A Robert Frost Primer or 'All Life is Cellular'

A few weeks back, I was asked to contribute to an afternoon event in Palmers Green Library, north London, with the title – from Robert Frost’s poem – ‘The Road Not Taken’. It was introduced by Maggie Butt, with readings of their own poetry around the theme by Mark Holihan and Denise Saul. I was also asked to deliver a few thoughts on the work of Robert Frost. What follows is an edited transcript of what I said then and I think of it as a basic introduction for the general reader to Frost’s work and some of the ideas which I see recurring in it. As previous posts have mentioned, I’ve been teaching Frost for a few years recently – thanks to all those students who made me go back and read the poems again!

Despite the apparent simplicity of many of his poems, the real identity of Robert Frost (1874-1963) is hard to pin down. Though raised in late 19th century America, his first book was published in England. Though on the brink of the Modern, a year before the First World War, these poems used plain language and traditional forms. He loved Europe, befriending Edward Thomas – stirring him from prose into poetry – yet Frost sailed back to the US, to farming, north of Boston. By all accounts he was never a very successful farmer, though he often presented himself as talking downright farmer-like common sense. Some find his work consolatory; but he was famously called a ‘terrifying’ poet, a bleak Modernist.

If all this sounds slippery, then Frost took it into his poetics too. He said that, while writing a poem, he was conscious of saying two things at once. But he always wanted to say the first thing so well that any reader who liked that part of the poem might feel able to rest there. Yet, he implies, for those interested in going further, beyond the particular, overt or explicit meaning – say, two farmers re-building a wall between their properties, a man stopping to watch snow fall in a wood, a mower and a butterfly – there is always an ulterior meaning (at least one) that might also be opened up.

At all levels, such defining walls, barriers and boundaries – physical, mental, spiritual – proliferate in Frost’s work. But his view of them is complex. These walls are often porous. But sometimes they can seem impenetrable. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his biological knowledge, but here is something else Frost repeatedly jotted down in his Notebooks: “All life is cellular. No living particle of matter however small has yet been found without a skin – without a wall.”

On one side, these secure boundaries seem necessary for a successful life – like the wall round all cellular organisms. He would say: “I want to be a person. And I want you to be a person”. But the dangers are obvious. The cellular wall of identity becomes more than a means of self-definition and grows to become an exclusion zone, a solitary place, a state of solipsism. Many of Frost’s figures and narrators are found to be struggling with this state. Yet Frost’s comments about identity, wanting to be a person, wanting you to be a person, in fact continue: “then we can be as interpersonal as you please. We can pull each other’s noses – do all sorts of things”.

So the presence of these cellular walls do not necessarily hold us back. They are as often porous or permeable. Yet they seem also to offer a firm foundation from which we may reach out, we can humanly interact. We can pull each other’s noses. And there is indeed much pulling of noses in Frost’s poems. In particular, he liked to pull the nose of the person he chose to narrate many of his poems. There is very often an irony at work against the speaker. His poems are often more dramatic than lyric.

We might ask why is Frost so concerned about being a person, about the relative security of identity? Because, in other moods, he knows the dangers posed by the absence of any functioning cellular membrane: the leaking out of personality into the surrounding world, of identity dissipating to become nothing, the risk – as it were – of personal extinction.

There is a little poem called ‘The Cow in Apple Time’ which (on the face of it) is about a cow who is driven by an unspecified desire to disregard the walls about her pasture. The wall is no more than an open gate to her. She charges through and greedily eats fallen apples, growing intoxicated, her face splattered with apple juice. But in this kind of gluttonous state she grows sick, in pain:

She bellows on a knoll against the sky.

Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.

It’s a perfectly satisfying poem about a rural incident – perhaps Farmer Frost, had once witnessed it himself. But there is Frost’s ulteriority too. The cow is consistently described using terms which anthropomorphise her. The wall breaker is perhaps on one level really human, a rebel, a sinner – written in 1914, some have even suggested the cow is an invasive force. However we see her, she is punished for her disregard of, her undervaluing of, those walls and boundaries which perhaps ought to serve to define her life.

