Beth McDermott reviews Leaves of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection by Laura Madeline Wiseman & Sally Deskins

May 4, 2016 0 Comments Uncategorized 3845 Views


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Laura Madeline Wiseman & Sally Deskins. Leaves of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection. CreateSpace: December 2015. 60 pages.  $17.99 Paperback.  ISBN-10: 151883656 ISBN-13: 978-1518836565

I love that Leaves of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection begins with a poem that addresses the human in a way that suggests the problem with anthropocentrism: a word that, per Timothy Clark, “names any stance, perception or conception that takes the human as centre [sic] or norm” (3).  Our willingness to remove a tree without considering its intrinsic value, or for whom it provides shade, shelter, or even beauty is the subject of “Horse Apples and Leave Takers,” the chapbook’s opening poem.  Addressing us, the speaker asks: “What if you’re not / the master or namer / of beasts your book commands // but the hard and fleshy / fruit swaying in the tree?”  I have to believe this is a deliberate move on the part of this chapbook’s co-creators—that the first poem in a collection about the relationship we have with trees, beyond their use-value, illustrates through metonymy our likeness to them: “Not the hapless man // who swallowed truth / but the heavy, yellow orb / by which you fall?”

A collaboration between the poet Laura Madeline Wiseman and the artist Sally Deskins, Leaves of Absence not only suggests our likeness to trees but also how we might come to know and cultivate them.  However, “knowing” for Wiseman requires calling into question the ways we have been taught, through the sciences, to identify and classify trees as though we are “master or namer.”  Instead of such Enlightenment-minded thinking, Wiseman’s poems promote the wildness of trees, which is to say the aspect that nourishes our imaginative and emotional capacities.  This is the side of trees we might have known in childhood and can now turn to (as Rilke suggests of childhood more broadly) to feed the poetic imagination.  

But then I remember all of the poems I’ve read about trees, and Wiseman’s poems seem to be exceedingly necessary.  Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” for example, has been used by the editors of The Ecopoetry Anthology as an example of what not to write, since Kilmer’s poem, per Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, anthropomorphizes the tree to an anthropocentric effect.  However, Kilmer’s poem is from another time.  For a writer interested in 21st century nature, perhaps the question of how to write refreshing poetry about trees can be answered by experimenting with language.  In the prose poem “The Family of Magnolias,” Wiseman slices various levels of diction into the poem, resulting in a kind of juxtaposition that suggests all of the ways we come to know and love trees, language being one of the foremost: “Avoid trees with damaged trunks, wilted or scorched leaves or signs of insect / and disease damage…and now let the wild rumpus / start.  Some call it a Cucumber Magnolia, and a long / time ago, it was a Beavertree.”  What “some call” magnoliaceae implies the common names we have to replace the species names—evidence for the way we have personally responded to trees and used language to capture that quirkiness.  

Wiseman’s treatment of trees as sources of pleasure reiterates the Romantics’ and American transcendentalists’ perspectives that nature is a site of psychic retrieval where the pressures of civilization are alleviated or forgotten.  For Wiseman, trees are a place to return to and feel whole.  It is therefore only natural that the body would be pained by the loss of a tree, especially one that comes to represent the staying power of wildness, that aspect of nature that can’t be altered by city tree regulations.  In “Common Prayer to Tree Gods and Goddesses,” Wiseman’s speaker laments the loss of a tree “rose pink as a float in a parade, as a kith and kin of the Lorax”:

That tree had suckers and dandelions, silver dust

and pansies that refused to die, ignoring the zone.  She was ours

and now mine.  I miss the nonsense of nursery rhyme,

the public library’s granite floors, spiral stairs, and children’s room.

They taught if a silver tray of sugar water doesn’t feed

the butterflies, plant thistle and fennel, all the witches’ herbs.

They taught that if asked, kings will fill our baskets with cranberries

and blueberries, that this kingdom, this arboretum, is home.

The comparison between trees and texts is purposeful in that Wiseman’s speakers are often attempting to “read” trees, observing them in order to tell what kinds of trees they are.  But the comparison also suggests that literature—particularly the highly imaginative kind—teaches us in a way that the city’s tree regulations cannot.  As an “illustrated guide,” Leaves of Absence counteracts the kinds of language that ignore what trees bring to our imaginative lives—a stance that has potential life-changing effects.  I quote one of the chapbook’s epigraphs by Roy L. Hudson: “That the present effort will be carried into your gardens and help solve some of your problems and increase your pleasure in your trees and shrubs is the sincere wish of the author.”  

That trees and gardens might be sites of restoration is the sincere wish of the author, but also the artist: as an illustrated guide, Leaves of Absence positions each of Wiseman’s poems with a painting by Deskins.  The best adjective for how I would describe Deskins paintings is “lush.”  Opposite Wiseman’s poems, Deskins paintings are not always paintings of trees—in fact, some are what I would call abstract; yet, their “lushness” in color and the wide swaths of Deskins’ brushstrokes suggests the leafiness of trees and the experience of standing beneath a wash of color, pierced by varying degrees of sun and shade.  Side-by-side with the poems, the paintings provide a duality of experience reminiscent of reading poems beneath branches canopying grass.  It is a chapbook that will no doubt encourage your affection.  

Works Cited

Clark, Timothy. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Fisher-Wirth, Ann, and Laura-Gray Street, eds. The Ecopoetry Anthology. San Antonio: Trinity UP, 2013. Print.  

Wiseman, Laura Madeline and Sally Deskins. Leaves of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection. Princeton: Red Dashboard LLC, 2016. Print.


