Every Wednesday, as part of our homeschool curriculum, I read a poem with my daughter. We talk about what it means and whether we like it (and why). Sometimes we analyze it. Then she responds by drawing or painting.
Last week I had intended to read G. K. Chesterton’s “For a War Memorial” in observance of Veteran’s Day and the Feast of St. Martin. But it was the day after the election, and she was upset and worried. So we read, instead, a couple of Wendell Berry’s “mad farmer” poems: “The Mad Farmer Revolution” and “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”
Spring, and warmth, and the sun shone for days with bewitching clarity. Trees offered tender leaves like babies’ palms. Flowers unfurled their love to bumblebees. And clouds of pollen covered all and every thing, infinite infinitesimal golden grains like so many sins choking the earth’s promise. Now the rain that fell last month as desperate cold has come again in peace to washed away the amber stain, and the wet green resonates in the crackling air. The spring transforms the rains, and the rain transforms the season.
The redbud lurks all year at the edge of the woods, quiet and unassuming. He wakes with the dawn, puts on his business foliage, kisses his wife the dogwood goodbye, heads off to his office in the understory and shades the brambles in a comfortable deep green. He keeps to himself. He doesn’t make any trouble. Then once a year in spring he leaps forth possessed like a prophet from the roadside, shrieking magenta jubilation to all who will listen. He mocks the elegance of cherries, shouts down buntings and cardinals, drowns the murmur of violets. His words fall like rain upon the grass and are forgotten, and reluctantly he settles into another year. He goes again about his business, a model citizen of the woods. Biding his time.
For a note one quarter step flat and an entrance half a beat too early. For a missed step, a bruised elbow, one wheel parked on the line. For a lock of hair three shades lighter than its neighbors. For the lone golden raisin in the box. For one leg shorter than the other by the thickness of a wingtip’s sole. Be ye perfect; but only God or a machine can, and it is reassuring just now to be speaking to neither. Just don’t get carried away.
For unintended shelter. The winter’s assaults of ice tore twigs from branches, branches from trees, trees from the earth, and some of us who could not abide the chaos chopped and raked the refuse into piles. Some of us who cannot abide the chaos even raked and piled would no doubt have burned it, had the tinder been drier and less resinous. Instead the quick-sawn trunks and browning needles sit like a Christmas massacre, sinking imperceptibly into the woods and into memory. Sinking, that is, into our memory, and rising into the life of others. Today a cardinal perched atop a storm-pile, a sienna slash of straw in her mouth. When her mate returned they disappeared into the brush and danced, as it seemed from where I stood — danced for hope or for joy, danced their own continuing. Danced the spring into existence in a bed of winter’s trash.
For the changeability of trees. Some days I walk deep into the woods, up strenuous hillsides where the trees are ancient — ancient, I mean, by the measure of my own days, and older than the memory of the oldest people I ever loved. Oaks that sprang from acorns fallen into the same earth but a different world, now grown unembraceably broad, that have stood continuous to shade the paths of a myriad changeable passing lives. Today I am in a different place, small and fenced, where also there are trees, small and carefully arranged. But I remember long ago here other trees, tall enough to shade a hasty lunch or passing thought and not by nature purple in the springtime. I remember myself here, shaded, and with that boy seem to have been continuous. But the trees have proven changeable, and it is I who feel ancient in their presence.
For the silence of books. I am sitting at a desk atop two million volumes. A mountain of knowledge I could not climb, that no one could climb in a dozen lives. (I took the elevator.) Two million volumes bound in faded hues, standing silent and straight-spined between their assigned companions, volunteering nothing. Numbered, shelved, neatly stacked and nearly unread. A comfortable ordering of knowledge unknown. I could choose one at random, let it open where it may, let my eye fall on a sentence: Fifi drew off and surveyed her work sympathetically yet professionally.1 Who is Fifi? Who knows? A scrap of paper marks the thirty-seventh page; the last page bears a penciled list of vocabulary words (eulogies, decadent, pristine, corollary) and a quick sum. But the date sheet is blank. I return the book to its place and myself to my desk. Through a window, far below, the sun finds sharply angled paths where people walk, hands in their pockets, heads in their thoughts, alone. Volunteering nothing.
Henry Sydnor Harrison, Queed: A Novel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911). ↵
For what one hopes is the last freeze of winter. At dawn the air still crackles wickedly, but its echoes fade with the night, and as the sun clears the spiderweb treetops the bite of morning dulls into a muddy coolness that grows more distant by the hour. The day takes command so pompous and full of itself that you begin to think winter this time has truly gone. The thought comes oddly bittersweet, as if an annoying and detested roommate has finally moved out, one whose departure you longed for, prayed for, crossed off each calendar day until and beyond his promised leaving, and now in the reverberation of the closing door you fear you may miss him after all. But in the silence of his absence you hear the birds singing, and a little breeze ruffles the grass, and you find you have forgotten him already. You hope, this time, for good.
For the uninvited squirrel. Lithe as an acrobat, quiet as a leaf, round-bellied as a stone Buddha, he arrives in a distraction and is gone as quickly as starlight. No one announced him, but there he is at the buffet, bullying your guests and scarfing up the canapés. The hodgepodge hungry wait their turn while he gorges on prosciutto and melon. Turning to the meatballs he catches your eye and freezes. But what are you going to do? He’s so damn cute. Call the waiter: he’ll bring more.
For the broken clock that keeps its own time. On our arrival it heralds the dawn, too late, too slow, like a robin with a hangover. At lunchtime it still languishes in early morning — or has it raced ahead to quitting time? When we would gauge the progress of the afternoon, it appears to have stopped, its second hand quivering just south of four. Freed again it passes us in our late-day torpor, and when at last we are done with our work, it has moved on to evening. Is it fast or slow, or merely unconcerned? Here where the sun is not permitted to shine, none of us can be sure. We each must keep our own time.