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Posts Tagged ‘fall’

poem is on park bench

 

Fall

by Laure-Anne Bosselaar

 

So it’s today, and in the chokecherry this year:

the first leaves turn ochre, there, by the open gate.

 

I grab the sweater you left on a chair, wrap it

around my shoulders, and—as I did for days last year

 

until I couldn’t keep up with the season—I pick

every single rusting leaf, each fading flower

 

and hide them in my apron pocket:  their crush

clandestine against my belly. It’s a simple gift

 

for you—for us—such an easy thing to do

for a few more days of summer.

 

 

So it’s today, Laure-Anne Bosselaar begins. “Fall” is a time-sensitive poem that finds me behind schedule.

 

For the past three seasons I’ve had plans to post “Fall” in mid-September but every year November rolls by and the poem remains unattended. So even though the first leaves have long been raked and bagged, I’m giving this poem its long-awaited moment in the sun, there amongst the season’s very last leaves.

 

The voice in “Fall” is effortless, off-hand. It’s as if we’ve caught Bosselaar mid-thought. The poem is addressed to “you,” presumably her lover, but the voice is so friendly it almost seems addressed to us, the readers. She’s talking out loud, spontaneously, before she’s had much time to reflect and refine her inner monologue.

 

On the surface, the image of a woman picking leaves in her yard is simple and charming. To preserve the last bit of summer the speaker removes the first fall leaves from a chokecherry tree. Here is a chokecherry tree

 

 

In one sense, this effort to please her lover is romantic. Fighting the end of summer may be a fool’s errand, but how in love she is, hiding those leaves in her apron pocket, just few at first and then more and more till she can’t keep up. She’s like a woman picking gray hairs from her scalp. More gray is inevitable, but just for the moment, she keeps the illusion of youth.

 

But maybe it’s darker than that.

 

The woman remains on the house side of an opened gate, through which, presumably, her lover has gone. Permanently? Or is he just out for the day? She wears his sweater as if to keep him close.

 

You may think I am being cynical and over-reading the poem, but it is after all, called “Fall,” and the tree in question is a chokecherry tree. Chokecherry—the very word calls up tears held back, strangled emotion, situations that bind. And people, she is picking leaves off a tree. It may be a lovely image, but it’s also straight-up crazy.

 

The jittery dashes and her self-correction of exactly who she is hiding the leaves for—

 

It’s a simple gift

 

for you—for us—such an easy thing to do

 

could suggest a nervousness. Under the breezy tone is there a pleading? Damn you leaves, can’t you let things stay the same? Is her resistance to fall romantic or desperate?

 

And then there’s the apron, that mark of domesticity and homemaking. Perhaps it’s a gardening apron, perhaps for cooking, but either way, an apron protects the one who wears it from soil and splatters. What is she protecting? She is protecting her lover and herself from reality. From death if you come right down to it.

 

Is this her role? To stand between reality and illusion? To mitigate the effects of uncomfortable situations, to soften the edges of bad news? Perhaps this is my own preoccupation that I toss on Bosselaar’s poem, but such a role is a domestic one, and one that women, with our antennae so finely tuned to others’ needs and emotional states, often take on.

 

*

 

Laure-Anne Bosselaar was born in Belgium in 1943. She studied theater at Brussels Conservatory.  As a single mother of three children, she worked in radio and television and taught poetry at an international school in Brussels.

 

In 1987 she moved to the United States. At age 48 she got her MFA from Warren Wilson College. She’s been widely published in literary magazines, earned several prizes and fellowships, and has published four books of poetry. Fluent in four languages, she is also known for her poetry translations. She is the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara.

 

She married poet Kurt Brown who died in 2013. Their collaboration on creative projects and their seemingly happy marriage point to high probability that I’ve mis-read this poem!

 

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It’s just-spring here in Michigan and each little green shoot is a jigger of encouragement. So is this poem, “Thank You” by Ross Gay, which I left in a pile of dead leaves at the end of a church parking lot.

 

Thank You
by Ross Gay
If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
Thank you.

 

Seasonally this poem is off—it’s set in late fall—but existential crises come year-round.

 

Ross Gay was born in 1974 in Youngstown, Ohio but grew up in Pennsylvania. He teaches at Indiana University and Drew University’s low-residency MFA program. He’s won many awards, among them a Cave Canem Workshop fellowship.

 

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Poem Elf posts seem to be a tad morbid lately.  Perhaps I’m adjusting to the seasonal change or reacting to Halloween decorations or, most likely, working out just-under-the-surface sadness from the passing of two fathers in one year. Whatever the reason, now that I’m aware of the death thread, I can snip it.  But one last entry first.

I found this website of the graves of famous poets.  Be warned, the quality of the photographs is on par with mine, that is to say, decidedly amateur.  I was surprised that so few tombstones were engraved with poems.  Sylvia Plath’s grave, below, is one of the few that features a poetic quotation.

 

Not featured on this website is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beautiful tombstone near my hometown.  Modestly situated in a Rockville, Maryland Catholic churchyard by a noisy intersection, his grave features poetry of the highest order.