About the Author

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of over twenty books and chapbooks. She earned a BS in Women’s Studies and English Literature from Iowa State University, a MA in Women’s Studies from the University of Arizona, and a PhD in English the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has received an Academy of American Poets Award, a Louise Van Sickle Fellowship, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Fellowship, and grants from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and the Center for the Great Plains Studies. Her poem “Roadside Kiddie Pools” won the 2015 Beecher’s Contest in Poetry. Her poem “When We’re Not Hiking” was s a finalist for the 2015 District Lit Poetry Prize.

She edited the poetry anthology Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013) and served as the Guest Editor for Issue #18 – Historical (Re)Tell of Cahoodaloodaling. She is the Editor of The Chapbook Interview. Currently, she teaches poetry in the Red Hen Press Writing in the Schools Program and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Photo & bio courtesy of the author’s webpage on Amazon.

About the Artist

Sally Deskins is an artist, art writer, consultant, art model, mother, wife and art enthusiast. She is a Teaching Assistant in the Art History Graduate Program at West Virginia University. She holds a BA in Art from UNL and MPA from UNO. Heavily inspired by contemporary artist Wanda Ewing’s work challenging society’s definitions of femininity, Deskins’ art explores womanhood and motherhood in her life and others’.  Her art has been exhibited in galleries in Omaha, New York, Pittsburgh, Charleston, Philadelphia and Chicago; and has been published in publications such as Certain Circuits, Weave Magazine, andPainters & Poets. She has curated various solo and group exhibitions, readings and performances centered on women’s perspective and the body. Her writing has been published internationally in journals such asStirring, Prick of the Spindle, Bookslut and Bitch. She is founding editor of LES FEMMES FOLLES. She has published four LES FEMMES FOLLES anthologies of art, poetry and interview excerpts can be found on

Her first illustrated book Intimates & Fools, with poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, came out in 2014 and received  Nebraska Book Honor Award for illustration and cover art in 2015.

Learn more about Sally and her work: 

Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, & LinkedIn


About the Book

Red Dashboard LLC Publication presents a published collaborative project, Leave of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection, with art and illustrations by Sally Deskins and poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman. With a lush look at the body in nature, Deskins’ art considers the pallet of the human form within trees, the tall creatures that we stand among. Moving from fairy tale to children’s book, film representation to fact, Wiseman’s poetry tells the love story of two trees as they fall from a growing forest into the outstretched limbs of the other. Together the art and words weave a rich ecology of place to show us that even when we’re reaching away from what we know, our lives are actually becoming more entwined, binding us to what we love.



Praise for Leaves of Absence:

In Leaves of Absence: An IllustratedGuide to Common Garden Affection (Red Dashboard Publishing) with poetry by LauraMadeline Wiseman and art by Sally Deskins, our capacity as women to thrive orwilt, is revealed through daily garden life. In between these detailed poemsand exuberant paintings, there are paragraphs of facts and plant history, toteach and temper the budding words. It is a reminder that caring for nature,like caring for a person, is an investment… Wiseman and Deskins explore thisjourney through these intricate poems and bursting water colors…Thiscollaboration is a tour de force of word and color, a wonderful blending hybridcreation, as can only be found in nature. – Luna Luna

“Once there was the story of how fruit brought ruin and Eve’s temptation brought sorrow to the world.  In Leaves of Absence, Deskins’ and Wiseman’s collaboration brings us back to the garden.  We are immersed in the green shade of affection, brought to our senses through rich visual compositions and poetry that rings of a new found energy in the garden.” -Karen Fitzgerald

“With the strength of an oak and deep as its roots, the poetry of Laura Madeline Wiseman synchronizes gently with the sweet flow of the willow accomplished by Sally Brown Deskins. Nature inspires. Having read this lovely book I will never again look at a tree without feeling its beating heart within my own.” -Sheila Grabarsky

“The growth of trees brings uninvited events. A pioneer spirit is needed to survive and remain hardy. Leaves of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Aff ection is a powerful grafting of poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman and lush and delicate drawings by Sally Deskins. This book is a refreshing hybrid of natural history and emotional discovery.” – Barbara Roux

“A poetic field guide to trees and love, Leaves of Absence sparks rich memories of young days–passionate, unruly and fondly recalled. It laments the deep wounds we inscribe upon one another as we grow– fallen tree and heartworn lover alike. While the ordinary passerby does not know of their secrets, in this collection of poems and impressions, Magnolia, Rose, Oak and Catalpa tell their story to all who will lean in to listen.” – Mel Shapcott


Notable Links:

Amazon Author Page


Follow her & learn more: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, & Goodreads


Other Publications:

An Apparently Impossible Adventure (BlazeVOX [books], 2016), Wake (Aldrich Press, 2015), and the collaborative book with artist Sally Deskins Leaves of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection (Red Dashboard, 2016). Her book Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014) was nominated for the 2015 Elgin Award. Poems collected in Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013) were awarded the 2011 Susan Atefact Peckham Fellowship in Poetry. Her collaborative short story collection with artist Lauren Rindaldi, The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2015), includes work that won the 2011 Spittoon Fiction Award, the 2008 Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Award in Fiction, and was a Honorable Mention for the 2009 Arts & Letters/Susan Atefat Prize selected by Paul Lisicky. She is the author of nine chapbooks, including She Who Loves Her Father (Dancing Girl Press, 2012), which was a finalist for the 2010 Apprentice House Chapbook Competition.Her collaborative book with Sally Deskins Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2015) is an Honor Book for the 2015 Nebraska Book Award.

Her poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and reviews have appeared in Margie, Mid-American Review, Poet Lore, Blackbird, Arts & Letters, Prairie Schooner, Feminist Studies, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, Calyx, and American Short Fiction.

About the reviewer:

Beth McDermott is Poetry Editor for Kudzu House Quarterly and the author of How to Leave a Farmhouse (Porkbelly Press, 2015).

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