicero’s letters to his friends. Helpful for learning Latin, for forming style, in fashioning manners and morals,
they contain the history of their times, the times of Caesar’s civil war. Her audience is her thesis adviser, Professor Edward
Lane. But almost in spite of herself, she welcomes Apollo and feels more at home in the past than in the present. The future is as
blue “as the ink in my Bic pen,” and her characters are gray, emerging from her “aged, ailing typewriter” (III.183). More and more conflict
arises: “Virgil was standing by the door/ Of Widener. I had gone to meet him there.”
Widener is nothing but a library.
Widener my spouse, how can you be my master?
Widener my love, how can I have become
How can she be chained to “the stove while all/ The schoolmen and their pupils sit around/ Beneath the green beech leaves
in beech-green leisure?” (III.297).
And so she rebels. “I know/ I was not made to be a Martha” (III.297). She begins to work on her poems,
one by one. “Choice fruits from choice boughs.” She finds it difficult, as Hawthorne said, to write about
America, “A country where there is no shadow” (III.304). But Rome is different. “You can write a romance/ Or poetry when
ruin lets them grow” (III.304). Now she begins to plan her opus: “Book One/ Describes the holy. Two the beautiful./ Three describes the
true and Four the good./ What is reserved for Five?” (III.308).
She struggles with rhyme, with poetic forms, with being a woman poet. How to cast her work?
Do not do sonnets. You are not a man.
Do not converse with any dead white male.
Do not be formal. We have placed a ban
On everything but freedom.
The poet must not strain and must not plod.
He runs through all existence as his range.
And so the die is cast. She breaks into a rhymed sequence, and finally into a lengthy
sonnet sequence, “Bounds That Let Breeze In” (III.508), as if she suddenly discovers that she can cast what she has to say in this old form.
Julia existed once, that fly-by-night.
Flora rejoices in ten trillion dawns.
The Book concludes with a lengthy conversation with Tasso, “his handsome and attentive face” turned toward her. He greets
her as a friend. They are together now “in our grand adventuring” (III.582).
The Fourth Book, “Towards Farthest Thule,” is set partly in Britain, finally in Shetland, and blooms with human relations. As
might be expected, there are many poems about friends and family. In a Birthday Card to her mother, Margaret Rodgers Budenz,
in a series of opposites, she praises
. . . the laughing of one
Who could have sobbed,
The caring of one
Who could have stopped,
The hard thinking
Of one who could have given in,
The soft singing
Of one who could have given up . . . .
In a Birthday Card to her Father, Louis Francis Urban Budenz, she writes that “At the Last Judgment, I will not have to blush” (IV.131).
She writes Birthday cards and messages to her sisters, “Julia and Jo and Justine and Joanna/ Are the 4 J’s” (IV.158). Her sister Jo seems to have all the qualities Julia admires:
As to her patients is the nurse,
As to her students the teacher,
As to her children the mother,
As to her mother the daughter,
As to her father the child,
As to her husband the wife
As the mistress to her tended home,
As the lover to her vibrant life,
As the contemplative unto her turning world. . . .
But Julia herself is haunted by the publish-or-perish world, as she writes in a diary poem of February 25, 2003:
Be humble, please.
Think not of castles, banquets, gardens, fables
Where gleaming marble pillars are grand trees,
Polished mahoganies posh picnic tables.
Flora, sorry, you are seedy.
We regret to tell you,
Your best plot is weedy.
And if she could not market you, they said,
Could not sell you
You must be worthy to be dead.
And religion haunts her to the end of her life. Yes, she was a nun. Yes, she declares herself now, an atheist. But still, in a
poem called “True Confession,” she imagines the scene at the hospital when she must fill out the form which includes the question,
Before the operation
The nurse had been filling out the form
But the form was for her.
I am very religious, she had said. The pen was waiting.
She was waiting. Roman Catholicism?
Was it her chance to bear witness and go on to heaven?
She could hear the clear bell ringing;
See, in black and white and bringing
Communion, the priest; feel memory clinging.
Her mind was winging, winding. The pen was waiting.
She was waiting. Roman Polytheism?
Should she try to explain? For me everything is gray.