 

Happy Halloween, everyone.

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poem is on tree trunk

Spring and Fall

to a young child

by Gerald Manley Hopkins

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older 5
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name: 10
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Presenting this poem, I feel as though I’m introducing an old friend to newer ones.  The old friend is an oddball, dressed in clothes from another era, caught up in pursuits even I don’t understand, a Suzanne-takes-you-down-to her-place-by-the river sort of person, but still precious to me, burrowed deep and claiming her plot in my heart’s territory.  I feel anxious that the new friends, polished, sensible people, won’t understand or like the old one.

Which is all to say, this poem and I go way back.

Maybe I was 7 or 8 years old when one of my older sisters studied “Spring and Fall” in high school.  Because I shared a name with the child in the poem and because my sister has always been sweet and thoughtful, she gave the poem to me one Christmas. Literally.  She printed it on parchment, burned the edges, and decoupaged it on a piece of wood. (Decoupage! Big in the 70’s.) She used to recite the poem to me in a voice you might use to tell stories of goblins and ghosts, a voice urgent and eerie.  I can still hear her, building the drama, picking up the pace with each successive alliteration and bouncy rhyme, and then slowing down to that killer last line: “It is . . . MARGARET. . . that you grieve for.”

Long before I understood them, I had memorized the first two lines.  Hearing my name in a poem!  I was famous!  Any attention in a family of eleven is like cupcakes for dessert (unexpected and eagerly devoured), and so the poem became part of my identity.  I associated myself with the young child of the poem, the one with “fresh thoughts,” the one who inspired such musings in an old man. (Actually there’s no reason to assume the man is old, just older, but that’s how I’ve always seen it.)

If my name wasn’t in it, surely I wouldn’t have liked it so much.  “Spring and Fall” is not an easy poem to understand. Although the speaker addresses a child, the convoluted syntax and invented words are not, in the parlance of 2010, child-friendly. Unless children were loads more intelligent in Victorian days than they are now, I suspect little Margaret’s understanding of this poem rested mainly in the joy-fest of words, the delightful sing-song way it sounds.  (This poem is just begging to be recited.  Go ahead, it’s fun.)

Just as the language is a little advanced for the poem’s stated audience, so is the message. The old man, observing the child Margaret crying, explains that she cries now and will continue to cry when she’s older, for the same reason:  because fall signifies the coming of death. She mourns the end of her own life even as she begins it.

What a message to give a child, we might think. Better enjoy jumping in the leaves while you can, kid, because you’re going to DIE. Our culture shields children from death. The old family cat is just “sleeping”; grandma dies in the hospital where children aren’t allowed and then the casket is closed at the viewing so as not to upset anyone; and there are even those parents, Bruno Bettleheim be damned, who find fairy tales too morbid and disturbing for a young audience. (It will be no surprise that in my career as a mother I’ve erred on the side of hard truths too soon.)

The old man in the poem speaks truthfully to little Margaret, on the assumption that children know much more than they can articulate.

I’m reminded of another adult who speaks truthfully and unsentimentally to children: Mary Poppins, the P.L. Travers character, not the spoonful-of-sugar one. To modern readers, Poppins may seem brutal and unkind, but I loved her and read the Travers series over and over, even into my teen years. In a Paris Review interview, Travers explains Poppins’ nursery room demeanor:

She doesn’t hold back anything from them [the children]. When they beg her not to depart, she reminds them that nothing lasts forever. She’s as truthful as the nursery rhymes. Remember that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty together again. There’s such a tremendous truth in that. It goes into children in some part of them that they don’t know, and indeed perhaps we don’t know. But eventually they realize—and that’s the great truth.

I do think children, in their intimate relationship with nature—the hours spent with lightening bugs and dandelions, bees and slugs, grassy hills and falling leaves—understand something of mortality well before we anxiously read them Where’s Grandpa. Every beautiful thing children experience in nature dies or changes. Spring to fall, life bursts forth then dries up, crumples underfoot, blows away.

And so with Hopkins’ poem.  Spring and fall, joy and death.  Joy in the created world, in wanwood leafmeal and goldengrove, and joy in the act of creating poetry.  But then there’s the weeping, the ghosts, the sorrow, blight and death.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), brilliant Victorian scholar and poet, seems to have been an unusually intense man with a large capacity for joy (expressed in his religious faith and in poems) and just as large capacity for sorrow.  He suffered from depression his whole life.  Converting to Catholicism as a young man and becoming a Jesuit priest isolated him from his disapproving Anglican family and convinced him, for a time, that writing poetry was self-indulgent.  As a new priest, he burned his earlier poems, but returned to writing seven year later.  He was published little during his lifetime and found an audience only after death. In spite of his depression and the loneliness he felt living abroad in Dublin (he taught James Joyce), he insisted as he died of typhoid fever, “I am so happy, I have been so happy.”

Listen here for Natalie Merchant putting these very musical words to music.

Jane in the wanwood leafmeal




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