I live in a rented flat and the garden I am growing a square of cracked cement cornered by two narrow beds is the property of a man I have never met. The soil is poor, full of generations of broken glass and pottery that, despite our best efforts at removal, the earthworms keep churning up; bindweed comes in from next door no matter how much we pull and burn; an enormous overhang of ivy from the rear neighbor ensures most of the garden is kept in deep shade; and as soon as the weather warms an infestation of slugs and snails will rise from the soil and attack everything we plant. It is a comically bad and inhospitable place, "a dark, crazy garden."1 Because it is under attack, because it has no light, terrible soil, because it is lousy with slugs and strangled with weeds we cannot remove, anything that does grow seems how embarrassing miraculous. The rose survives its inexpert pruning. We grow cucumbers and peas up the one sunny wall.

What limits us is not really the light or broken glass we plant for shade; we let the earthworms do their thing but the condition of impermanence that is gardening in a place that does not belong to you and that you may be told to leave at any point. Every rent-paying gardener fantasizes about what they could do if the threat of quick departure didn't loom over each sowing. I dream of mature orchards and wrapping tree ferns in fleece each winter. Raising plants is looking into a future that isn't yours: these tomatoes will be ready in 19 weeks (will I still be here?); these echinacea might flower next year (I definitely won't). I try to console myself with small changes. The soil is a little looser than when we first dug it over. I plant fleabane in the cracks in the cement, more bees stop by. Every improvement, every rose and geranium and bag of soil and sand and vermiculite we buy with our wages swells our landlord's capital.2 Once a friend was told to leave her rented flat and garden and thanked for increasing the resale value. She burned every plant on the way out.


Bernadette Mayer's advice for tenants is clear:

don't pay your rent, in fact
remember: property is robbery, give everybody
everything, other birds walk this way too3

This is the second poem in Works & Days, Mayer's "Spring Journal," which takes us from the equinox to the solstice in East Nassau, New York. This is the "season of temptation," Mayer tells us, "about plants, incipience, coming just after the season of catalogue reading, of envisioning those tomatoes, don't touch!"4 Works & Days borrows its title from Hesiod's farmer's almanac, a prototype for Virgil's Georgics and the genre of agrarian poetry of that name. Georgics are instructive but their lessons are not always practical. Hesiod offers moral instruction; Virgil gives more to the versifier than the farmer. Mayer's advice is more to the point: fuck landlords, rent is theft, everyone deserves everything.

In the Georgic a sudden storm or flood or blight or vagary of the gods may at any point devastate the land that has been laboriously cultivated. Against this, Georgics insist on work that is "compulsory and difficult, undertaken in the face of potential failure, and valued for the hard-won knowledge it yields."5 Mayer's poetry has no faith in hard work and makes light of its productivist values: "Mowing gives people something to put on their to do lists"; nor is this a book with any faith in progress: "We'd all have been better off going sideways or backwards," she tells us, "Things don't lead upward & get improved."6 Like Hesiod's, the book is an almanac, but Mayer's spring calendar is marked not by task and instruction to labor but by notes and observations on adjustments in weather, animal sightings, and plant growth. Plenty grows but little progresses, little is labored, and nowhere does Mayer advise us to put hand to plough. A Georgic, then, which refuses the imperative to work: not a farmer's guide so much as a slacker's almanac.

Instead of gods, in Works & Days there are two things that will ruin your planting: first, the climate catastrophe that makes this a particularly cold spring, bad for growing. "Winter forgot its car keys," Mayer tells us; nothing can be planted out until mid-May; "Plants pause / In their growing / Because it's so cold / It's dispiriting."7 And then there is the regime of private property, against which Mayer rails in poems about her terrible neighbor, historical rent strikes, and genetically modified seeds. Property takes characterological form in the Guy Who Bought the Field (GBF, pronounced gubofi), "a lunatic," who menaces Mayer, steals access to life ("I don't think it's right," she notes, that "the GBF gets to have [ . . . ] The great blue heron fly by his 'property'") and ties the poem's contemporary to histories of colonial dispossession.8 "The guy who bought the field and turned it into a lawn seems to be carrying a rifle, hope he doesn't shoot me," she notes on April 22.9 She muses that "maybe the field will become a golf course," and that "we can all be caddies, carrying the owners' irons."10 In PROPERTY IS ROBBERY PROPERTY IS ROBBERY she issues a memo "In the midst of a no trespass zone":



Mayer advises occupancy, trespassing, wandering places that aren't yours but should be, and delighting in doing so. I can't help but believe this invitation to wander accounts for how loose and formally various the poems in this book are, how difficult it is to say anything about it as a whole. It isn't a book, like the Sonnets or Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, that works within the bounds of a single form. This formal variety is felt locally and across the volume's span. Mayer's dated entries each end with a collection of scrambled words, "seemingly random agglomeration of letters from a daily word game, the jumble", she tells us. Some of those jumbles can be rearranged back into words, some can't. Other poems, like  "Local Politics", follow a quasi-fugal structure of two poems told in alternating lines, braiding the antics of the gubofi with histories of land ownership, rent, and sabotage (and even then, the poem doesn't stick consistently to this pattern): "The red-winged blackbirds / because the leases were legal contracts / are beginning to do their mating-displaying / auctions of livestock to pay rent were sabotaged."12 A path through the poem is our to chart - we can read it twice, unbraiding it into two discrete poems, or read it straight through and take its clefts and jumps as constitutive. I prefer the latter.

