Poem of the Week | November 29, 2021

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Ode to the Community Garden, Which Is Really Just a Vacant Lot Between Apartment Buildings; or, On Spending My Last Unemployment Check” by Perry Janes!

Perry Janes is a writer and filmmaker from Metro Detroit, Michigan. A Pushcart Prize and Hopwood Award recipient, his work has appeared in POETRY, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Zyzzyva, Subtropics, The North American Review, West Branch, The Adroit Journal, and others. He holds a BA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College. A recipient of the AMPAS Student Academy Award, he currently lives in Los Angeles, where he works as a screenwriter.


Ode to the Community Garden, Which Is Really Just a Vacant Lot Between Apartment Buildings;
or, On Spending My Last Unemployment Check

Praise the empty garden, its free admission and tip jar.
The buzzards picking at their leftovers
of chipmunk or mouse rot don’t care

about my t-shirt shrunk too small in the wash,
the newly purchased scarf I couldn’t afford
but fuck it. The economy of consumption

is everywhere. Look. The hawk eats the fox
and that is a loss. The fox eats the squirrel
and that is a loss. The squirrel buries the acorn

and that is an investment in future acorns.
Recently, while interviewing for the job
I thought I wanted, a wealthy filmmaker

compared poverty to not buying a lemonade
with your fast food dinner.
Later that same day
(you can see it coming, can’t you?)

he bought me a lemonade. At what point
does a gesture of kindness become
some other kind of gesture?

                When I was ten or twelve,
                             when my father slammed our last
                carton of milk against the—

When the repo men arrived in—

                             My father, the gentlest man I—

                                         Two flashlights through the windows,
exposing furniture, bare, in the dark, where—

                And I was not ashamed, am not ashamed,
                                         to say ashamed would not be—

                When, years later, the woman I love
calls from work to ask about my walk,
                how it was, if any of the usual figures
                             appeared, the buzzards, or—

When even the tail end of her braided hair
                             in the wind begins to resemble a price—

Am I damaged in some essential way?
Striding through the garden
with all the purpose I can muster,

the purpose a body manufactures
when it stops to lift the lily, its petals,
thinking: I could hold this

until all the water drains from my palms.
                             how much?


Author’s Note

This poem springs from two places. First, it comes from an interest in the “ode” as a formal lineage. What does it look like for the ode to hold space (literal or figurative) for our less gracious emotions (resentment, bitterness, despair) without also negating the praise we expect from the form? Second, this poem comes from a time in my life where I found it increasingly difficult to access gratitude at all. In very literal ways, I found my relationship to commerce, labor, and scarcity imposing itself on my daily rituals. This led me to larger questions about who can “afford” the kinds of delight usually celebrated by the ode. This poem attempts to embody those questions.