Comments about “Martian Garden”

I have subscribed to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (website here) since 1999. In the years since, I have remained an avid reader, and I have been rewarded for it by having access–along with many others; the magazine boasts reaching “100,000 high-income, highly educated readers” in its blurb about its marketplace in its July/August 2016 issue–to some of the best short science fiction and fantasy available. I have, in fact, commented on the magazine and its contents before. An October 2014 posting to Travels in Genre and Medievalism, “About ‘Avianca’s Bezel'” (here), is readily available, and it occasioned email from Matt Hughes, who authored the original piece; more recently, but with less engagement from the story’s author, was a piece on Albert E. Cowdrey’s “The Lord of Ragnarök” (here). In both cases, given the orientation of the blog, I look at how the works in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction treat the medieval, and there is certainly no shortage of material to treat in such a fashion. But there is also much else to consider in the pages of the magazine, and for other reasons.

One such thing is John Philip Johnson’s “Martian Garden,” a poem appearing in the pages of the July/August 2016 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The poem is not the first to appear in the publication, to be sure; I recall several earlier poems during the length of my subscription, and I would be surprised to find that there were not some published before I began to read the magazine in earnest. But it is rare that a work of verse is included in the magazine; I recall only a handful since 1999, and the prose fiction on which the magazine focuses would not be expected to admit of works of verse standing alone. Johnson’s poem therefore immediately attracts attention and invites consideration; as an unusual inclusion, it necessarily will do so. And it serves to highlight the quality of the prose surrounding it, as well, juxtaposing itself against the other works in the issue so that each stands out more prominently against the presence of the other–in addition to carrying its own value as a work of quality writing.

Formally, the poem consists of 26 lines of free verse; no rhyme scheme presents itself among the lines, and there is no consistent meter. Nor does the poem take the tack that might be expected of its length, starting or focusing on one letter in the Latin alphabet used by modern English in each line. That it does not follow such a practice is to its credit; such a structure often reads as overly contrived to be authentic in the ways contemporary poetry typically tries to be authentic, and the appearance of excessive contrivance is a detriment to literary quality.

The text of the poem, in addition to distributing itself across 26 lines, functions as four sentences, spanning lines 1-6, 7-10, 11-18, and 19-26. Line and sentence endings correspond; there is no enjambment to blur structural divisions in the poem. As such, it takes on a pseudo-stanzaic form, with the first two pseudo-stanzas setting up the narrative context (working a new farm on Mars and reflecting upon the work in art), the third describing an artistic product, and the fourth noting the effect of the art on the narrator. In effect, the poem ends up reading as a response to a quiet gesture of love, requiring an explication of circumstances and a description of the gesture before its effect can be discussed. In that regard, it serves well, conveying feelings of warmth and appreciation without having to speak them overtly. Such subtlety helps the literary quality of the poem, arguing in favor of its inclusion in the magazine.

The content also helps to situate the poem as appropriate to the magazine. The explicit subject matter, farming on Mars, is a recurring concept in science fiction, and a prominent one. (Recently, for example, the 2011 Andy Weir novel, The Martian, and its popular 2015 film adaptation both feature Martian farming, although of a different crop than is described in the poem.) A simple surface-level feature such as the mention of a Martian setting, however, would not suffice–and the poem works to integrate its setting into its content more thoroughly. The text repeatedly makes mention of the color yellow, repeating the word six times in 26 lines; it is the most frequently occurring adjective in the piece, suggesting its significance. It is a sensible color to use in representing a Martian garden. Mars is commonly “the red planet,” and gardens–whatever their crops and their colors–are strongly associated with green. In RGB color formation–with which readers of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction can be assumed to be familiar, given the traditional association through nerdiness of audiovisual minutiae and science fiction–yellow results from a combination of red and green in equal measure. That the Martian garden of the poem’s title and content should be predominantly yellow, then, is eminently sensible–primarily to those informed readers likely to follow the magazine. The image, then, is one calculated to address a particular audience–the very audience the poem’s inclusion in the magazine reaches.

The specifically targeted address helps the inner messages of the poem to reach the readership. One such message is suggested by the clearest allusion in the poem, the description by the narrator of the other farmer, the painter, working “as though you [the painter] were in the caves / of Avignon, capturing elk and bison” (ll. 9-10). The second-person address does serve to being the reader into the poem, reinforcing the targeted image of yellowness, but the more important idea encapsulated in the lines is the reference to the old cave-paintings in France. Although the geography is not precise–and why “Avignon” was more desirable than “Pont d’Arc” in the line is unclear–the evocation of one of the oldest iterations of human culture–and one that is as carefully tended as an extraterrestrial garden might expect to be–very much is. In making the reference, in tying an as-yet-hypothetical-future to an imagined-based-on-observed-data past, the poem suggests that the expression of love described within it is a continuous occurrence, that the painting of the narrator as a Martian farmer and as the focal figure of the depicted farm is one more in a series of such depictions that stretches back across ages to the beginnings of recorded human culture. It therefore addresses the continuity of the human condition, hinting that, at root, we remain as we have been. It is a useful reminder to those who may be presumed to look to the future, that we are now what we were and what we are likely to continue to be, as well as to those who look at the present as somehow fallen or the past as somehow deficient. In providing such a reminder, one that speaks to readers across times and orientations in time, John Philip Johnson’s “The Martian Garden” makes itself a piece well worth reading.

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