Not black and white, the nurse interpreted helpfully nodding.
The pen was waiting. Her mind was saying, but could she say,
She answered: None.
Yet clearly, poetry has become her religion. She recalls the vast philosophical changes made in her life, and how they have, in a way, paralleled her father’s.
In a poem of 2004, “Father and Daughter,” she parallels her life with her father’s:
Did they have to
Give up everything
Only to discover they were wrong
And have to give up everything again?
. . .
Comrade, what did you hope for?
Sister, what did you seek?
Why was a decade required
For revising the true and the good?
One entered the convent, one joined the Communist Party, “Forsaking the lane of self,/ Taking the road more communal, less common.” But, she realizes,
Myriads of routes mislead.
No single path forever proves correct.
The red star was reached, the blue heaven has been transcended. Both father and daughter have been givers of self. But she can’t rest, can’t say that the quest is over.
. . . must there in the end be only
The last loss, the next question?
And this ambiguity will remain with her until the end. Still, like her Trojan hero, Hector, she wants to do some great
thing, “a something/ That among those who will be will be heard of” (IV.315). She wants to sail “saying something, some great word/That while
there still is hearing still is heard” (IV.316). She asks, in another poem to Hector,
Let me not go unseriously,
Let me not go ingloriously,
But doing something great to be
Known even to those yet to be.
The world is an unfriendly place. “There are times when even our parents/ Have not been able to save us” (IV.330). But she remains clear about her vocation. She must “suffer the beautiful,”
Savor the beautiful . . .
Enter the beautiful . . .
Honor the beautiful.
Frequently, she thinks back to her former vocation, sees herself as being “fitted . . . into the littleness of their pond” (IV.338). As a nun, she
was hooked, caught, as a fish. She is seventy now, and looks back on “her atheistic youth,” to her “brief years of faith,” to “her long
agnostic age/ Without belief, hope, charity . . . or stable name” (IV.358). Sadly, her age has not brought success:
To be seventy and to be destitute,
To be seventy and to be moribund,
To be seventy and to be horrified,
Is hard to take . . . .
To be seventy and to have failed
Even you, dear Flora,
Said Julia finally,
At the book’s end, she summarizes her five volumes of poetry:
Here is plain prose: The first book lost the holy.
The second trembled towards the beautiful.
The third went thirsting for the true, for knowledge.
The fourth fords horrors, helps, hopes, towards the good.
The fifth will see completion or collapse.
Must every quest then recommence as question?
In this time for summing up, she writes a poem called “Life of the Author.”
She lived the history of the West reversed.
Born a postmodern Atheist, at one
She turned a godless Communist, at ten
Was christened as a christian Protestant
In English, at eleven was in Latin
Baptized a christian Catholic. At thirteen
In Latin she met all the gods of Rome;
At twenty waiting on to Greek she found
The gods of Hellas. Stop the catalogue.
Where is the poem? After seventy
Seventy-one is staged. One stage she skipped:
Capitalism. She will die a pauper.
Seventy-one and still a nun
Even without a god, without belief,
Seventy-one and still not done
With what has taken more than half a life. . . .
She is filled with despair over her poetic martyrdom, and agonizes “over this slow cold total repulse of my poem
by the whole human race” (IV.544).
The Fifth and final book presents the garden of the whole. It is the philosophical book, the one most fully placed
in Flora’s native America but also situated in her native world, in her homeland the earth, in her home the universe. Like
the elm, it is rooted and reaching. It grounds itself not only in a meditation upon philosophy, but also in social science and
physical science, in culture and nature. She hopes to live long enough and become wise enough to complete it. The writer Margaret Fuller and the threatened American elm tree both figure prominently in Book Five, perhaps because Fuller was lost at sea in a shipwreck, and the American elms are dying out.
Again, she begins by questioning her vocation.
Some living beings sow, some plant, some study,
Some fight, some fence, and some philosophize.
While some are filling pages with their deeds,
Others are filling pages with their dreams.
And who are we who fill pages with words?