Some of Mayer's walking routes are historical and subterranean. In "Thin Places" we sneak with her "to the lower world" through "a thin place / Like a chipmunk's hole," where underground pipes and wires jostle with "the roots that were there first":

One is the poison-ivy root system
Where garter snakes are known to hatch
Where our bench used to be
Until it was thrown into the creek
By assholes, where a tree fell
Next to a pile of no man's lands, by the way
You shouldn't have to pay for heat, rich people
Duped everyone into thinking everything isn't free
So let's start over now, philosophically too
And dig deep geothermal holes, forgetting war
And the news on t.v. and make our livings
Doing nothing but local root-mapping
And giving everyone five, hundred, thousands, billions, trillions13

Mayer plans an escape from the assholes who threw their bench into the creek and the rich people who tricked us into paying for the means to life, and plots instead to redirect our attention underground, where most life is lived, and to get by on geothermal energy. The poem exchanges making a living for mapping the already vigorously alive. Root-mapping in which root systems are identified variously by acoustic detection, ground-penetrating radar, or rhizotrons is used to protect trees from construction, but mostly it protects construction, and private property, from the threat of trees. Here the mapping becomes an end in and of itself. Mayer trades making a living for doing nothing, or almost nothing, for the gentle observation of root-mapping for its own sake. It isn't work that creates, but this kind of inactive activity whose endpoint is mapping, attention, and local attunement. The nothing leads directly into expansion: the final line stretches out, objectless, and promising us thousands, billions, and trillions of something, which is to say, it promises everything.

But toward the end of the book Mayer's geothermal plans run aground:

Visited the Lloyds in Germantown, turns out you need electric power to use geothermal heating, what the fuck? So if the power goes off you still have no heat and can't flush your toilet! It's a conspiracy to make people pay for something!14

This is what Georgic limitation looks like in the age of neoliberal energy crisis. That limitation shuts down our pleasures and our loves. "Or maybe," Mayer thinks, "if you like the earth, you can't like it because capitalism will come and stop you."15


Like the winter that forgot its car keys, here in South London we are in a polar spring. Last spring broke records for sun and heat; the trends and cycles of a changing climate make themselves felt as exceptions. This year, seeds refuse to germinate in the plastic cold frame and all the surfaces inside are too crowded with work to hold trays of plants. Some things presumed dead in the polar winter that preceded the polar spring show proof of their survival. The few tulip bulbs that survived the squirrels poke their heads out of the soil. Most survivors are things that harass the gardener. The first bindweed shoots emerge from under the fence. The ivy continues its forward march. The house next door has been unoccupied for months, the garden untouched for much longer. Bindweed spreads over plastic chairs, three felled trees, an oven, a rusted barbecue, and the frame of a bench that a family of foxes claimed for their den. Last year the cubs wandered the back wall of our garden and dug along the fence, beheading our sweet peas in the process. They are tenants, too; their run of the yard will end when the empty house is gutted and sold and the garden cleared for good.

One afternoon we see a man in the street surreptitiously taking photos of the front of the flat. Probably he is some friend of the landlord, our gubofi, who lives nowhere near South London, come to put the flat on the market while the going is good.16 Our friends in the flat upstairs text us the government advice sheet for tenants and landlords. I am offended that they put "tenants" in the same advice sheet as "landlords." The advice sheet tells us to keep paying our rent. The UK government extends its mortgage holiday and gives tax breaks to second- and third- home buyers and buy-to-let landlords. International travel is banned, unless the traveler plans to buy, sell, or rent out property. We wait to be told we have to move on.


