Behind a mask, amid Whitman’s leaves of grass in the Van Vleck gardens at Montclair, NJ

Out from Behind This Mask [To Confront a Portrait] – From BOOK XXIV. AUTUMN RIVULETS, LEAVES OF GRASS By Walt Whitman

(Source: Project Gutenberg)

  Out from behind this bending rough-cut mask,
  These lights and shades, this drama of the whole,
  This common curtain of the face contain’d in me for me, in you for
      you, in each for each,
  (Tragedies, sorrows, laughter, tears—0 heaven!
  The passionate teeming plays this curtain hid!)
  This glaze of God’s serenest purest sky,
  This film of Satan’s seething pit,
  This heart’s geography’s map, this limitless small continent, this
      soundless sea;
  Out from the convolutions of this globe,
  This subtler astronomic orb than sun or moon, than Jupiter, Venus, Mars,
  This condensation of the universe, (nay here the only universe,
  Here the idea, all in this mystic handful wrapt;)
  These burin’d eyes, flashing to you to pass to future time,
  To launch and spin through space revolving sideling, from these to emanate,
  To you whoe’er you are—a look.

It was the first day in so many months that I could finally meet with a friend and spend time together like in days of yore. It felt surreal, we were floating on reality that felt  disorienting. The masks we had to wear, the masks that hid our smiles as we picked picnic fare from the bakery and cafe, Dulce de leche, (the cafe is still standing in West New York in NJ and now, so are the patrons), it felt beautiful to do something so excitedly like we did before. It was difficult, communicating so and not being able to trace the outlines of the smiles and excitement, but the eyes crinkled in happiness of a shared humanity.

We didn’t wish to get roasted as the Sun was high, so with a last minute change of plans,  off we went, shooting along the highway, then meandering along suburban roads past the elegant mansions of Montclair on Upper Mountain Road to find shade, succour and nuance of poetry, at the beautiful Van Vleck House and Gardens.


The Van Vleck house in Montclair, originated as a private home more than 140 years ago, designed and built in 1916 by Joseph Van Vleck, Jr. in the classic architectural style of a Mediterranean villa; three generations of the Van Vleck family lived on the 5.8 acre property and developed the grounds throughout the past century. It has since passed hands to the Montclair Foundation and the gardens are open to the public where visitors are invited to enjoy the beauty of the gardens throughout the entire year, the texture of the trees, the layout and the very many plantings. Here is the map.

We were so excited to share our experience of  months of social isolation, set loose that we were among the remains of the season’s Rhododendrons. The flowers of Spring were now quickly being replaced by the emerald green of leaves and grasses. The new growth of early summer had burst through the compost, much like Whitman’s poem on compost. What better poet to think of in the aftermath of America’s Memorial Day than the American poet of free verse. He is known to have said that  “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” His claim stemmed from a belief that both poetry and democracy derive their power from their ability to create a unified whole out of disparate parts.

So does compost, 5.8 acres, horticultural vision and passion, create a garden out of disparate parts, this specific one tended to years ago by another Van Vleck descendant, Howard Van Vleck, who, with a passion in the arts and horticulture, left the professional field of architecture to pursue his interest in painting and gardening full time. And we walked in his beautiful garden yesterday.


The Van Vleck House and the Wisteria Courtyard
Wisteria sinensis — Chinese Wisteria (planted by Howard Van Vleck in 1939

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
  It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
  It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless
      successions of diseas’d corpses,
  It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
  It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
  It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings
      from them at last.

Excerpt from This Compost, From BOOK XXIV. AUTUMN RIVULETS, LEAVES OF GRASS By Walt Whitman, Project Gutenberg

Such beauty, laid out exquisitely, every breath we took, we felt like we earned it; the garden itself a testament to what love, passion and hard work achieves out of table scraps, cuttings and dead leaves. Here it was, Whitman’s leaves of grass, organically manifested out of compost then, now in shades of green, colours so vibrant that spelt poetry in every flutter of leaf, every blade of grass and every shoot of summer.


In Mother’s Garden


In the Tennis Court Garden


In the Formal Garden

Meeting old friends, faces wrapped, gratitude to the Earth that it manifests such pleasant things out of relentless human effort, the sheer joy of being alive and being human in the miracle of a garden.

With gratitude for the beauty of gardens……


  Why, who makes much of a miracle?
  As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
  Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
  Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
  Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
  Or stand under trees in the woods,
  Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night
      with any one I love,
  Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
  Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
  Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
  Or animals feeding in the fields,
  Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
  Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet
      and bright,
  Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
  These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
  The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

  To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
  Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
  Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
  Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
  To me the sea is a continual miracle,
  The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the
      ships with men in them,
  What stranger miracles are there?

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