Recent Grand Prize winner Alice Palmer Thomas could not have been more ecstatic upon receiving a phone call from Eber & Wein, notifying her of her winner status. With humble thanks, Ms. Thomas expressed just how much this meant to her, especially since her poem “The Gardener” was written in honor of her father, who was a “splendid teacher and writer.”
Growing up in New Hampshire during the Depression, Ms. Thomas attended a one-room schoolhouse. And even though she left her childhood home for California—to attend college and begin a career—she claims to be a true product of rural New Hampshire. She fondly recalls a time when her father’s garden would feed many in the neighborhood as well as provide a “retreat” from everyday hassles and demands. “I used to pad after him, down the long rows of vegetables, happy to be included in his day.”
With a reverent tone, “The Gardener” is chock full of strong, descriptive language, figurative imagery, and religious metaphors. It is also quite appealing to the senses; we can almost hear the seeds sloshing around inside the “small planets,” smell their sweet scent foiled with the pungent odor of kerosene, feel the dirt beneath the “disciple’s” bare feet, and cringe at the sight of long, fat “cutworms” being shaken out of the can and into the dirt. Ms. Thomas’s use of personification livens up the setting, bringing the gardener’s green pets to life. His garden is his kingdom, where he is master, guardian, protector, and confidant. The young assistant, however, is just as fascinating. She shudders at her task, yet is silent and obedient and carries it out humbly because there is nothing else in the world she would rather be doing; her adoration for her father is easily perceived. It is a privilege just to be included and given the honor of carrying the chalice “for the ordained sacrifice.” So she willingly withstands the offensive smell of kerosene and the unsightly “writhing” and curling of the worms she distributes to the earth. The bookended first and last lines bring this experience full circle, subtly suggesting she is now master of her own garden and her own cantaloupes that whisper sweet secrets to her.
Ms. Thomas graduated from Stanford University in the fifties. A school teacher of thirty-eight years, she retired from teaching just four years ago at the remarkable age of seventy-six. And even now, at eighty, she still substitutes at her local middle school. Some of her favorite writers include Chaucer, Steinbeck (for his social conscience), and Steven King, whom she compares to a modern day Charles Dickens. Ms. Thomas encourages all writers, young and old, to revisit “familiar memories,” as this can be a wealthy source of inspiration.
Although Ms. Thomas has been a hobbyist poet her entire life, this was her first time entering—and, of course, winning—a poetry contest and having her poetry published. Her daughters along with their husbands took her out to dinner where they celebrated this exciting occasion with a bottle of champagne. “The Gardener” is proudly featured in Treasures, Volume 10 of The Wishing Well series.