Book Review: Watering the Rhubarb

Think back a while. About nine years ago. Remember 2013? …Yeah, me neither. Wikipedia tells me the year started on a Tuesday, if that helps. 


It doesn’t stand out as, say, 2020. Or the four years running from 2017 to 2021. But what 2013 did give us was a book of poetry from Corvallis poet Charles Goodrich. His new collection of poems, Watering the Rhubarb, is, in a way, an unasked-for and very much needed review of this last just-shy-of-a-decade time period.  

One of the reasons this book took almost 10 years in coming is because Goodrich was actually working on his first novel, which he finished and is shopping around now. When he started writing his novel, Obama was starting his second term in office, if that gives you any context. And the poems came, as they tend to do, in the interstices. Watering the Rhubarb was published in the “lull” that followed the novel-writing process.  

Despite the span between then and now, the book’s first poem finds itself in a place similar to where we are now: a precarious spot.  

“Up on the ladder…” it begins. The poem, “Faith in Seeds,” seems to straddle, as its narrator does, our modern times, as well as our perpetual existence. Even though extreme weather events, political upheavals, and disruptions to our daily routines occur — and will continue to occur for the rest of our days — the animals, the plants and Goodrich keep on.  

This book, for me, represents the infinitesimal blip we are on the universe’s wide radar, but also the great work each of us and our generations have to do.  

By turning to the natural world and our duty of care over it, Goodrich — “I identify first and foremost as a gardener” — does what any good poet does: slows us down just enough to pay attention to a small thing and splits it open to expose the universe and our place in it.  

Imagining trees as birds migrating, “Faith in Seeds” takes an almost comical look at the very serious issue of a planet getting warmer. But he also rolls up his sleeves to say, We’ve got work to do. 

What Goodrich manages to do with this poem, and in this book, is to allow us to see ourselves in this moment, but with the perspective of nine years—or from the author’s vantage, 70 years of life experience — and with heartfelt sadness but lighthearted rebuke. 

After several pages of “nature poems,” if you will, Goodrich shifts to politics, poems that arose as a way to process.  

In probably one of my favorite lines from the book, Goodrich provides us with a picture of a little girl on a beach a month into Trump’s presidency. She’s hauling a bull kelp back into the heaving ocean. As Goodrich spends his time trying to figure what could possibly be done about the whole political mess, the girl utters an audacious display of agency: 

“Dad,” she yells, “I’m putting it back!” 

And she flings the slippery plant 

into the surf. 

Many of Goodrich’s poems do this — poignant stanzas punctuated with a wry smirk. Finding humor in almost everything. Understanding, perhaps, just what a small amount of time we have here, how much the world has seen before us, and how much more, we hope, it will see after we’re gone. The trees have been here. They’ve seen this. To this degree? Maybe. Maybe not.  

So it’s fitting, really, that the book’s final poem is about tools, in the third part where the author re-communes with our human-made world. Because as I’ve already said, there’s work to be done, and if you don’t like something, throw it back.  

By sandwiching the four years of 45 between the ancient wisdom of trees and the resources this planet provides us, Goodrich gives us, perhaps, the quintessential beginning, middle, and end.  

By Peggy Perdue