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Distributed for Autumn House Press

The Gardens of Our Childhoods

Poems considering self, masculinity, and culture through the spectacle of professional wrestling.

In this stunning debut, John Belk looks at the world of professional wrestling to excavate the real within the artificial and explore the projections we create, run from, and delight in. In The Gardens of Our Childhoods, the distance between spectacle and reality blurs.
Belk uses the spectacle of wrestling to stare deeply into American culture and masculinity, parsing the intersecting threads of patriarchy and gender, and unpacking identity formation and performance. As Belk pries into toxic masculinities, he leaves space also for tenderness, queerness, and resistance to normative structures, opening the potential for love and admiration. Populated by classic and contemporary wrestlers like André the Giant, Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Ricky Steamboat, Bruno Sammartino, Marcus “Buff” Bagwell, and more, this book is ultimately about the constant deconstruction and reconstruction of our identities that smudge fiction and reality. Like wrestlers in their operatic and winding storylines, we learn how to project and inhabit identities while growing into and fighting against the scripts we write for ourselves and those that are imposed on us.
The Gardens of Our Childhoods is the winner of Autumn House Press’s Rising Writer Prize in Poetry.

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"In The Gardens of Our Childhoods, Belk transfers the Bard's comment that 'All the world's a stage' from the theater's stage to the comic, violent, vulnerable, and wild ring of WrestleMania. This is a book of searching, tender, open, moments. Life is beautiful but not without its dangers. Belk knows this is true and does a fine job guiding us down the garden path."


Matthew Dickman, author of Wonderland

"To say that the bulk of these splendid poems is about pro wrestling is to say that Robert Frost wrote mainly about sound agricultural practices. When Belk says that seeing a gladiator’s spectacular move is like being kissed unexpectedly by someone you have a crush on, he reminds us how life and art and sport work: we script them to the degree we can, yet there’s always a surprise. No matter who we are, our dreams are what unite us, for everything we do is about 'coming together / & leaving,' about hoping 'to be known, to / be touched, to be less lonely than before.'"


David Kirby, author of Help Me, Information

"With the pageantry of professional wrestling as his lens and southern American boyhood as his vantage, Belk shows us 'something beautiful / made by a boy with all his heart' in his earnest, dazzling debut collection. The Gardens of Our Childhoods charts the slim line between masculine strength and vulnerability, asking us what it means for—and costs—this collection’s vast cast of characters to commit to tenderness in a world waiting to stomp on their backs and toss them out of the ring. After all, 'who would expect a large man born of noonsun & sinew to be delicate'? Belk powerfully summons legendary pro wrestlers, communes with their families, and invokes his own beloveds in a book that moves deftly between the spectacle of stage makeup and the quiet of newly planted irises: beauty performed and beauty deliberately tended to."


Rachel Mennies, author of The Naomi Letters

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Trash 1
Perry Saturn makes ends meet after a failed tour with New Japan Pro-Wrestling 3
The Death of Owen Hart 5
Buff Bagwell’s Mother 6
incantation [Fraxinus ornus] 7
Perry Saturn fell in love with a mop 8
The Cauliflower Alley Club 9
Stasiak & Sammartino 10
Stasiak & Sammartino II 11
The Gardens of Our Childhoods 12
Marcus Bagwell’s Mother 13
letterlocking 17
Angle of Regard 18
a business without heart or conscience 20
Hermeneutics 21
bar trivia: good things have to happen to someone 22
WrestleMania XVI & suicide 23
Stone Cold Steve Austin’s Mother 24
definition of the continental shelf 25
The Undertaker’s American Badass Phase 26
dead letter office 27
bar trivia: no wrestler has ever used an Annie Lennox song as entry music 28
Jimmy Snuka’s Mother 29
John Cena’s Spinner Belt 30
poem about a dying mall 31
Perry Saturn at a bed-&-breakfast in Katonah, New York, before a January sunrise 32
My love wants a chicken named Eleanor of Aquitaine 33
Razor Ramon 34
Blackjack Mulligan’s Mother 35
The time Vince McMahon tore both his quadriceps while sliding angrily 37
shipletters 38
Madison Square 39
Hacksaw Jim Duggan’s Mother 40
The Fingerpoke of Doom 41
one two skip a few a hundred 42
bar trivia: Venice has been sinking for years 43
Perry Saturn wonders 44
Good Endings 45
Ultimate Warrior’s Mother 46
fanletters 48
for once the best option is the easiest option 49
The Mouth of the South 50
Perry Saturn becomes the first wrestler to board the International Space Station 51
at the top of this space elevator 54
the young immortal plane 55
Olive Saturn & the Third Plutonian Resettlement Operation 56
The Fancy 58

Acknowledgments 61
Thanks 63

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