Autumn is always too early.
The peonies are still blooming, bees
are still working out ideal states,
and the cold bayonets of autumn
suddenly glint in the fields and the wind
What is its origin? Why should it destroy
dreams, arbors, memories?
The alien enters the hushed woods,
anger advancing, insinuating plague;
woodsmoke, the raucous howls
Autumn rips away leaves, names,
fruit, it covers the borders and paths,
extinguishes lamps and tapers; young
autumn, lips purpled, embraces
mortal creatures, stealing
Sap flows, sacrificed blood,
wine, oil, wild rivers,
yellow rivers swollen with corpses,
the curse flowing on: mud, lava, avalanche,
Breathless autumn, racing, blue
knives glinting in her glance.
She scythes names like herbs with her keen
sickle, merciless in her blaze
and her breath. Anonymous letter, terror,
If the autumn of 2017 seems a bit more menacing than usual to some of us, there is reason for it. In Zagajewski’s poem, the season rips, extinguishes, and is merciless, personified as a raging “she,” hoisting bayonets, who embraces creatures and steals away their very breath. The imagery in this piece hurts–that penultimate stanza–and the anonymity of the letter, terror, that closes the poem leaves me rattled and uneasy.
Just for the record, I do not usually think of Fall in this way. I like the season’s inconsistent path toward Winter, its occasional tarrying, its rain, its oddly warm days, its early-morning frosts. Into every lifetime there come little eras of discomfort and fear, however; and it has been a challenge to see this autumn in quite the diffused and orange-tinted light of certain delightful autumns past. Today, I went searching for a poem to recognize the season, perhaps to comfort myself. I found this one, and despite its harrowing tone (or perhaps because of its attitude), I felt spoken to.
Much has been claimed about the healing power of poetry. Not all poems are healing sorts, however. Sometimes what speaks to the reader is not a small miracle of personal spiritual healing but a set of words and images that embody an internal understanding of an entirely different kind–a poem that acknowledges the fears we have, or that captures our rage, or our sorrow–a poem that says to the reader: “You, too, are human, and this may be a shared feeling between us, strangers that we are.”
In my little valley, Fall 2017 has not been early in the meteorological sense; the days have been summer-hot and often humid. Even the nights have been warm. Despite the lack of cold glancing scythes, I do find myself asking questions not unlike those the poet poses in his second stanza. Why should it, or we, or one among us, destroy and scatter and spread metaphorical or actual plague?
I do not have an answer, nor does Zagajewski. But I have this poem, which touches me with its humanity, its recognition that crying children everywhere ask “why?” And I know the poem is not “about” autumn, despite the title.
Also for the record, this poem can be found here and also in Zagajewski’s book, Without End: New and Selected Poems. [Copyright © 2002 by Adam Zagajewski. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. All rights reserved.]