Wednesday, May 19, 2010

`Time, the Literalist'

A new word, at least to me: “henge.” It turns up in two poems by Charles Tomlinson, “Hay” and “Harvest.” In the first he writes of “A henge of hay-bales to confuse the track / Of time…” The first and last lines of the second poem are identical: “After the hay was baled and stacked in henges.”

First I thought of Stonehenge, without knowing the etymology but seeing how box-shaped bales of hay might have suggested to Tomlinson the stone slabs on the Salisbury Plain. The etymology of “Stonehenge” is contested (“hanging stones,” it seems) but thanks to something lexicographers call “back-formation,” it contributed “henge” to the language, defined in Webster’s Third as “a circular Bronze Age structure (as of wood) with a surrounding bank and ditch found in England.” The word signifies not stones but mounded earth and ditch. See here and here. On the cover of the American edition of Neal Ascherson’s Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland is a beautiful aerial photograph of a henge. In his book Ascherson consistently refers to “henge monuments.”

One summer about 15 years ago, inspired by Verlyn Klinkenborg’s first book, Making Hay, I decided to write a feature about the cutting of hay and spent several days with a farmer and his family in Saratoga County, N.Y., on their dairy farm in the foothills of the Adirondacks. From the northern end of their land I could see the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east; to the south, the Catskills. The work was hot and dirty but the smells were intoxicating and this city boy learned new words: “tedding” and “silage.” Here is Tomlinson’s “Hay”:

“The air at evening thickens with a scent
That walls exude and dreams turn lavish on –
Dark incense of a solar sacrament
Where, laid in swathes, the field-silk dulls and dries
To contour out the land’s declivities
With parallels of grass, sweet avenues:
Scent hangs perpetual above the changes,
As when the hay is turned and we must lose
This clarity of sweeps and terraces
Until the bales space out the slopes again
Like scattered megaliths. Each year the men
Pile them up close before they build the stack,
Leaving against the sky, as night comes on,
A henge of hay-bales to confuse the track
Of time, and out of which the smoking dews
Draw odours solid as the huge deception.”

Tomlinson likens the annual ritual of cutting hay to the ancient ruins of England, as though the Neolithic and Bronze Age builders have been reborn as farmers. The work of both is inarguably exhausting, and his description of the “huge deception” is matter-of-fact, not derogatory. Our affinities with ancestors may be unconscious but are less attenuated than we imagine. Here is Tomlinson’s “Harvest”:

“After the hay was baled and stacked in henges,
We walked through the circles in the moonlit field:
The moon was hidden from us by the ranges
Of hills that enclosed the meadows hay had filled.

“But its light lay one suffusing undertone
That drew out the day and changed the pace of time:
It slowed to the pulse of our passing feet upon
Gleanings the baler had left on the ground to rhyme

“With the colour of the silhouettes that arose,
Dark like the guardians of a frontier strayed across,
Into this in-between of time composed --
Sentries of Avalon, these megaliths of grass.

“Yet it was time that brought us to this place,
Time that had ripened the grasses harvested here:
Time will tell us tomorrow that we paced
Last night in a field that is no longer there.

“And yet it was. And time, the literalist,
The sense and the scent of it woven in time's changes,
Cannot put by that sweetness, that persistence
After the hay was baled and stacked in henges.”

Again, hints of ancient ritual and the juggernaut of time. Close to the earth, even to stone, we are closest to time and its inexorable harvest.

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