Review: Through A Garden Gate by Charlotte Mandel (poems) and Vincent Covello (photographs)

Sander Zulauf

Through A Garden Gate
Poems by Charlotte Mandel
Photographs by Vincent Covello
Cincinnati, OH:  David Robert Books, 2015
Paper. 60pp. $20.00.
ISBN:  978-1-625491-213
After this bitter cold, relentless, dangerous winter of 2015, what better to cheer the soul than a walk in a garden. The joyous collaboration of Vincent Covello’s exquisite photographs and Charlotte Mandel’s sublime poetry in Through a Garden Gate melts through the tremendous snowpiles to reveal the life waiting patiently underneath them. Mandel’s walks in Vincent Covello’s eastern Long Island garden, a “haven of calm beauty,” inspired the poetry here printed on pages facing vivid, lyrical photography. This whole emotional experience of recollected beauty and tranquility would bring Wordsworth to tears.
“April Interim:  Flowering Cherry” faces a glorious weeping cherry in full bloom reaching down to earth from heaven; pink-laden branches, shielding yellow daffodils and forsythia, sing harmoniously to an old gray well.  “Do not walk past too quickly / or you will miss an open secret.”
A waterfall babbles under red azaleas into a pond with a spring bubbling up in its center. Gardens are ever-changing evanescences that exist only in moments. But here the photos and poems allow return visits to the same magnificent moments. In “Continuance” the poet writes, “Water falls over stone” into a “center of rippling circles” . . .  “incessant motion of water and sunlight / the art of life.”   
In an astonishing photograph that at first looks like a close-up of Monet’s pond at Giverny, one suddenly realizes that it’s ivy and what looks like a white spider-webby angel poking through moss:
Since when do stars grow out of earth?
And leaves reflect blues as though
chlorophyll has envied
lapis lazuli?
Ferns may be the oldest surviving form of vegetation on the planet, along with ginkgo trees, and somehow their appearance anywhere brings happiness, a green intimation of immortality. Ms. Mandel’s precise summation facing a colony of green summer ferns:
A sea of ferns
spawned millennia past,
their spores alive with secrets
opens “The Deep Green Sea.” Looking closely at these lines reveals a stand-alone haiku that would satisfy Bashō. The poem stops for me right there, it is so flawless.
Speaking of Bashō, Charlotte and Vincent have their own “moon-viewing party” on pages 32 and 33. A tradition among ancient Japanese poets was to gather together for a “moon-viewing party” and observe the full moon rising while sharing wine and poetry. The photograph captures a full moon rising through ghostly fog; “Perigee from My Balcony” captures the moon’s influence with
. . . the sea’s musical rhythms
surf’s advance         retreat
played by lunar pull . . .
Breathing the light/
my body like rising tide
ripples and smiles.
One exceptionally memorable photograph depicts a large rounded oblong black stone with water from a pipe pouring into its bowl-shaped top and spilling over its slick sides; slim green bamboo branches spear up behind it. The poem is “Japanese Fountain” and this, too, begins with a Zen moment, a three line haiku:

Water trickles from bamboo
into a bed of raked gravel . . .

Another Monet impressionist experience presents a quiet scene of trees’ reflections shimmering in a pond behind an ancient gray rotting rowboat. The poem “Is, Was, To Be” begins with a perfect metaphor: 
Wood grays with age.
The weather-splintered rowboat,
beached on moss-covered rock,
returns to a place of beginnings.
The book naturally follows the seasons in the garden and ends with snow gently falling on a “Chinese Garden.” A wooden shrine with a huge perfect circle cut in a tall square vertical wall suggests another “moon-viewing party,” earth-bound yet profoundly and exceptionally quiet. It seems there is no escaping winter this year, even in this book, but this scene exudes gentleness, patience, and peace rather than agony and anxiety and freezing.
This warming, charming lovely book will take the winter out of your life and deliver plenty of warm moments of grace and peace and hope. To have it now with its photographic and poetic visions of calmness and beauty and evanescence has been the perfect antidote to too many days of frozen hell.