September 23, 2022 by The Citron Review
by William Woolfit
The letter P descends from the Hebrew פ, pē, from the Greek π, pi, from the pucker of a mouth that’s tasted bitter persimmon, the tree that bows as the hungry boy pulls down a branch. P is for preacher man, and Pauline, his wife, and paintbrush, polka dot house, purple milk bottles, pink Jesus, planetary travels. P is for pairidaēza, an old Iranian word that means “walled vegetable plot.” P is for the penumbra of Howard Finster as he passes the window when the sun is shrinking, the dim shape of him as he pushes a wheelbarrow into the swamp at twilight, the point of him blending with light as he kneels and presses fragments of mirror into a concrete walkway, the fuzz of him as he clears pricker bushes with the mow blade. P is for him playing the banjo and accordion as he sings hymns and Jimmie Rodgers songs. And peddling groceries and family picture clocks, and painting the words Your Soul Is Precious on the side of his car.
Howard wants to make a plant farm museum, a beauty spot, a park for people traveling their last road. He’s been glimpsing strange things since he was a child. First, his sister Abbie Rose, who had died after a rabid dog bit her, but there she was, descending a staircase of clouds, hovering near some tomato plants, saying he would have many visions in the future. After that, his brother burned up in a grass fire; then more brothers and sisters died. There were drought times, hungry times, weevils in the cotton, and in the blue goose peas they ate for supper, times when Howard had to sell meat rabbits in Chattanooga. At sixteen, he started to preach. He’s been a mill hand, lawn mower repairman, cabinet builder, piano tuner; he calls himself a stranger from another world. Sitting on his porch, he sees a man who’s tall as a giraffe, his head the size of a refrigerator; the misshapen man tells him, get on the altar. Howard thinks this means he’s supposed to make art, make a garden of art.
Now, his longings and his dreams keep him seeing gardens like he’s never seen before, gardens full of splendors, and so in 1961, Howard buys a ruined lot near Pennville, Georgia. A warm flash runs all over him. He stops preaching at tent revivals, on the radio, at Chelsea Baptist Church. He thinks that his ruined lot—part swamp, part dump—could become the garden of pumpkins and wisteria and Bible verses and hubcap towers that he’s pictured in his dreams, the garden that greens and flourishes and spreads, the garden that the quickening spirt and the second atom keep telling him to make. This spoiled land is all that he can afford: four swampy acres choked with garbage that his neighbors have been throwing out for years. The muck and silt slurp his boots from his feet; the sunken concrete slabs keep the sour water from soaking into earth, trap it in brackish pools.
For seven years, Howard drags out, bags up, hauls off the trash that’s strewn all over his acres; for seven years, he brings in fill dirt with his tractor, his wheelbarrow. He lives on peanut butter and instant coffee. He waves away mosquitoes, kills water moccasins, keeps on moving trash out, keeps on wheeling dirt in. He cuts trees, and fills, and levels, and cleans out, and rakes. To rearrange his land—giving some paths to flowing water while keeping some portions dry—he makes ditches, spring branches, and mosaic walkways. He plants butter beans, roses, okra. He builds a mirror house. A coop for his peacocks and three-legged chicken. Plywood angels. A rolling chair ramp, a machine gun nest. Prayer spaces and a chapel. The tomb of the unknown body. He won’t charge admission; he wants everyone to visit his garden, wants schoolchildren to pick red plums from the fruit-burdened trees.
William Woolfitt’s poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in AGNI, Blackbird, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Spring Up Everlasting (Mercer University Press, 2020). His essay collection Eyes Moving Through the Dark is forthcoming from Orison Books.