In this book, the number of questions in each poem intensify. And in addition to the author whose life is cut short by shipwreck,
and her sadness about the fate of the elms, she now includes extended references to two doomed voyages: that of Princess Ursula and her
eleven thousand valiant virgins, and, even more to the Hindenburg, that “hulking hull/ Of the high-class hotel in the heavens” (V.43). In the
midst of these failures and tragedies, she again expresses her regrets at not being published.
It is hard to imagine,
There are poets
Whose pages are published,
Whose publications are read.
Her gardens “Are opened upon only by her own eyes.”
This is her purification,
Perhaps a purgatory,
Possibly a hell,
Maybe a paradise
In which she exists like Adam
Before the arrival of Eve.
Again, she returns to the day she left home, in 1956, to enter the convent, answering the call to vocation.
She entered twenty-two and blonde,
Exited thirty-one and gray.
Escaping black and white she donned
Color again. Ahead life lay
Open again. Dark ugly scars
Might turn into dim or glittering truths as of stars,
Might burn into a beauty as of stars.
Next she addresses a long series of “letters” to Margaret Fuller, writing from her bed in Mount Auburn Hospital where she is a
patient. Here, she takes communion, an action ambiguous at best. “I was not a believer. I was an unbeliever, but I chewed a meaning
and hungered for a knowledge and tasted a beauty” (V.194).
She writes much about her suffering there, about the incompetent, lazy, careless, uncaring nurses and aides.
I bear the night attendants who do not care,
Each brutal pair of hands, each cruel stare
Serves to declare: This bosom which no prayer
Can ever penetrate is marked: Beware.
In dark, in glare, the foul is never fair.
Despair, despair, despair, despair, despair.
At the age of 74, she lies “in a cramped double room of a nursing home/ Struggling to guard and multiply/ My treasure” (V.216).
She worries: “Does the poem have to end/ Without my reaching the end of it?” (V.228). In an image conjuring up the travails of Ulysses, she is tied not to a mast, but to the constant sounds of the television of her roommate.
The space is small. My song cannot prevail. . . .
I fly the strident sirens of today
Enticing to loud ugliness.
On her mother’s birthday, she writes:
I wanna cry.
I wanna die.
I wanna weep.
I wanna sleep.
I wanna scream.
I wanna dream.
I wanna know.
I wanna go.
I wanna pray.
I wanna stay.
On Palm Sunday, in the hospital, Holy Communion is brought in to a patient on the other side of the room. She feels a longing
for the holy food, but doesn’t ask. She shouldn’t take food by mouth. Wryly, she asks, “Can the Eucharist be
administered intravenously?” (V.507).
The end of this book is fragmented, with some very short poems, and brief sections of prose.
. . . to write. To write what? Why to write? Will this writing be in touch with the universe? Will it in any way
be worthy of the universe? . . . Or might Julia just as well give up and die? Might Julia just as well escape from
all this pain? . . . There is little hope of her surviving . . . . Oh, but she still has some blank pages.
One of her last letters to Margaret begins “Do not resuscitate . . . . this is the answer to the question which my
gray mind has attempted to answer . . . ” (V.510). Still, speaking again to Margaret Fuller, she writes:
Let my life be beautiful, powerful, complete,
With one more moment to live I would wish the same.
Like you I will select the epic way.
With an echo of Yeats, the last poem in the book concludes her epic journey.
O all ye that pass by the way,
I, Flora, have been authorized to say
That Julia, my author, is ready to be ended.
She pleads, yet, that I may
Last centuries, outlast her little day,
Be amaranth. Take, read. Be not offended.
Julia’s journey has been a quest for meaning. In the five books, she explores the various partial answers and paths to the
transcendence she has been seeking: religion, aesthetics, scholarship, history, nature, and, finally, poetry. In the tradition of
poets like Wordsworth and Whitman, she sings the song of herself, and in so doing, puts the question all must answer: what of my life
and work is permanent and lasting? While all may chose different paths, Julia Budenz, in the persona of Flora Baum, has clearly chosen “the epic way.” And in this beautifully presented publication, in what Robert Fitzgerald has
called “poetry of a high order,” she has found a lasting place in the great and grand garden of American poetry.
Copyright © 2015 by Helen K. Heineman.