Review of Accidental Garden by Catherine Esposito Prescott

Cover of Accidental Garden: A stalk with two tomatoes, one red and one green, hanging from it is shown in sharp focus against a blurred reddish-green background.

Accidental Garden by Catherine Esposito Prescott

Gunpowder Press, 2023

84 pages, $18.00

Review by Sarah Carey

In “6 a.m,” the second poem in Accidental Garden, Catherine Esposito Prescott’s debut collection and winner of the 2023 Barry Spacks Poetry Prize (Gunpowder Press), the speaker drives her sons to their bus stop and seeks words to leave them with that will “singe them with grace.” Perhaps “something like carpe diem but wittier, like This moment is all we have, but less alarmist, like Be both the lion and the Lamb,” the speaker says, but she comes up short, understanding that the silence between mother and sons holds “distances we have yet to measure—the boys and I, and the world/outside, the invisible threads of all/I must leave unsaid.”

Like that elusive phrase the mother in this poem seeks to both protect and empower her children as they separate, the 42 poems in Accidental Garden are both “spark and amulet,” clear-eyed testaments to joy and hope as well as pain, and the impact of mindfulness on that thing we call luck. As Adrienne Rich said, “Poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know.”1. Prescott’s book masterfully captures the tension between the power of the word and the poet’s sense of duty to it, and the simultaneous awareness that silence holds the key to enlightenment as surely as the word ever can. This review captures some of what I found in the book’s pages: the knock-out endings, the gripping beginnings, and the awe I was left with and still feel at her remarkable accomplishment. 

The book unfolds in five sections, toggling between past and present across generations and borders to illuminate key themes of motherhood and parental/child separation, ongoing philosophical questions of faith and being, the navigation of cancer and its aftermath and the power and limitations of language to capture a life. 

Prescott has an incredible gift for endings. So many of the poems in this collection riveted me in the reading, kept me there and exploded in the last lines, leaving me with an almost adrenaline rush. Like little tunnels, Prescott’s poems whoosh us into her speaker’s interior and exterior environments: as a mother, a daughter, a cancer survivor, a poet, and a perpetual observer of the flora, fauna and wildlife near and within lush, tropical Miami Beach. Prescott’s eyes, ears and mind are as attuned to discerning flaw, fear, and doubt as they are to finding unexpected perspective and spiritual validation, even in life’s randomness.

In “Aubade, South Beach,” Prescott describes combing the beach with her son to collect debris:

That day my son found
a lucky seed from Cuba via Africa, one that holds
the evil eye at bay, all who would cause him harm,
and a rosary made of brown crystals, each bead intact,
with a Christ, sullen, surrendered, spinning.
The ocean washes up more than memory.
What is held by sand travels into the ocean’s body
and returns not as waste, not as sacrament. I would
not let him throw them out. How could I?
He was too young to know faith,
he who had never needed to pray.

Like seeds in our collective consciousness, Prescott’s poems take root and grow throughout the book in a variety of forms, as the reader begins to recognize the ways in which her themes are intentionally intertwined — a mosaic of luminous experiential tesserae. Much as the bees in her title poem, “Accidental Garden,” pollinate the speaker’s heirloom tomatoes and are charged with energy, these poems penetrate our psyches. (Fun fact: this poem, Prescott notes in her acknowledgements, is an American sentence acrostic, a form created by Jen Karetnick, her friend and co-founder of SWWIM Every Day. The American sentence acrostic takes a 17-syllable American sentence, as defined by Allen Ginsberg, and uses it as an acrostic to build a poem.)

The ending lines of “Accidental Garden” capture such a force field:

Who is
divine? All of us scattered together on this earth like thrown dice—all
accident, all planned—with little more to do than to touch one thing,
transform another.

Re-reading the collection, the author’s titles, subject matter and various forms grab a reader from the jump. Take “A Superhero’s Origin Story”:

begins with a head injury, venomous snake
bite, a genetic mutation, or a dose
of radiation. Our hero, a bit dumbstruck,
tries to carry on as if nothing happened

Because that’s what humans do.

Prescott has a knack for conveying both the unsayable and the unknowable when it comes to familial love, the divine, wonder, rapture and pain, yet she is determined to voice her truth, even if that truth means acknowledging uncertainty about what it means to believe in anything.

From “A Word with God”:

I am a vessel. I’ve birthed so many.
Dear God, I am tired, I am eternal

But I have work to do. What is work?
What is this poem but a tiny god?

And what is love, God, what is love?
May we have a word beyond words

Now that my pen is out of ink, my mind un-
focused, and my heart, my heart,

Like smoke at the end of a lit match?

Each section in the collection either begins or ends with an ode; each is titled, simply, “Ode.” One of these ends the collection, using the anaphora form to rhythmically drive home the poet’s identity and concerns. Each line or couplet begins with “I am the daughter,” piecing together both chronological and non-linear aspects of her being:

I am the daughter of the daughter of the daughter of immigrants.

I am the daughter of temperate islands, of rich, rip-current oceans.

I am the daughter of fresh-dug potatoes, of hand-rolled pasta, of seasonal
cherry and apple pies.

I am the daughter of pear orchards, berry fields, of green mountains and
still lakes.

I am the daughter of quiet, of silence, of cold, of wooden church pews and
Sunday jelly donuts.

And later:

I am the daughter of I’ll do what I want, thank you; I am the daughter of
survival.

I am the daughter of cells divided, of genes swimming from one generation
to another.

I am the daughter of four continents, many languages spoken, many gods
worshiped.

I am the daughter of carbon and oxygen, of bone and body, bound by
phases of the moon, bound by sky.

I am the daughter passing through with you, spinning under stars, turning
with the earth.

Organically ordered and painstakingly wrought, Accidental Garden is a coming-to-terms with the constant tension between an existential fear of loss and the speaker’s commitment to celebrate life in the moment. We want answers; we want words. We want balm, peace, and to always be at one with those we love. Prescott’s confident voice reaches us through a speaker whose longing she yokes to our own.

1 “Poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know.” Adrienne Rich (2002). Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations, p.13, W. W. Norton & Company


Sarah Carey, a white woman with shoulder length brownish blonde shoulder-length hair, wearing a white top with a black sweater, smiling against a blurred background of trees.

Sarah Carey is a graduate of the Florida State University creative writing program. Her poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Five Points, Sugar House Review, Florida Review, Redivider, River Heron Review, Split Rock Review and elsewhere. Her book reviews have appeared recently in Salamander, EcoTheo Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal and the Los Angeles Review.

Sarah’s poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Orison Anthology. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, including Accommodations (2019), winner of the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Award. Visit her at SarahKCarey.com or on Twitter @SayCarey1.