Remember this is the same Robert Frost who disparaged the writing of free verse, by many of his more obviously Modernist contemporaries, as trying to play tennis with the net down. The same Robert Frost who disparaged the, then fashionable, interest in Surrealism with its wild leaps over convention, its dislocation of the senses, the shock value of the illogical. For Frost such practices could lead only “to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper”.

The cow with the aching stomach is paralleled by a dying peach tree in ‘There Are Roughly Zones’. The narrator has moved “far north” and has transplanted a peach tree and now the northern winter is threatening it. He sits indoors and frets about it, trying to blame the weather rather than himself. But self-criticism arises all the same and it is human “ambition” that gets the blame, that “limitless trait in the hearts of men”. More precisely:

[. . .] though there is no fixed line between right and wrong,

There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.

I love the messy pragmatism implied by “roughly zones”. One of his recurring concerns, Frost said, was with “the impossibility of drawing sharp lines and making exact distinctions” – no red lines, lines in the sand, defined boundaries, but zones of negotiation, places calling for compromise, no fundamental clarity, rather a feeling-out, a region requiring a dialogue.

As in a poem like ‘The Tuft of Flowers’. A man comes to a mown field to turn the cut grass, the hay, to help its drying. He looks about for the man who had earlier mowed the grass:

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,

And I must be, as he had been, – alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart

The hermetically cellular, or as we would now say, atomised nature of society seems to be assumed by the narrator. It looks like there is going to be no breaking of boundaries here. But a “[be]wildered” butterfly passes him, looking for flowers that grew there yesterday, now cut down. The butterfly leads him to a “leaping tongue of bloom” left deliberately, out of “sheer morning gladness” by the mower. The narrator hears the message from this “tongue of bloom” which speaks of each man as a “spirit kindred” to the other. It’s as if they now enter into a dialogue, revising the earlier solipsistic observation. Now:

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

There is a rosy-edged hint of sentimentality here perhaps. But the fanciful dialogue between the two men (who actually never meet) represents a successful negotiation into that rough zone between individuals, the cellular membrane is actually permeable, and the result here is consolatory.

In ‘Mending Wall’, two farmers meet to patrol on either side of a dry-stone wall marking the boundary between their farms. Parts of it are always falling down. They build it back up. But the paradox is that the action of building up what separates them, brings them together each year to perform the task. The wall does not prevent or act as a brake on their relationship – rather it facilitates it – it perhaps is their relationship, what links them. From their respective sides – from their respective identities or persons – they are free to become ‘interpersonal’. But the mischievous, sceptical, modern-minded narrator expresses doubts about the importance of walls, particularly when “He is all pine and I am apple orchard”. His neighbour is a more traditional, unquestioning man, who likes to repeat his father’s advice: “Good fences make good neighbours”. The narrator mocks him (though in silence, in his head) as “an old-stone savage”, lost in actual and intellectual “darkness”. But it is significant that the wall-believer has the last word. For me, it is the moderniser is the one being ironised. If he was a versifier, he’d be trying to write poems with the net down.

Why Frost’s concern with the importance of walls? Because – in still other moods – he has looked into the abyss of experience without them. One example is given in the 16 terrifying lines of ‘Desert Places’. The narrator here seems to have taken the more modern, sceptical wall-mender’s view to heart. It seems there are no bounds here – all have vanished under “Snow falling and night falling fast oh fast”. That note of fear there adds to the nightmare feeling and when the outward-looking eye turns to look within – to find himself – he finds nothing: “I am too absent-spirited to count”. That phrase is an echo of ‘absent-minded’. There is a vacancy within and without – no mind, spirit, self, identity. There is only the concluding, devastating rhymes of “empty spaces . . . where no human race is . . . my own desert places”.  

And if ‘Desert Places’ evokes the desolation of a world viewed in the absence of a relatively secure cell-walled self, then ‘The Most of It’ shows us the horrifying effects of being walled in. In this poem, the narrator “thought he kept the universe alone”. There seems nothing else but him, only a “mocking echo of his own [voice]”. Yet he does remotely feel a desire for dialogue – perhaps just in being human – and does express a desire not for “copy speech. / But counter-love, original response”. But when the universe does eventually break into his consciousness, it arrives not in the form of dialogue or a negotiated relationship but as an utterly alien thing.

