Eclogues in a Mustard Seed Garden

Glenn Mott
Turtle Point Press ($18.95)

by Simon Schuchat

Eclogue, originally from the Greek, is a short poem on a pastoral subject. The Mustard Seed Garden is a Chinese painting manual from the 17th Century, explaining with model drawings the correct way to paint bamboo, plum blossoms, people, insects, and so on. How could these two things possibly go together? Glenn Mott, an erudite and well-traveled poet, has the answer—though pastoral specifically singles out shepherds and shepherdesses, and if the topic is not herding animals but rather growing plants, it should properly be called a Georgic.

Our mental space is, or ought to be, global. This book encompasses that mind. Mott’s previous book, Analects on a Chinese Screen (Chax Press, 2007), drew on his residence in modern China. It was a complete whole, built out of lines with their subordination and organization left, to some extent, to the reader. This paratactic way of structuring a poem draws on the classical Chinese tradition, where multiple poems reside in one text. Eclogues draws again on this technique.

There are twenty pieces in the book; the majority consist of a title in capitals, followed by a line. For example:


Is too good to be true.



Ideally, each party will be slightly disappointed.

There’s an element of call and response, as well as the grammatical structure of topic: comment. In an ideal world, perhaps each of these elements might be printed on a separate page. In this edition, however, they are joined on the page, so that the sequential nature, the argument, is more evident. Mott has said that he came to this form through dissatisfaction with an earlier manuscript. In it he let in too much, surrounded the memorable with supposedly necessary furniture that might as well be discarded. His breakthrough was to keep only the lines he could easily call to mind. This principle of condensation was achieved, paradoxically, by putting space around the parts.

At the same time, narrative persists. This is particularly true when the poems are read aloud. The pauses between elements are simply breath, and thus they do not disrupt the flow of thought. That is, the book contains twenty poems, each of which are sequences of smaller poem—but isn’t that always the case: the poems come in stanzas that come in lines that come in words.

Though there are Chinese influences on this poetry, there are other traditions at work as well. Mott draws deeply and richly on the Western tradition, Greek and Latin, and the short form of the epigram, the way that remarks are transformed into literature. Writers and thinkers like Martial or Epictetus come to mind. Much of the thought relates to the pre-Socratics (so beloved of Olson, to draw another lineage).

The voice is not Chinese, and it isn’t ancient Greek either—it’s more “middle border high tone,” Midwestern regionalist, and frontier woodsman (even if Mott turns Buddhist monk at times):


To a place like this.



The sun doesn’t shine on the same dog’s ass every afternoon.

Mott has thought and written about our world and our place in it. Everything is included, all are welcome, but everything is what’s important. It’s funny, it’s wise, and, like the original Mustard Seed Garden manual, it’s a model for seeing and speaking and writing.

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