One of the reasons I return to Mayer in this polar spring is that her poems insist on a right to expansive reproductive possibilities that are not subject to capitalism's constraints (possibilities which are not, despite her well-earned reputation as a poet of motherhood, always maternal).17 In "The 'Go Away' Mat of Steven Levine" she notes the surprise appearance of dandelions in the field, "Marking like on a map where the rivers'd be"  This poem worries over aging, reproduction, and the beginnings and endings of lives and relationships "like as if when we began and ended / So did the world we see, these dandelions, this gloom / Aren't me exactly but my horror at not being / Loved, ending when his line ends":

but it won't
Till I fall like a squirrel down the birdfeeder pole
To the seeds that for Sarah's mother start flowers
Sunflowers, maybe our seeds are genetically engineered.
Genetically engineering plants is like sterilization.
Let the plants reproduce! says my sign. I carry it
To all the demonstrations of the past, present and emu.18

The move from Sarah's mother who grows flowers to the sunflower seeds that might be genetically engineered expands the space of reproduction from the maternal, and by implication domestic, to the ecological. I like the image of Mayer holding her sign at a demonstration against GM seeds, or against terminator seeds suicide seeds, genetically engineered to be infertile, the opposite of the freely scattering dandelions. Many seeds sold today are genetically unstable F1 hybrid unable to be openly pollinated, incapable of reproducing, and often controlled by patent and seed laws that bind farmers to chains of dependency. Four agrochemical companies are responsible for 60% of proprietary seed sales.19 Corporate seed enclosure, as a relatively recent theft of the means of production, clamps down on the reproductive capacities of all of life. Against this enclosure there is Bernadette carrying her sign at demonstrations, "past, present and emu." Elsewhere Mayer's future appears in another oversized animal form: "don't forget / I have a memory of the future, just like a whale / Future, just like a whale."20 The reproductive future to which people, animals, and seeds alike are untitled would be free, unfettered, and surprising as surprising as an emu suddenly appearing at the end of a line, or the dandelions that emerge for the first time in the field, grown from parachutes dispersed on the wind. 

I am consoled and cheered by Mayer's calls not for enough but for everything. For all their Georgic constraint these are poems of abundance abundant plants, color, humor that insist on the right to reproduce without ever advancing an aestheticized homesteading or a myopic localism that tries to extract itself from global capitalism. The poems delight in nature; they don't put forward a hopeful narrative of sustainability. And they are invitational, like all Mayer's poems, exercises in writing that invite us to try our hand at them too. In "Renaming Things" Mayer and the members of the Rootdrinker workshop relabel plants: "Clover . . . lovers," "Unidentifiable shrub . . . isis' blood," "Woodland sunflower . . . how strange," "Bramble bush" becomes, charmingly, "attacker of Bernadette."21 I rename things as I go through my shabby spring garden: geranium: old stalwart; rose: have patience; cat grass: you're welcome. Another poem wallows in all the shades of blue of Tsatsawassa Lake: "Sky blue, sky blue-pink / Indigo, Persian blue, lapis / Cerulean, cobalt," "powder blue / Midnight blue, black and blue."22 On a state-sanctioned walk I list every green of a British spring. The blue poem ends with a little brag: "I'm not so poor / That I don't have a pourer / For my pure olive oil."

Kristin Grogan teaches poetry and poetics at Rutgers.


  1. Bernadette Mayer, Works & Days (New York, New Directions: 2016), 7.[]
  2. On a forum for real estate investors, landlords advise a poster on whether he should let his tenant grow a garden. A landlord from South Dakota writes that he won't let his tenants grow plants in the land shared by multiple units: "it's a slippery slope," he warns, for if one tenant starts a vegetable garden, another might want to put in a swing set for their kids. A user from Chicago tells the tale of a fellow landlord who picked and ate some tomatoes that the tenant grew. The tenant subtracted $5 from her monthly rent, and called it stolen property.[]
  3. Mayer, Works & Days, 6.[]
  4. Mayer, Works & Days, 31.[]
  5. Margaret Ronda, "Work and Wait Unwearying: Dunbar's Georgics", PMLA 127, no. 4 (2012): 865.[]
  6. Mayer, Works & Days, 49, 8.[]
  7. Mayer, Works & Days, 92, 106.[]
  8. Mayer, Works & Days, 40. Mayer explains in a note: "Jennifer told me it had to be a word, like radar, or snafu, to be a real acronym, so I put in the appropriate vowels. I'm hoping gubofi will enter the language, as in everybody has her or his gubofi." 50.[]
  9. Mayer, Works & Days, 22.[]
  10. Mayer, Works & Days, 40.[]
  11. Mayer, Works & Days, 89.[]
  12. Mayer, Works & Days, 39.[]
  13. Mayer, Works & Days, 16.[]
  14. Mayer, Works & Days, 111[]
  15. Mayer, Works & Days, 111.[]
  16. Property prices in London have increased 10% in the past year. []
  17. This limitation is traced in a recent essay by Helen Charman: "My relationship with my landlord, after all, curtails my other reproductive possibilities." []
  18. Mayer, Works & Days, 26.[]
  19. https://philhoward.net/2018/12/31/global-seed-industry-changes-since-2013/[]
  20. Mayer, Works & Days, 42.[]
  21. Mayer, Works & Days, 30.[]
  22. Mayer, Works & Days, 66.[]