It emerges only as a strange, vague “embodiment” that “crashed” and “splashed” towards him and is recognised only by means of a simile. Perhaps it is an elk.

As a great buck it powerfully appeared,

Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,

And landed pouring like a waterfall,

And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,

And forced the underbrush—and that was all.

There, Frost captures the egoist’s struggle to comprehend what is other than him; followed by the arrogance of his dismissal of it. And perhaps this is a particularly masculine thing. Yet there is no need to attribute these feelings to Frost himself. The speaker is best read as a dramatic representation of one extreme of Frost’s concern for borders and boundaries that are vital for our own selfhood yet must be porous enough to allow for knowledge and experience.

So in ‘Birches’ the narrator remembers – as a boy – climbing slender birch trees, to the top, only to leap out and bend them down with his weight. This swinging of birches can be seen – ulteriorly – as representing Frost’s belief in those negotiated rough zones of a life. We climb up, out of our element, but not too far:

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs                                   
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate wilfully misunderstand me                                                              
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

And if we find this frustratingly ambivalent – Frost sitting carefully on the fence – then he often rubs our noses in it. ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ famously concludes with two lines which are identical. For me, the repetition introduces greater ambiguity into the moment. Does the narrator stop, perhaps to die, entranced by the snowfall? Or does he shake himself up, turn back to his life in the village, his roles and responsibilities?

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though; 
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer                                           
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.                                                
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,                                                    
And miles to go before I sleep. 

Frost throws the question back to the reader. What Frost knows is that we do not keep the universe alone. We are parts of a whole – but the borderlands are uncertain – sometimes we cross them and lose touch with ourselves, at other times we too easily accept them and fall into egotistical isolation. There maybe be a happy medium – but Frost’s dynamic poems suggest the truth is we can never find and hold to that; we are always involved in the complicated fraught business of negotiation, of swinging birches, of chasing butterflies, of building walls that will promptly fall down again.

‘Cargo of Limbs’ launches Thurs 21st November

Apologies for the relative silence from my blog. I have been busy preparing and working to propel into the world two new books of poetry. The first out has been These Numbered Days, my new translations of the GDR poet, Peter Huchel, published by Shearsman Books.

The second book will be published by Hercules Editions, It’s called Cargo of Limbs more details of it can be found here. I’ll also post the launch event details below – it’s an open and free event and I would be delighted to see you there.

2018 Forward First Collections Reviewed #2 – Phoebe Power

This is the second in the series of reviews I am posting over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2018 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2018 shortlist is:

Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book.
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet)
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press)
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber)
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Its publisher, Carcanet, describes Phoebe Power’s debut collection like this: “Wandering in central Europe, a traveller observes and records a landscape”. I guess this is meant to conjure the rootlessness and identity-angst of a modern Euro-existentialist but, for me, Shrines of Upper Austria, too often reads like the jottings of a year-abroad student. The posture is almost always of the naif – impressed, even a bit bewildered by the strangeness she finds, yet she tries hard to absorb and/or be absorbed into the foreign culture yet manages little more than a tourist’s view (if one with a striking ability to ventriloquise and a remote familial backstory in that country).

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An Austrian shrine

Power raises the humble note or jotting to an ars poetica, often collaging together such “brief records of points, usually used as an aide memoire” into disjointed sequences which don’t gather much cumulatively or possess much divinable direction. One of these has a protagonist in a café, his right hand on the “open pages of an empty notepad”. It’s not the author, of course, but the distanced observation this image implies is what the book mostly offers. Simply because what is being described has a European setting does not make ‘fasching’, for example, very interesting: “at Elli’s schmankerlstube it’s all / drinking and bosners” (End notes translate for us where required: here, a carnival before Lent; a snack bar; a type of sausage). The poem begins with these two lines of verse then resorts to prose for a couple of short paragraphs. There’s drinking, dancing, children, teachers, music and a “multicoloured snake or train of people tooting its bells and flute, curving down the road beneath the green banks and a big sky, the mountains”. I can see such a passage in many a poet’s notebook but the clichés and obvious word choices surely need more working up? And if the improvisatory quality is the point, then I wish the brief apercu had a good deal more striking ‘apercevoir’ about it. Likewise, an ekphrastic poem, ‘children’, baldly describes an Egon Schiele painting while trying to get a bit more emotional leverage with frequent exclamation marks.

