Thursday, December 02, 2010

`Fall, That's When Life Begins'

In The New Yorker Book of Poems (1969) I found “Walden in July,” a poem by Donald Justice I had never read and that is not included in his Collected Poems (2004). There’s a happy personal and utterly meaningless convergence here: I first visited Walden Pond at age sixteen, in July 1969.Disappointingly, the poem is static, one image following another like photos in an album, with little discernable structure. The last of its four stanzas is the most memorable:

“The smell
of warm fresh water
wafted toward the shore;
across the cove, where
Thoreau built his
hut, seventy frogs
were bulling
The night was opening
like a cotyledon.”

The smell Justice notes is one of summer’s familiar scents, though “wafted” has always sounded false to me, a word in ad copy hawking perfume. “Bull” as a verb is pleasing and rare, and “chug-a-rum” is a traditional and accurate transcription of the bullfrog’s call. “Cotyledon” is Justice’s gift to us from botany. The first four lines, oddly, possess another association with 1969. Reading them, I thought immediately of the opening lines of “King Harvest,” a song from that year on The Band’s eponymous second album:

“Corn in the fields.
Listen to the rice when the wind blows 'cross the water,
King Harvest has surely come.”

It’s a great song on their best album, with lyrics by Robbie Robertson, a songwriter with a gift for storytelling, evocative Americana (though he’s Canadian) and the music of words. Listen to these lines from later in the song:

“Scarecrow and a yellow moon,
and pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town,
King Harvest has surely come.”

And this:

“The smell of the leaves,
from the magnolia trees in the meadow,
King Harvest has surely come.”

These scenes Justice, born in Miami in 1925, might have drawn, though I’m not suggesting influence in either direction. The Band’s song is almost certainly set in the American South during the twenties or thirties. The mention of rice in the first verse suggests Louisiana or East Texas. (Another song on the album, “Up on Cripple Creek,” cites Lake Charles, La.) Justice had an eye for the marginal, neglected and discarded, and the sadness and nostalgia such things evoke in us. He never addressed the subject of farm workers organizing, as “King Harvest” does. The echo’s in the mood, setting and details. Take this poem, the second of three collectively titled “Memories of the Depressions Years,” which carries the subtitle “Boston, Georgia, c. 1933”:

“The tin roofs catch the slanting sunlight.
A few cows turn homeward up back lanes;
Boys with sticks nudge the cattle along.
A pickup whines past. The dust rises.
Crows call. Cane sweetens along the stalk.
All around, soundlessly, gnats hover.
And from his stoop now my grandfather
Stands watching as all this comes to pass.”

Justice leaves us a sweetly, sadly American inheritance. Robertson says of his song:

“In the story to me, it’s another piece I remember from my youth, that people looking forward, people out there in the country somewhere, in a place … we all know it, may have been there, may have not … but there’s a lot of people that the idea of come Autumn, come Fall, that’s when life begins. It is not the Springtime where we kinda think it begins. It is the Fall, because the harvests come in.”

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