The Secret Garden

The St. Paul Cultural Garden, an installation of seven poetry-inscribed sculptures, isn’t easy to find. There is no signage or parking, and it’s on the way to virtually nowhere. The tiny plot of anonymous green space, perched one hundred feet above the Mississippi River atop a municipal parking ramp, is hemmed off from the rest of downtown by a forbidding promontory, the red-brick fortress-like Ramsey County Government Center, the concrete arches of the Robert Street Bridge, and the intimidating-to-pedestrians traffic corridor of Kellogg Boulevard. Given this discreet locale, it’s no wonder most people haven’t heard of this public art treasure.
Sculptor Cliff Garten and a team of poets (Sandra Benitez, Soyini Guyton, John Minczeski, David Mura, Xeng Sue Yang, and Roberta Hill-Whiteman) unveiled the project in 1996 as a way to honor the various communities that have contributed to St. Paul’s culture and commemorate the 150th anniversary of the city’s naming. (Christened by Father Galtier in 1841 to coincide with the opening of a church of the same name, St. Paul replaced Pig’s Eye, the moniker adopted by early settlers that referred to a blind-in-one-eye distiller whose moonshine shack was the area’s first business establishment.)
Although tricky to access, the garden is appropriately located near the sites of the metropolis’ founding structures: above the hillside where St. Paul’s Church once stood and the old Fountain Cave where Pig’s Eye long ago built his shack. (Both cave and hill are gone now, having been blasted to make way for the railroad.)
It is also situated at the center of a bustling transportation corridor—a dramatic continental crossroads through which the Natives and migrants who built The Mighty City on the Mississippi once traveled. From the lofty vantage of a prose-engraved fence, visitors today can experience the combined chorus of almost every form of modern transportation: jets roar toward runways on the flood plain; diesel barges groan and churn in the roiling waters of The Great River; thunderous freight and Amtrak locomotives lumber along the bottoms toward Chicago and Minneapolis; semi-trucks and automobiles scream across the ribbon of I-94 between the grand white bluffs of Chief Kangi Ci-stin-na’s Kaposia village and the Dakota/Hopewell Mounds. The resulting din is a harmonious wash that inspires a sense of otherworldliness similar to what one might feel at a Japanese garden.
Strolling along the snaking granite paths and archways of Garten’s creation, the interplay of sculpture and verse dictate the pace of movement in ways no ordinary stanza break could achieve. To read Roberta Hill-Whiteman, one spirals on a stonework trail, stopping four times at carved marble chunks, alternately facing the sweeping river valley—where the poet’s Dakota ancestors once prospered—and the forbidding downtown skyline:

In my voice the wind holds
onto visions.
Sorrow grips my heart:
twelve cents an acre,
Kangi Ci-stin-na’s tears.
The old ones speak
in thunder,
in the roots of the Great Wood

This river remembers its
ancient name,
Ha-ha wa-kpa.
Where young and old
danced in harmony
before trade became more valuable
than lives.