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Egon Schiele: ‘Stadtende’

The note-taker in the café, appears in the poem sequence, ‘Austrian Murder Case’, which reads like a series of (prose) screenplay notes for an all-too familiar Scandi-noir that the director has torn the best bits out of: a dull quotidian town, a moody disengaged observer, lumpen exposition from the pension owner, a woman’s dismembered body in suitcases in a lake, her husband, the murderer, does himself in at the same time. The note-taking protagonist walks away having gained some “insight into one dramatic story” and for that I’m a bit envious. The best bit of all this is the lake (“the See”) which is personified and perceiving in ways beyond the limitedly human, the humans being left at the end trying to fit bits of the story together. It’s all a bit obvious.

x354-q80You will have gathered that one of Power’s things is to mix English and Austrian German. This happens several times in ‘A Tour of Shrines of Upper Austria’ (though in this book we only get 7 parts of the full sequence). An observer stops at various shrine sites, jotting down some thoughts and taking a picture or two. Nothing is developed though Power’s poems do show an interest in religion on several other occasions. ‘The Moving Swan’ opens with a centre-justified prose description of candles flickering in a cathedral and another poem is drawn to the grave of two goats, observing: “two heaps of ivy/straw / one unlit red tealight”. And ‘Epiphany Night’ is a more extended series of notes recording a local celebration with bells, dressing-up, boats, lanterns. This is all observed in loosely irregular lines by the narrator from her “wohnung” (apartment). To wring all engagement or emotional or imaginative response from such a text is, I suppose, quite an achievement but to spend 70-odd pages in such company really is wearisome.

Power’s playing with her two languages is unusual and there are occasions when her poems read as poor, incomplete translations into English. This draws attention to the poet’s materials – language/s – as in ‘Epiphany’ again: “step down drei konige / in fancy robe and blackface paint”. In ‘Installation for a New Baby’ the effect is more comical and perhaps reflects the muddled perceptions of such an occasion: “We save soup cans, bean and veg tins / to clatter where they trail the grass, / pin a spray of rubber dummies and a / pillow, sagging rain”. And ‘8th May’ has a Google Translate feel to it: “bells are ringing, there’s a fire / sailboats calmly over the lake”. Perhaps the problem with these experiments is that we never know who the “protagonist”, the speaker, is. When Power ventriloquises more explicitly the effects are startling as in ‘Isis and Marija’. Again, mixing verse and prose, this short poem conveys Isis’ concerns about her own name (she’s from Columbia and speaks Spanish) and Marija’s more dominating personality and immigrant background: “My mother come first from Croatia for one year. Then we all come. I live in a hotel, five minutes”. Here, the buckle and twist of the language is effective in illuminating the two girls’ uneasy residence in Austria. For an older Italian woman, ‘Georgiana’ does the same in the same way: “she sets up, gets the car, / takes German class and speaks / fast with a curly accent she won’t change”.
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Power’s ‘doing different voices’ also occurs in the longer sequence which circles around events in which her grandmother, whose name was Chris or Christl, was found abandoned as a baby in Austria, taken in by a family (but not properly adopted) then came to Britain after WW2. Other sections suggest that the author/protagonist has later returned to Austria in search of her origins., and/or is living for a while near Gmunden in Austria. There’s a fair bit of historical and biographical exposition needed and this gives Power’s style of notation room to switch from verse to prose and back again. It’s the pieces in Christl’s demotic voice that stand out: “now I’m a bit mad at me mam, never adopted me properly, why not?” Elsewhere, her ignorance of the existence of concentration camps is stunning as is her clumsily expressed and moving sense of the fragility of her own survival: “It’s funny life when you think you get born, you weren’t here before, then you die and it’s just, you’re not there anymore”. It’s this sequence (pp. 41–52) that you should start from when you read this book.

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Phoebe Power

Unfortunately, the collection trails away towards the end because, like any GCSE Modern Languages project worth its salt, there has to be section addressing Climate Change.  I’m not sure what Julie Andrews would make of ‘silver white winters that melt into springs’ but its two prose passages do little more than portray a before and after climate change. Also ‘notes on climate change’ is pretty much what it says in the title and, strangely, Christl’s voice begins to recur here too: “When I came to England first the weather was really / warm and I thought it’s warm in England nice here not so cold”. ‘Milk’ is an amusing, enjoyable prose piece detailing familiar anxieties about products like milk which adversely affect the environment though the irony that our avoidance strategies usually give rise to further problems is a bit obvious.

