Sunday, December 25, 2011

`Where the Torn Bracken Lies'

For almost half a century Jean Burden (1914-2008) was the poetry editor of Yankee magazine, a publication my mother subscribed to and one seldom prized by the cognoscenti. I enjoyed its Farmer’s Almanac folksiness and reminders of New England’s rural past, mingling maple syrup and granite. Robert Frost was born in California and fixed New England in smoky amber. Burden lived and died in California and polished the homely jewel. After her death Poetry published one of her poems in memoriam in its September 2008 issue:

“This much we do without thought,
without eyes:
it is a wood to be gone through at night
with no road to follow,
with no light

“We know no more than what our hands can touch,
but put one foot before the other,
surely, forest-wise,
feeling where the reed is bent,
where the torn bracken lies.”

I hear echoes of Frost’s best-known poem but mostly I hear a quiet allusion to Dante’s “una selva oscura” (“a forest dark,” in Longfellow’s English). The metaphor of life as a journey through dark woods is hardwired into some of us. Think of dreams and the Brothers Grimm. For our ancestors, a primal woodland signified lumber and plentiful game as well as savages, brigands and “no road to follow.” Maine-born Longfellow gives us “the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

Burden suggests we’re not the first to venture through this forest. We merely remain attentive, maintain momentum, follow the almost-invisible path blazed by others – the bent reed, the broken fern. As in life, so it is in writing. None of us is the first down this path. Guideless, we cover much ground without progress, wandering in diminishing circles, living

“…the arrogant conviction that we can do without models (both aesthetic and moral), because our place in the world is supposedly so exceptional and can’t be compared with anything. That’s why we reject the aid of tradition and stumble around in our solitude, digging around in the dark corners of the desolate little soul.”

[The quoted passage is from Zbigniew Herbert’s “Animula,” from Labyrinth on the Sea, in The Collected Prose 1948-1998.]

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