Sunday, October 31, 2021


Ah, ever redolent autumn, realm of memory and of reflection!  Who knows what the leaves -- fallen, falling, or holding fast -- will awaken or evoke?

A few days ago I walked past a big-leaf maple.  About thirty feet tall, it had only a few hundred yellow and brown leaves remaining on its branches.  I stopped to look up at the leaves, which were set against a blue sky scattered with white and grey clouds, remnants of a storm that had recently passed through.  The blue above was bright, illuminated by the rays of the late afternoon sun, which was hidden by the clouds.  The yellow emanations from an unseen source seemed to give the blue a greater depth, a greater distance. Unreachably beautiful.

As I looked, suddenly, but only for an instant, I was a child on a cold autumn afternoon in Minnesota, gazing up at the leaves of a tree against a blue and grey sky.  1962?  1963?  I couldn't say.  But I was not "remembering" that childhood day in Minnesota: in that instant, I was there.  It was a matter of feeling, not of recollection.  I was in two times and in two places at once.  For better or worse, nothing had changed.  There I was and here I am.  One and the same.  And then the instant was gone.


The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have led
Have found their own fulfilment.

Derek Mahon, The Snow Party (Oxford University Press 1975).

William Samuel Jay (1843-1933)
"At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

My beloved tree tunnels are not what they were three months ago. But they remain lovely.  The leaves that are left still rustle in the wind, but in a different key.  One walks toward, and into, an open, mottled world of gold and red and brown, a patchwork of colors overhead and at one's feet, not into a closed, deep-green world.  The light and air within take on the color of the leaves.  "The world is a continual change," Marcus Aurelius tells us.  (Meditations, Book IV, Section 3; translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, 1742.) "Earth never grieves!"  So Thomas Hardy reminds us.  ("Autumn in King's Hintock Park.")  And, finally, Ryōkan quietly says: "The wind has brought/enough fallen leaves/to make a fire."  (Translated by John Stevens, 1977.)  Nothing is awry.

                       Under Trees

Yellow tunnels under the trees, long avenues
Long as the whole of time:
A single aimless man
Carries a black garden broom.
He is too far to hear him
Wading through the leaves, down autumn
Tunnels, under yellow leaves, long avenues.

Geoffrey Grigson, The Collected Poems of Geoffrey Grigson 1924-1962 (Phoenix House 1963).

John Milne Donald (1819-1866), "Autumn Leaves" (1864) 


RT said...

The English, I understand, are most protective of trees … all those years of chopping them down in past centuries have made trees more sacred …. In Notth America we are less sensible ….

Nikki said...

Your "recollection" of that moment in Minnesota was eerily familiar. On Instagram, there was an account with a page from an old book, a scene of children in bathing suits in England, and for a second I was a child seeing a similar illustration. It wasn't a memory, or rather it was a vivid sense memory. I was in that instant the child who saw the illustration or one like it. I'm not explaining it very well, not like you did, but I think I understand what you meant.

Esther said...

Loved your musings! And that final stanza of Derek Mahon's would be an almost unbearably painful stab of self-recognition if the very last line did not immediately bind the wound back up again, rather like Emily Dickinson's "Big my Secret but it's bandaged...."

John Ashton said...

Stephen, I myself had a beautiful autumn walk in local woods this morning, such gorgeous colours in a place filled with memories, as I first visited these woods with my parents when I was a small child, and which I have been visiting ever since. Often when I am back in these woods it is over fifty years ago and feeling as I felt then. Each time it is different, but there is still the same thrill and sense of wonder each time I walk there, and each time I see something I’ve never seen before.

I recall the first time I ever saw a fox, walking with my father early one Sunday morning, and seeing a heron for the first time exploring the same woods with my cousin. As you say it is not a matter of remembering but of feeling. I inhabit the silence of that moment when my father indicated I should be quiet and keep still as he pointed at the fox emerging from the undergrowth on the opposite side of the stream from where we crouched and watched. It was, and pausing in that same place now I am there in that moment again and then it is gone, but not I'm quite certain forever.

