autumn when so much dies or moves on toads burrow deeper after dark covers sedge and clover fallen hickory leaves ice-rimmed gold at sunrise I wake too chilly at my usual hour forsake my habit of rising listen to the nuthatch and house sparrow mourning dove croon give me another minute beside you in bed shivering yet shimmering
On a crisp, abundantly clear day (for a change!), I opened the car windows to listen to the corn stalks rattling in the breeze. After an unusually wet year, the fields have been too wet to bring out heavy farm equipment, like gleaners. They would get stuck in mud. So the corn stands and, finally, dries in the rapidly-cooling air.
And rustles and swishes, and produces the susurration associated with tree foliage, only louder, harsher. The November sun heightens the contrast between the grassy-looking stalks and the crowd of shadows below the strap-shaped leaves. Zea mays: one of the incredibly numerous poaceae monocots. Field corn, in this case. It surrounds two sides of the campus where I work. On windy days, I can hear it murmuring. It has a wistful sound to it, each plant crackling softly against its many neighbors.
Ascribing human emotions to non-human things is something poets often do and for which they have been occasionally excoriated (see the pathetic fallacy). It is really I, not the field corn, who’s feeling wistful. There’s no reason not to occasionally explore things such as the pathetic fallacy, anthropomorphism, or clichés in poems, though. Poems can be places for play, puns, irony, and over-the-top expressiveness…where else but in art do we have so much possibility for free rein and experiment?
With that in mind, what came to mind is a decade-old poem I played with long ago. I thought of it, located it in my files, and realized how well it suits this year’s rainy weather. It has never seen print, so this is its first public “share” to the small world of readers. Just to be wistful, and to listen to murmurings.
Awful, the sobbing breast of the nearby hill
draped in funereal rain,
moping trees with bedraggled leaves
under dolorous skies.
How coarse and crass the indigent crows
mocking day’s solemnity
over pleading calls for mercy, compassion
from the myriad finches.
Do not quench sorrow but be drenched in it,
small streamlets fast-running
down ratty embankments dull with mud.
O, morning, mourning,
lease your grief to field and gravel and
the huddled owl’s
damp-pinioned back hunched in sleep.
Be terrible and bleak,
stained with the nouns and adjectives of despair,
run down the mountain
with a mouse carcass on your swift spine,
meet the road in a reeking ditch.
Forgive me, readers–whoever you are–this weekend I am composing poems instead of a blog post, revising the work (see this post) and creating new stuff from dribs, drabs, sketches, notes, and the windy day outside with its sky full of variable, intermittent, strangely-colored clouds.
During a mild late September two years back, I discovered the botanical term remontant–it applies to an iris that graces my perennial bed. The plant reblooms–not every autumn; only when the frost is late and the air and soil stay warm.
October 14th is pretty late for irises, though, even for remontant varieties. Indeed, the weather has been warm, and the leaf color seems to be coming on very slowly and without its usual vividness. Seasons not following their usual chronology. Summer hangs on. I feel a sense of discomfort, though I should be grateful, perhaps–for a longer show of blossoms, for monarch butterflies in October, for lower heating bills and no need to don a heavy coat (or any coat at all).
I live in a house, work in a building, get around mostly by vehicle; much as I want to be earthbound and of earth, much as I value the environment, I inhabit it often more through longing and imagination than in fact.
One way to ponder that paradox or imbalance is through poetry. Sometimes a poem reblooms for me, remontant, in surprise and renewal…I find something in the text or mood that was heretofore unnoticed. I’m thinking now of Sandra Meek’s poem “Biogeography” (in her book by the same name). Here are the last few lines:
In geologic scope, what the ground we’re mesmerized to won’t
let us forget, these mountains are a single
inflorescence, a half-life not more than one
exhalation of stars. This is the ice
we skate, clarity
which brings us down; genesis
of binomials–second naming of all the transitory’s
incarnations, flora to fauna–the craving for return
to the earliest garden, as if again what was left to us
was world enough, and time.
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.]
The crickets are raising their “voices” each night; the darkness lasts a little longer, and the color orange emerges from the green of midsummer to remind us of all that is beautiful in the world, despite __________________________ [insert your list of unpleasant, tragic, disheartening things].
Here is my encomium to the Mexican sunflower, tithonia rotundifolia, a favorite of bees and monarch butterflies and also a favorite of my daughter’s, so it has special aesthetic-emotional appeal for me. The poem I’d like to write to the sunflower has not yet materialized, so praise in prose will have to do for now.
Autumn approaches. I like autumn, though some of my dear ones do not–but one thing universally salvages the early weeks of the season, no matter how a person feels about the encroaching cooler weather: orange. Even people who don’t care for the color in clothing or decor admit that, in nature, the color orange attracts the eye, enlivens a scene, brightens the dullest corner.
Nasturtiums, zinnias, the last hurrah of daylilies, butterflyweed, and early-turning foliage such as sumac and sassafras sport the color well. There are also pumpkins and squashes warming up fields; and in some areas, there are butterflies wearing the hue: monarchs, viceroys, fritillaries.
But nothing delights in a bright red-orange so well as the Mexican sunflower, which evokes the warm climate of its designation and likely origin (I haven’t done a great deal of research on the plant. I know that tithonia diversifolia is native to the region of Central Mexico and am merely guessing that the rotundifolia variety has its roots there, too–excuse the pun).
