Published in 1994, Gardening in the Tropics was the second book of poetry by Olive Senior. The book is a sequence of twelve poems that all begin with the book’s title as their opening line which sets the stage for each individual work of verse to expand upon the concept of gardening to essentially comment upon the last 500 years of history in the Caribbean region.
From the simple prompt of “Gardening in the tropics…” Oliver Senior weaves an intricate pastiche of information about her homeland that touches upon an astonishing variety of subjects: the uncovering of skeletons, the absence of the country’s leader as he makes his way to an International Monetary Fund meeting, why parakeets attack cornfields, deforestation and a surprisingly large and diverse number of other topics related to the act of living in the Caribbean.
It only takes a few poems to get the dominant metaphor of gardening in this poem sequence: gardening is about the cultivation of existence. Existence in all its myriad forms and relating not just to animate and inanimate creatures, but abstract concepts like nationality and cultural assumptions. At the center of the narrative is the tension that still exists between existing native culture and the imposition of colonial culture which is most devastatingly addressed in the poem “Seeing the Light” with its admission that before the colonists came, the gardens dark followed by the accusatory reminder that they never took more than was needed and always gave thanks to the earth for what it provided.