I always read your posts but have been so busy now that we have returned to work, though on a part-time basis, trying to catch up on all those tasks that haven’t been dealt with during the past 18 months in the library. We have also taken over another allotment plot which has been untended for the past three years, and is consequently very overgrown with weeds, brambles and couch grass and is taking up all our spare time.

Thank you for all your wonderful posts, poems, pictures and thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

RT: Oh, I don't know: humanity has had a mixed record with trees in all times and in all places, don't you think? I'd be reluctant to single out any one nation or civilization for praise or blame when it comes to the treatment of trees. (Although I am fond of the Japanese Shinto tradition of identifying particular trees as the sacred dwelling places of individual gods ("kami" in Japanese).) I do know this: I'd be wary of anyone who doesn't love trees.

It's good to hear from you gain. As always, thank you for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: Thank you for sharing that experience. I like your term "vivid sense memory," which captures well what I was inarticulately trying to get at. I presume we all have these moments from time to time, which come unbidden, and which are not the product of a conscious attempt to "remember" the past. Whatever they are, and wherever they come from, they are wonderful. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you for the kind words about the post. That final stanza of "Leaves" never ceases to intrigue me, and I can't say that I've ever reached a final conclusion about it. Which is perfectly fine. Thank you for the reference to Dickinson's poem, which is new to me. I have now tracked it down and read it, and -- as is often the case with me and Dickinson -- I feel like I am slow on the uptake (which is my fault, not hers). There is certainly a great deal to unpack in those twenty lines, and I fear I am too thick to figure them out. But, that being said, I do love "Big my Secret but it's bandaged."

As ever, thank you very much for visiting.

Bruce said...


Below is a little poem on the fall and the New England regalia of the leaves by Dickinson. My gosh, it is full of metaphor. Leaves are called "blood,"artery," "shower of stain," "scarlet rain." The autumn wind gathers up the scarlet leaves and whips them away "upon vermilion wheels."

For me, she is at her best in this kind of poem, short but powerful displays of her genius. In the poem, it seems to me, the leaves in their multifarious colors are synonymous with fall, the face it wears, the way we identify it. The few leaves left on the river birches outside my study window all but whisper to me, "Autumn is come."

October took flight, equivocating month, and now sturdy and predictable November has marched it, lifting up its shoulders, sternly announcing it comes on a cold and intractable wind--this ruffian month, frosty-night harbinger of early darkness and the chill moonlight.

The name — of it — is "Autumn" —
The hue — of it — is Blood —
An Artery — upon the Hill —
A Vein — along the Road —

Great Globules — in the Alleys —
And Oh, the Shower of Stain —
When Winds — upset the Basin —
And spill the Scarlet Rain —

It sprinkles Bonnets — far below —
It gathers ruddy Pools —
Then — eddies like a Rose — away —
Upon Vermilion Wheels —

Stephen Pentz said...

John: You are very fortunate to have such a long history in the woods you write about. As I mentioned in my response to Nikki's post, I think we all have these sorts of sudden returns to the past, but, in your case, I imagine these returns are even more frequent (and redolent) given the many years you and your family have spent in that place. Thank you very much for sharing your memories with us.

It's good to hear that, first, you are back in the library, and, second, that you have taken on another allotment plot -- I know that the time you spend in your allotments is rewarding for you. Please don't worry about the time that may pass between your comments. I am grateful for your presence here over the years, and I completely understand that you have many commitments. Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog.

I hope you enjoy the rest of autumn, and that you can spend some time getting your new plot ready for spring. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: Thank you very much for sharing Dickinson's poem. I've never experienced a New England autumn, but I associate it with the red of maples, and she certainly captures that strongly (to say the least), doesn't she? And, as usual, she is full of surprises. Her various portrayals of red, of course. But also: "It sprinkles Bonnets" and "eddies like a Rose." Where do those come from?