The closing poem is one of several in which Power interleaves two differing voices on alternate lines. I hear Christl’s voice here again, seeming to lament leaving Austria and perhaps the second voice is her granddaughter’s who might have been Austrian in another version of history. The result is a poignant sense of not quite belonging “here” but also of not really belonging “somewhere else”. It is this rootlessness that lies behind all of Powers’ poems. Not being at home in the world is an important and contemporary topic and, when she earths this in voices of specific characters, this works well. But too many of these poems record fragments without meaning without any attitude to those fragments without meaning. To end positively, ‘In and Out of Europe’ is a very good poem where the disjointed lives of grandmother and granddaughter are again aligned. But, on this occasion, it is during the June 2016 Brexit vote and the shared history of the family’s international link here has a much more profound significance and Power’s notes and jottings leap off the page with a purpose.
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Edward Thomas and Two of His Friends

Last weekend I was asked to talk briefly about Edward Thomas at an event at the Palmers Green Library in north London. This year is the centenary of his death and I looked at one of my favourite poems, ‘The Sun Used to Shine’. I have written in close detail about it in an earlier blog so I have excised most of my comments about the poem itself from this current post. I hoped to take the audience’s attention to the poem, to Thomas’ life in 1914/17 and then bring them to more contemporary poetry with a couple of my own poems which are thoroughly imbued with Thomas tropes – inspired by his work and life. 

 

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Edward Thomas and Helen Thomas
 

Edward Thomas died at the Battle of Arras on the 9th April 1917. One hundred years and 5 months ago. It has long been thought that he died from a nearby shell blast stopping his heart and his watch, on that Easter Monday. But a couple of years ago, the discovery of a letter from his commanding officer suggested he had been actually ‘shot clean through the chest’. It was perhaps a sanitised version of his death delivered to his wife, Helen, that gave rise to the attractively poetic myth of his ‘clean’ death.

But so much about Thomas has a similar mist of uncertainty about it. He shares with his great friend and poet, Robert Frost, a liking for the word ‘something’ – a thing that is unspecified or unknown, a description or amount being stated but not exactly. This is partly what makes him a modern writer (though his main subject material – the natural world – might make him seem otherwise).

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But he’s also modernist in that he can be emotionally reticent, guarded, suspicious. In a letter to his wife a few days before he was killed he wrote: “I know that you must say much because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just, as it were, tunnelling underground and something (that word again!) sensible in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun [. . .] If I could respond to you as you would like me to [. . . ] I should be unable to go on with this job”. You might think such guardedness was just a war-time effect. But a poem like ‘No one so much as you’ – written in 1916, surely to his wife – says: “My eyes scarce dare meet you”.

His difficulties with loving were certainly related to his bouts of depression. He suffered dark, suicidal periods, infamously taking a revolver with him into the woods intending not to reappear. In the poem ‘Beauty’ he writes:

 

What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,

No man, woman, or child alive could please

Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh

Because I sit and frame an epitaph –

‘Here lies all that no one loved of him

And that loved no one.’

 

The poem eventually finds some sense of relief in the natural world. Note here the uncertainty in both what it is in him that seeks happiness and what it is that seems lost to him:

 

This heart, some fraction of me, happily

Floats through the window even now to a tree

Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,

Not like a pewit that returns to wail

For something it has lost, but like a dove

That slants unswerving to its home and love.

 

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Thomas and Frost

 

Because it’s one of his best, I’m going to look at Thomas’ poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ written in May 1916. There is no straining between subject and technique. Its moods shift continually from companionship, to thoughts of war, to an historical sense, to an almost cosmic sense of time. So it travels great distances without departing far from the English countryside that provided Thomas with its beginnings. Nor does it depart far from ordinary language – it has a surface accessibility. It’s held together by a human voice – quiet, questing, informed about nature as well as history, one willing to contemplate existential questions.

[. . .]