It sports well with one of its showiest pollinators, the gorgeous, orange, monarch butterfly.
Tithonia likes full sun and does not mind a bit of drought–all reasons it managed well in Mexico. It’s also ridiculously happy in the American Northeast, at least in the Mid-Atlantic region where I garden. The plants grow 6-9 feet tall and are veritable fountains of pleasing, brilliant points in the late-summer garden. They attract bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and small songbirds and have few pests. Deer dislike their “hairy” leaves, and slugs and beetles seem also unimpressed with their food qualities.
Or perhaps the “pests” appreciate the blooms’ aesthetic value, as I do. [Okay, too much anthropomorphism there, I admit.]
Furthermore, as long as I get out to the garden and dead-head the plants regularly, they bloom right up until the first hard frost.
And they cut well for bouquets (see the not-excellent photo above).
When there is so much sorrow going on in the world, it may seem odd that a flowering plant can offer respite–a moment or two of awe, of joy, the discovery of a bumblebee with its legs pollen-yellow or a monarch’s slim proboscis coiled just above brilliantly golden stamens amid a red-hot orange daisy-shaped blossom…and maybe, above, an autumn-blue sky.
Not art, but nature. Both valuable to human creatures.
One benefit to living where I do is the way the sky looks in early autumn. Another is the brilliancy of leaves as they change color.
This time of year, even my commute to and from work offers moments of beauty. There are sunrises as I get ready for work, sunsets as I drive home each evening. The skies have been so glorious lately that a friend of mine posts photos on his social media account every day. Autumn arrives, and I wish I were a painter.
Cloud textures: yesterday morning, stippled so densely I could easily imagine ice crystals clustering together in the atmosphere a thousand feet above me. Bouncy puffs, striations, streaks. Today, a more consistent palette of repeated half-rounds. A stream of grey, white, and slate blue overhead, highlighted with thin bands of yellow.
Meanwhile, the trees–first the hickories going golden, then other tints. Today, I noticed the scarlet of a tupelo aflame at the edge of a field and the first big sugar maple shifting to orange. Many of the smaller ornamental trees take on burgundy hues. I can’t describe these landscapes in words! I want words to be pigments. I feel stalled. Maybe I am just making excuses for why I have not been writing poetry lately–(I don’t want to confess to writer’s block, as obviously I am writing!)
Here’s a nice video from Slate that speculates, based on recent science, about why there are more red colors in North American trees than in European trees. Click here!
Officially autumn now–and my lawn litter consists mostly of oak leaves, though other leaves will shortly follow. The showy blossoms of late summer, such as zinnia and tithonia, have begun to fade. Even the tall, bright-yellow, wild goldenrod’s going to seed, turning the meadow into a mass of beige and fading green. Asters and chrysanthemums take their places, drawing the garden visitor’s eyes a bit closer to the ground.
We move toward yin, the earth…which is where I happened to notice that just above the sprawling petunias–still blossoming, though getting a bit peaked–an iris is in bloom, too. This particular iris would not be all that commendable a flower in late spring or early summer when most irises are efflorescing. Its stature is medium, its color a rather wan yellow, its petals unremarkable.
Nonetheless, it’s an iris. In autumn! Apparently, my perspective on flowers changes once the days get shorter. My aesthetic expectations evolve: any rose becomes a wonder, any iris an almost magical surprise amid the mums and ornamental kale. That’s an important observation I try to keep in mind for myself and to teach to my students: perspective alters everything.
There are nice hybridization developments on late-blooming or, more accurately, re-blooming irises (this link from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden offers some useful information). I transplanted my rebloomer from an older garden that a long-ago homeowner planted; so I don’t know its heritage, though it somewhat resembles the cultivar “Baby Blessed.”
In the process of trying to track down the variety, I learned a new botanical word: remontant. Remontancy is that quality in a plant that makes it capable of blooming more than once in a season or year. There’s something generous and buoyant in that word, from the French “coming up again.” If hope does not spring eternal, may it at least be remontant. And may my perspective be flexible enough to appreciate seasonal transitions and small, un-flashy irises in autumn.
Another sign of autumn: the gleaners in the fields.
I took a break from weeding and lay in the hammock awhile. Cloudless, breezy, equinoctial day–in no time, acorns and oak leaves hastened down to join me (nothing quite like having a large acorn ping on the forehead to remind one of the force of gravity and the inevitability of seasonal change). Hammock time is being pared away by the longer nights.
When I can be out of doors, I keep an eye out for migratory dragonflies, monarchs, flocks of robins, assemblages of chipping sparrows. Yesterday, I spied a kestrel in flight, zooming pointedly, clearly on the hunt. Today, we heard the weirdly rasping, short-stopped honks of herons, a stately pair of whom were being followed by an oddly-silent flock of crows.
This brief post is likewise a break for me. Post-weeding and post-hammock, I have student papers to grade and a busy work week ahead. Well, that’s what happens in the fall! I may as well be ready for it.
In the meantime, specific observations from the hammock or the back porch may act as feeder streams for future poems.
Another fallen bird. This time a mourning dove.
Meanwhile, at night I sometimes still can hear the shirring of wings as flocks head south. And the owls converse.