The (Im)possibility of Paradise: Marjory Heath Wentworth’s “Noticing Eden”

In Noticing Eden, Marjory Heath Wentworth walks you out to a far spit of dark South Carolina beach, where the red morning sun will set the whole ocean ablaze when it rises. But the sun hasn’t risen yet. It’s still dark, and she wants you to listen to the sweet hymn of ocean wind that could explode into a hurricane at any moment. To see the black stretch of shore road that could take you to a sea-side wedding just as easily as it could take you to a future where cancer swims in the lightless lagoons of your body. To look out into the cold, bare morning air and know that it isn’t empty; that it’s brimming with memory, life, death. And when the sun finally does rise, she wants you to grieve for the night that might never come again, and to open your hands to feel the warm joy of daybreak.

The poems of Noticing Eden are drenched in the foggy daybreaks and dusks of coastal America. Moonlit tidal sprawls. Bedroom windows full of stars and the blinking flicker of a passing ship. Old, sun-dappled oaks. The ebb and flow and constant, rushing whisper of the blue Atlantic. A paradise, indeed.

But there are other paradises to notice here, too. There are the sensual ecstasies of lovers’ bodies, of loving and of being loved:

I want to stay right here
afloat in moonlight, tracing phosphorescent
rivers spilled across twisted sheets,
until I lose myself again
in mahogany rings of my love's hair.
His skin
swimming on my skin, aflame
in the wet light that comes
from love. The river rises.
("The Day Moon")

And there are small, sunlit pastures containing the unspoiled, honest beauty of a natural perfection.

Fingers of lime green
Cucumber poke through curled leaves
Like bashful children

Crawling up the fence
All day the moonflowers hide
Petals from the sun
("Haiku Garden")
Blue is the color of rain 
falling in the night,
and brown is the river
that swallows the rain.
("The Color of Rain")

Not all paradises, however, are so lovely, or so evocative of rapturous passion. Sometimes paradise is merely a prayer to counterbalance grief. Sometimes perfection is merely a longing for itself—a bittersweet notion that exists only as the cruelly beautiful vibrancy of life itself, reflections of which are scattered throughout this book like driftwood. In “Beach Walk,” a dying man is “radiant / as he takes his last walk on the beach.” The poem ends in a haunting epitaph:

This man who looks like someone
I once loved, looks like a man who is making love—
a man who is here, but not here.

In “Findhorn,” the source of island life’s natural sweetness is not life at all, but death:

They say this place is spiritual, mystical.
People in the community grow
giant cauliflower in the fertile soil.
I know nothing of the soil
and the fantastic vegetables,
but I do know
I have never felt
closer to the dead.

These existential moments are not merely stray shadows in the garden. Indeed, the crux of these poems is the understanding that alongside every lush patch of paradise are the howls and wrecks of hurricanes, heartbreaking loss, and the knowledge that all good things are built upon bones and ruin:

In this country
Wherever we walk
We must tiptoe over graves
Of the vanquished
Who lie beneath us
In a continuous spin of sleep”
("Naming the Dead")
Today there are hundreds of small plums descending
to the earth too soon. Like you, my friends,
they are wild, ripening, and fallen
to the ground which tears their skin
until it bleeds its thick sugary juice
across the sand.
(“Wild Plums”)

This duality is the truth of Eden that Wentworth so skillfully shows—what is sand, after all, if not stones and shells ground down into nothing? What good can come from appreciating the majesty of the midnight ocean if it reminds you only of the final, implacable darkness we all must eventually swim into?

The answers Wentworth gives us are simple, honest, and real.

Hope. Renewal. Quiet peace.  

Paradise, after all, can be its own reward, a redemptive place which pulls its strength not from its innate perfection, but because it exists at all in a windy and chaotic world:

The stems are tough and difficult
to break like her heart, rinsed clean.
Bamboo rises from the hillsides
a cathedral of calm green.
It has taken years for her
to find this place.

Tellingly, the last poem, “Rivers of Wind,” ends with an eye on the future—not a prognostication or a prediction, but just the simple hope that life will continue, and it will grow, and it will be better.

There is so much light
filling the sky here.
There is so much conviction
in the wind now.
Watch the seeds of hope
as they scatter far,
far across this land
(“Rivers of Wind”)

Noticing Eden, stripped of all its captivating imagery, is a study of nothing less than human existence—of, every day, being buffeted by the changeable waves of love, grief, pain, and perseverance. Of walking along the salty shore, knowing that each footstep falls on someone’s bones, but loving the coolness of the sand beneath your toes. Of mourning the friends and loved ones who have passed from this life even as you revel in the sensual warmth of bonfires, sunny days, the body of your lover sleeping next to you. Of knowing, ultimately, that paradise is never what we want it to be—but also of keeping the hope that, maybe, in the future, it might be.

Noticing Eden, by Marjory Heath Wentworth. Poetry. Published 2003.

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