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The arrival of autumn
Words from May Swenson, Louise Glück, and Sonia Sanchez
I went to sleep in the summer
I dreamed of rain
in the morning the fields were wet
and it was autumn
–Linda Pastan, September
The beginning of autumn, like waking from a dream. It does feel like that.
The shift is obvious now, the colour in the trees can no longer be misconstrued as a trick of the eye. Suddenly everything is tawny, hammered gold1, ochre and fire2, bodily and true. From May Swenson’s October:
It is fall: warm milk of light, though from an aging breast.
In Swenson’s poem the changing trees comprise a smudge for the horizon. She observes the simple fact of the wet tousled yellow leaves, thick on the slate terrace, the knuckles of the rain on the roof. In October, the sky’s gray face is bedraggled by its tears. The poem ends with the image of “a red leaf riding the slow flow of gray water.”
As Louise Glück wrote, in autumn “waste is elevated into beauty”.
Where summer cloaks certain violences, autumn exposes them.
In the summer, the sunlight is honeyed, the leaves emerald. Blossoms adorn the earth and we adorn the page with sentences that will eulogize them, do them justice, keep them in season forever. Come autumn the landscape morphs and the language we use to describe it morphs also.
“Birds for leaves, and leaves for birds,” writes Ada Limón in her poem, It’s the Season I Often Mistake:
And today, just when I
could not stand myself any longer,
a group of field sparrows, that were
actually field sparrows, flew up into
the bare branches of the hackberry
and I almost collapsed: leaves
reattaching themselves to the tree
like a strong spell for reversal.
The land and the light become a mirror. The season disrobes itself, unabashed in its state of undress.
The light has changed;
middle C is tuned darker now.
And the songs of morning sound over-rehearsed.
This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring.
The light of autumn: you will not be spared. 3
In Anna de Noailles’ poem L’automne, “The leaves in the wind run like crazy / They would like to go where the birds fly”. Czeslaw Milosz speaks of the “great silence” of his favourite month (“A clear-yellow leaf here and there on birches”). Anne Sexton wrote “…the thing with October is, I think, it somehow gets in your very blood. Unapologetically. Almost ruthlessly.”
I was out walking one afternoon recently. The sun was muted behind a web of pewter sky. Sunflowers stood hunched like stone gargoyles, decrepit after a season of beauty. A few redheaded trees, amongst a group of honeylocust, were losing their leaves. It was early evening. I wasn’t alone; I was with my partner. And yet, I became dosed with dread: I could not only hear the steps of someone behind me, but I could feel the weight of them advancing, on my heels—the phantom horror of being a child in a basement and believing some unseen force is chasing you up the stairs.
I spun around. No one was there.
The freshly fallen leaves skittered behind me, innocent and excitable as puppies. How is that possible? I felt the eyes on the back of my head, the impending doom of being hunted. Even on a sunny afternoon, not alone, I felt unnerved - convinced - that something was there.
Sexton was right - October. Unapologetically, ruthlessly. In the blood.
I think of autumn, also, as a season of comfort and mystery. As the weather turns, we retreat indoors, to our secret spaces. There is a tone and taste to these days.
From Sonia Sanchez:
autumn. a bonfire
of leaves. morning peels us toward
and in the evening I bring
you soup cooled my laughter.
I recently read about Emma Dupree, a herbalist from Eastern North Carolina. She had a “garden-grown pharmacy” which included sassafras, white mint, double tansy, rabbit tobacco, catnip, horseradish, silkweed and other plants which she made tonics, teas, and salves from. These were cultivated in her backyard, on the banks of the Tar River.4 I keep returning to an image of Dupree, quietly content, focused, arms full of goldenrod (also known as Solidago whose name means to make whole), quite obviously in her element. October, of course, is traditionally a time of harvest, of admiring the natural beauty of the land. The image serves as a reminder to slow down, to spend time close to the earth, to continue to learn and explore. What will we create behind closed doors in these autumn months? What will we gather and take into winter?
In honour of Louise Glück, who passed away last week, I’ll leave you with these words from her poem Autumnal:
In the end, everything is bare.
Above the cold, receptive earth
the trees bend. Beyond,
the lake shines, placid, giving back
the established blue of heaven.
Louise Glück, October, from Averno
Louise Glück, October, from Averno