Hey a new anthology of BYU Grounds Crew poetry came across my desk this week, and I thought I’d review it for the blog. I must confess I haven’t always been a huge fan of Grounds Crew Poetry; sometimes it’s just too angry for me. I mean, I understand no one’s making a million dollars working for grounds crew at BYU, and that it’s an awesome responsibility keeping the grounds as neat and tidy as they are. But still, I thought last year’s anthology Grounds Crew Poetry: A Voice of Oppression was taking it a bit too far. Dedicated to capturing the “irreducible varieties of a life of labor lived by the often forgotten or ignored landscape maintenancers amongst us,” the tone of the poems was openly provocative, such as in the following:

Alienation
Murder
Riot
Death
Sprinklers

Kinda hits you in the face, doesn’t it? You just want to say, “Who wrote this? Why is he at BYU? Can’t he go somewhere else?” As soon as he starts in on the “murder” stuff he loses me. The poet, Jenner Tanner, commented in BYU Studies about his work, “That day I’d seen hundreds trample on my grass, on my work and creation. That grass is my love poem to divinity, so I wanted to smash all of them, yet realizing that for an artist/pacifist such as I, turning the sprinklers on them was my only recourse. We live in a fallen society, where divine laws no longer prevail. I am a fugitive in that society.”

Where does this guy get off? I remember having a companion on my mission who had these really deep-set eyes and an expression that never changed, and you never knew what he was thinking, even when we got free food from the members. He always ate in silence, wiping his mouth on his wrist. And he always slept in these weird pajamas specially made from the flag of Peru, where we were serving. I thought they were a bit excessive; I thought he was excessive. I’d wake up sometimes at night and he’d be standing over my bed, staring at me in his Peru pajamas, and always holding a ragged copy of Grant von Harrison’s book, Drawing on the Powers of Heaven in his hand! He’d never say anything, just return to his bed, but every time I wondered if I had almost been lynched. Anyway, that’s how that poem made me feel… creepy.
Here’s another one I had problems with, called “The Hedges Beg Me to Speak:”

End of day
I boil inside.
One more straight row
Of hedges I trim,
I am nauseated.
Let them be FREE!
Let the arborvitae overtake a wall,
Let the ivy climb the Kimball Tower…
When you cut and hamper nature,
You cut and hamper us.
You.
Me.
Every bush on this campus is coiffured like Merrill Bateman’s hair.
End of day
I boil inside!

Apparently this poem caused a sensation when it first came out. I read in BYU Studies that “Calhoun’s poetry sharply divides grounds crewmen according to their commitment to prevailing campus norms and landscape aesthetics; it challenges their artistic sensibilities, and calls into question their faith. Certainly if you see a grounds crewman on campus these days lost in thought as he’s vacuuming leaves off a tree, you know why.” I read in a later article: “In the various off campus used bookstores, cafes, and outlets of Home Depot where BYU grounds crewmen are known to gather, there have been a number of outbursts and altercations, particularly between the morning shift, who put out a statement last week renouncing Calhoun’s work, and his defenders, who hail him as “˜a voice screaming in an ordered wilderness for disorder.’ Calhoun has limited himself to only a few statements, such as the following: “˜I listen to the silence. I hear the shrubbery and greenery in agony at times… they want so to be free, to live in a less inhibiting environment. Other times they are ridiculing the sidewalk traffic. They are on my side, and I am their advocate.’”

Apparently after a number of student complaints in The Daily Universe about un-raked leaves and uncollected grass trimmings, and that “things just aren’t pleasing to the eye anymore,” Calhoun and a number of his like-minded associates were unceremoniously reassigned to janitorial duties in Heritage Halls, and with their departure an air of normality returned to campus. Jenner Tanner, as official spokesperson of the morning shift, put out a statement, saying, “If you ever come near us and our work again, we will crush you.” And all I can say is, good riddance.
Well, I didn’t want to just mention what I don’t like about grounds crew poetry, but what I do, and there’s plenty in the new collection to like. The book jacket explains that the purpose of the anthology is to “affirm Christian values in grounds grooming.” This is obvious in the following poem by Carrie Madsen:

I trim,
polite to passersby.
I’m turning a hedge into the shape of a mother and daughter knitting.
I’m making $6.25 an hour.

I know, right? If you ask me it’s superb. Like any good poem it gives you an increased love for all humanity. I looked Carrie up in the BYU directory, and she gave me a few minutes over the phone. Apparently the hedge she refers to is actually next to my favorite monument on campus. Entitled “Celestial Glories,” it is a combination of solid orange, purple, and green colored glass, fixed between three brown iron tubes placed about a foot apart. They ascend into the sky a good fourteen feet; the upward thrust inclines the eye towards the clouds, providing a truly restful aspect. And apparently the hedge is actually as tall as the monument… fourteen feet! Makes you wonder if there’s something special about the number fourteen! And the hedge surrounds the monument now on all sides, and it doesn’t actually look like a mother and daughter knitting. To the untrained eye it looks like any ordinary hedge… you have to read the artist’s panel on the ground below to grasp the inner meaning. It’s called “Knitting the Generations Together.” I asked Carrie how is it still possible to see the monument, if in fact the hedge surrounds it on all sides. “You can’t,” she said. I said, “I know, I don’t live in Utah anymore,” and she said, “no, you just can’t.” I’ve been pondering what she meant by that for the last several days.

Scott Calhoun actually wrote this poem in April 1989. Wherever you are Scott, I love you man!