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By the time the poem was being written, it was more than a year after the Frosts had sailed for New York. Thomas is mourning a lost era as much as a lost friend. Perhaps no surprise that he had Tennyson in mind as he wrote. In Memoriam is Tennyson’s tribute to his lost friend, Arthur Hugh Hallam. In section 89, Thomas found a model and images of friendship, the English landscape, ripe fruit, running water, long walks, long talks – a kind of lost Paradise:

 

The landscape winking thro’ the heat:

 

O sound to rout the brood of cares,

The sweep of scythe in morning dew,

The gust that round the garden flew,

And tumbled half the mellowing pears!

[. . .]

Nor less it pleased in livelier moods,

Beyond the bounding hill to stray,

And break the livelong summer day

With banquet in the distant woods;

 

Whereat we glanced from theme to theme,

Discuss’d the books to love or hate,

Or touch’d the changes of the state,

Or threaded some Socratic dream;

[. . .]

We talk’d: the stream beneath us ran,

The wine-flask lying couch’d in moss,

[. . .]

And brushing ankle-deep in flowers,

We heard behind the woodbine veil

The milk that bubbled in the pail,

And buzzings of the honied hours.

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Such similar quiet acknowledgements of landscape, of time present and past, of friendship are some of the themes which draw me to Thomas’ work. Another of his friends was Jesse Berridge. The depth of this friendship is revealed when Berridge writes – this in the Spring of 1947 (fully 30 years after Thomas’ death at Arras) – of dreaming of the poet:

In my dream he was coming down a road, in loose dark clothes, to meet me, with his long purposeful stride and his face alight with pleasure and gaiety. Well I knew that look on his face, and here and now I would give testimony that I did know very many hours in his company, and in by far the greater part of them he was happy, sometimes with an almost bewildering intensity.

Here (if I may) is a poem of my own, drawing on material from Berridge’s memoir of Thomas which I hope captures some of the pleasures the poet shared with Berridge and before that with Frost. The opening detail about the church at Kilve in Somerset, is referred to in Wordsworth’s poem ‘Anecdote for Fathers’ (1798) included in Lyrical Ballads, obviously a favourite with Thomas and Berridge:

 

These things I remember                               

after Jesse Berridge

 

That afternoon on the beach at Kilve

we had ascertained

there was no weather-cock on the church

and we were resting in peace

almost in silence when he turned

and told me to listen

to the little melodious twittering

of a tiny bird that swooped and dipped

between where we sat and the roiling ocean—

a meadow pipit he said

the moment was unforgettable then

as he so often made such things

calling attention to this or that aspect

of what I call his vision

as one morning he cut a walking-stick

from the woods then carved

until it had a character of its own

or the knife I’ve owned almost sixty years

its bone handle chafed

and worn by my touch

until the white has begun to show through

for him held a peculiar fascination

till obscurely I began to feel

it possessed of a soul

that nothing but his observation of it

had created and I remember my children

always delighted in his occasional visit

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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Thomas and Berridge would often cycle the English countryside together and if you are interested in his extraordinary responses to the landscape I’d recommend In Pursuit of Spring, published in 1914. It was this book that Frost seized on in the summer of 1914 as evidence that Thomas ought to start writing poetry.

There are also personal reasons why I like this book so much – Thomas cycles from the outskirts of London, heading westwards, to the Quantocks. On his way he descends from Salisbury Plain into the Wiltshire where I grew up. Indeed he traces a particular ride along roads I know well. Here he is describing the almost visionary impact of the English countryside:

Motion was extraordinarily easy that afternoon, and I had no doubts that I did well to bicycle instead of walking. [. . .] At the same time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be. I was not at all tired, so far as I knew. No people or thoughts embarrassed me. I fed through the senses directly, but very temperately, through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit (so to call it) was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death. In fact, had I to describe the adventure of this remnant of a man, I should express it [. . .] with no need of help from Dante [. . .] Supposing I were persuaded to provide the afterworld with some of the usual furniture, I could borrow several visible things from that ride through Semington, Melksham, and Staverton.