Yes, November is something altogether different from October, isn't it? In fact, I noticed the bareness when I was out walking today, after nearly two weeks of rain and wind. And, as you note, the darkness comes earlier and earlier. It puts me in the mood for visiting Hardy: say, "A Night in November," or "At Day-Close in November." (But I suppose every month and season of the year puts one in the mood for visiting Hardy.)

I envy you the birches outside your window, leaves or no leaves: a lovely sight throughout the year, I imagine. As ever, thank you very much for stopping by.

Unknown said...

Finding this blog was a balm to me on this autumn day in early November as I was lesson planning for my English as a Second Language course at a community center in Portland. I was wishing I was living another life and preparing to be teaching Continental Philosophy or 18th century Economic Theory at a uni instead of the present continuous and simple verbs but you reinvigorated me with love for language and inspired me to continue.


Laura De Bernardi said...

Bruce, What a beauty, a marvel that Dickinson poem is. Thank-you so much. Stephen, you ask, where does 'sprinkles like Bonnets' and 'eddies like a Rose' come from, which is exactly the right question of Dickinson. Where does any of it come from? From her sublime mind, her grand heart, and the tremuolous heaving and quickening of the muscles and sinews and cells of which she was, and still is, composed.

Stephen, Thank you so much for your gorgeous musings - the poems, the paintings, and how you weave your self into it all. Reading you is a very real pleasure. Here's a Chinese poet for you, Wei Ying-wu (737-791, in a more pensive mood:

While Observing Local Customs, I Visit My Taoist
Nephew without Success and Write This on His Wall

Last year’s mountain stream is still flowing today
last year’s apricot blossoms I picked again today
a hermit on the trail asks me who I am
I’m the same spring visitor I was last year

Translated by Red Pine / Bill Porter

Stephen Pentz said...

Joseph: Thank you very much for your kind words, which I greatly appreciate. I think you are doing wonderful work, and I am flattered and grateful that the little I do here may have come at a good time for you. I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope you will return. Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. De Bernardi: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. And thank you as well for mentioning Bruce's contribution of the Dickinson poem: he has been educating me in Dickinson's poetry (as well as in the poetry of other poets) for many years now. I owe him a great deal. Your comments about Dickinson are lovely, and parallel what Bruce has shown us many times over the years in sharing her poems with us (and commenting upon them): she was indeed a remarkable person.

Thank you for sharing the poem by Wei Ying-wu, which is new to me. Red Pine/Bill Porter is a fine translator of Chinese poetry, isn't he? I have a copy of his translations of Han Shan's poems, and have been meaning to track down his other books as well (which include a collection of Wei Ying-wu's poetry, as I'm sure you know).

Here's a nice coincidence: this past month I have been revisiting Burton Watson's The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century. A couple of weeks ago, I returned to one of my favorite poems in the book, which, as it turns out, is written by Wei Ying-wu (the translation is by Watson):

West Creek at Ch'u-chou

These I love: hidden plants that grow by the river's edge;
above, yellow warblers in the deep trees singing;
spring tides robed in rain, swifter by evening;
the ferry landing deserted where a boat swings by itself.

[A side-note: the poem you share is reminiscent of all those wonderful Chinese poems (which I'm sure you are familiar with) about a poet going to visit a wise recluse/hermit in the mountains, but finding him absent. As you probably know, Watson includes several of them in his book, including this by Chia Tao (779-843):

Looking for a Recluse but Failing to Find Him

Under the pines I questioned the boy.
"My master's off gathering herbs.
All I know is he's here on the mountain --
clouds are so deep, I don't know where . . ."

(Watson, page 285.)

And here is a poem by one of the wise men (although, of course, he would never describe himself that way):

In Reply to Questions

I happened to come to the foot of a pine tree,
lay down and slept soundly on pillows of stone.
There are no calendars here in the mountain;
the cold passes but I don't know what year it is.

(Watson, page 294. The poet, whose dates are unknown, is "The Recluse T'ai-Shang.")]

Again, thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I hope you'll return soon.