“Gardening” By Rhina P. Espaillat: Poem Analysis


Various literary symbolism and devices allow poets and writers to talk about complex issues through allegories and metaphors. They can raise philosophical topics and topics not usually discussed in society, using symbols of nature or everyday objects. Rhina P. Espaillat, thanks to her flair, uses extensive and very vivid symbols to express attitudes towards complex topics. She is not the only author to whom such parables are available, and Kate Chopin also skillfully uses allegories of natural phenomena. Often these allegories express genuine relationships between people. Even more often, in the context of individual stories, nature becomes a full-fledged part of the narrative. It becomes the same actor as people, the main characters who quarrel, swear, and perform important actions for the plot. Rhina P. Espaillat demonstrates in her poem “Gardening” how, through metaphors and other literary devices, having talent, one can communicate essential and complex thoughts to readers.


Different interpretations are possible when the discussion turns specifically to the author’s gardening category. It can be the course of life, family, and efforts to achieve some goals. However, the most rational option is to consider gardening as a lifelong involvement with mandatory recognition of death while remaining connected to one’s family. The author writes: “Any dirt at all will lead you into every grave you can think of, with a stick” (Espaillat 19-20). The poem is not written about love for a particular mother or father, although it does not contradict the presence of these feelings. The author seems to mind the continuity of generations and her place in this. Gardening itself is always associated with the change of seasons and new annual crops. People have to say goodbye to the old every year; it dies and goes away forever. Fresh sprouts return to this place, diligently grafted by the careful and attentive gardener.

Thus, gardening is a transition from life to death, from death to life. It is the continuity of generations and the eternal farewell to what deserves it. The caring tone of the narrative tells readers about a careful attitude to life and death: “With my hands in this dirt I’m on good terms with everything but weeds, polite even with them: “Sorry,” I tell the creamy fuzz” (Espaillat 13-15). It is the exceptional eternal return of Friedrich Nietzsche, in which the infant (sprout or seed) has the renewed characteristics of previous faces. The author takes care of the sprouts, talks to them, and consoles them. Nevertheless, the author continues to call some of the sprouts the words “mother” and “father”; however, it seems that these are very abstract concepts that do not concern specific personalities. These are abstract concepts of mother and father, responsible for accepting life and its manifestation.

Dirt Symbol

The symbol of dirt runs like a red thread through the entire poem and captures readers’ attention from the very beginning. In connection with this symbol, hands, fingers, and, most importantly, nails are perceived: “My hands are in the dirt, ten fingernails black with it, and half-worms come up to writhe” (Espaillat 1-2). Dirt under the nails symbolizes, in addition to slovenliness, which patterns of sound thinking can quickly inform the reader about, corrosiveness. It is not just dirt on the hands and fingers, which people usually wash off with water. It is dirt that penetrates almost under the skin, under the nails, and almost touches the internal organs and blood. It is very remarkable since the symbol of the ground shows how close the problem of death and life is for the author. In addition, soil demonstrates how deep it can penetrate and how deep its author is ready to let in without disgust and laziness. Family ties, or ties in general, bind the author’s heart; it is not something that can be quickly abandoned and forgotten.

Dirt under the nails is associated with certainty and irrevocable, with something that she cannot change. The author’s fatalistic views: “I tell her I sing roses too, my hands in dirt where she lives forever” (Espaillat 29-30). It is as if all her relatives and loved ones live under her nails, no matter where they are. Most likely, the author is trying to say that under the nails, in the depths of her soul and body, she keeps the memories and images of loved ones who have long passed away.

The reader can change the angle of view, and then the hands in the dirt will appear before the reader as a symbol of the hands in the blood. Then this blood is not from murder; this is not sinful blood, but the blood of the rebirth of a new life and the loss of the old. It is almost like the blood at birth, which symbolizes energy flow and constant repetition. Blood, or dirt, doesn’t bother the author: “I tell them. “There’s enough dirt for us all.” (Espaillat 6) Since this is the usual course of things, life, and nature, there is no fear.

Literary Devices

The author uses many euphemisms, one of the most striking examples is the term gardening itself. It seems that the author uses euphemisms so that the theme of death and birth does not sound too often and does not instill discomfort in readers. Heavier topics are diluted with gardening terminology: “Roots from our neighbor’s greedy birch, caught on the wrong side of the fence, drop their booty of damp clumps from black sweaty little fists” (Espaillat 7-9). Thanks to this, the author can talk about difficult problems and his feelings without excessive dramatization.

Animation of inanimate objects, such as plants and seeds, is also a distinctive feature of this poem. The author speaks to plants and roots and the soil, and it seems that these objects will answer her in the following lines. However, they do not respond: “If I don’t see you I don’t know you’re there.” (Espaillat 11). In addition, the author uses many metaphors, figures of speech, and epithets associated with the beauty of the plant world and the garden. A vital literary device that the author uses is the imagery of language. The author tries to awaken readers’ feelings associated with the warmth of the earth or memories of digging in the dirt in many ways. The author describes in detail the process of gardening and the actions that she performs: in the hole I’ve made with a rusty trowel. I nudge them out, drop them where shade is more profound and moister: “Nothing to be alarmed about,” (Espaillat 3-5). It is easy for readers to imagine themselves digging next to the author on the ground.

Connection to Storm by Kate Chopin and Conclusion

Different readers can trace the connection with the work of Storm in the magnificent harmonious structure of the plot, which is based on natural phenomena. For Kate Chopin, the weather is almost the key to moving the story forward. Rain, wind, and sky are the same characters as Alce, Calixta, and her family, Bibi and Bobint. Descriptions of nature: air, its smell, the color of the sky and clouds, and wind are found everywhere in this short story. It is built into the plot and intertwined with the actions and replicas of the main characters. The beginning of the storm marks the height of the relationship between the characters and the tension, which is fascinating to watch. The end of the storm and the sun emerging from behind the clouds symbolize stress relief, relaxation, and joy.


The poem “Gardening” by Rhina P. Espaillat is a classic example of the use of a rich supply of literary devices: various epithets, metaphors, and allegories. The author talks about the severe problems of life and death, the continuity of generations, and the penetration of bonds deep into her self-consciousness and self-perception. All this becomes possible without the excessive intensity of emotions and dramatization due to the transition to the horticultural categorical apparatus. The symbolism of dirt allows the reader to see how seriously the author is concerned about the issue under discussion and draws parallels with blood and rebirth. It correlates with the poem’s central theme: death and life, the constant transition from one to another. It must be protected and respected because behind it is the world order and the meaning of the existence of people and all living things.

Work Cited

Espaillat, Rhina P. “Gardening” Poetry, vol. 164, no. 3, 1994, pp. 141–141.