Later, Thomas takes a detour to another place I know well, the village of Tellisford, its ruined water-mill and bridge by the River Frome. There he meets the Other Man, a figure who pops up in the book and who represents Thomas’ alter ego. I’d like to finish with another of my poems which I hope captures a good deal of the spirit of Edward Thomas in its love of English landscape, its sense of history, its longing for companionship, its loneliness and, in its conclusion, its sense, as ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ says, that “Everything / To faintness like those rumours fades”. The old man is a version of Thomas perhaps, or a version of the Other Man, or a version of myself – or all three at once. You might say one of my projects is to convince you that clarity is a chimera.

 

Rebuilding Tellisford weir

turn aside to see Tellisford  – Edward Thomas

                                               

He refuses shade in midday heat

the old man walking

in his honey-brimmed hat

along the drained weir-shelf

 

that looks today like stacked loaves

its pallid smooth ranks

of Victorian stones

mapping precisely the Domesday line

 

where he patrols to and fro

proudly surveying the place he owns

this stretch of England

his plan to restore the workings

 

of the old watermill

to feed the Grid—and it is for this

he has ordered tons of sludge

to be dredged above the drop

 

and dozens of loosened stones

to be replaced to give

the mill-race its full head

and today he walks the slippery length

 

of the dammed weir-shelf

hallooing picnickers

who pull corks from fizzy wines

he cries what marvellous weather

 

then falls to conversation with a couple

who are celebrating sixty years

in their self-built house

with their three good boys

 

raised and schooled to distant homes

though today they recline

on trashy garden chairs

on this riverbank as if to watch

 

the old man in an antique yellow hat

who walks noting progress

on the weir and how could they know

he’s something on his mind

 

for the next hundred years

how could they know more and more

these days he struggles to endure

the roaring of the fish-shoot

 

with its silted water

and these stilted conversations

with such ordinary people

their Diet Coke and egg mayonnaise

 

their crisps for the grandchildren

their Sunday newspapers

let blow and tumble across the meadow

reminding him of himself

 

how his mind often strays

up the ditch-line to the old drovers’ road

where for fifty years

their cars have pinked and purred

 

especially at night as they mount

slowly the gravel verge—

O so many love-cars for so many years

drawn to his father’s land

 

each in pursuit of what the river gives

of moonlight and chance

of the ticking of an engine

as it cools of blonde hair spilling

 

across dark seats in disarray

he knows the windows rolled to the dusk

the sickly smell of water

the murmur within and talk

 

when it’s over though he knows well

it is never really over—

and it’s because of this

he will not turn them away

 

although they holler and soil and litter

still he’d grant them every wish

it’s for this his feet edge now across

the weir-shelf this afternoon

 

for this he takes his uneasy stand

hands thrust in his pockets

their cars pulling in to the dark hiss

of white gravel everywhere loosening

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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Inner Emigres – Heaney and Huchel

Googling the term ‘inner émigré’ I come up mostly with links to Seamus Heaney’s use of it in the poem ‘Exposure’, the poem with which he ended North (1975):

I am neither internee nor informer;

An inner émigré, grown long-haired

And thoughtful . . .

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In a 1998 interview, Heaney discussed his use of the term: As far as possible, you try to remain a mystery to yourself. Living in Ireland, not being an exile, living in Ireland as a social creature, as a familiar citizen, I think there is a great danger that one’s social persona might overwhelm one’s daimon — if you’ll permit me such a grand term . . . And so what one is always trying to do is displace oneself to another place or space . . .Wicklow is where I first thought of myself as being an inner émigré. Since 1988 . . . I’ve been able to own the cottage and to think of it as my “place of writing.” When I said “inner émigré,” I meant to suggest a state of poetic stand-off, as it were, a state where you have slipped out of your usual social persona and have entered more creatively and fluently into your inner being. I think it is necessary to shed, at least to some extent, the social profile that you maintain elsewhere.

Heaney’s explanation of the term here is almost wholly personal and uncontroversial. Most of us would agree that we need to slip the moorings of our more socially tied selves in order to find the place of poetry. This is in part simply the required liberation from the way we use language to operate in (utilitarian) society though it’s also a shaking loose from the (again utilitarian) intentions and feelings of the quotidian. Having said that, Heaney does not mean a retreat into some up-dated Celtic Twilight world, soft-focused and fey, an abandonment of MacNeice’s requirement that modern poets are readers of newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.

This is more clear when Heaney acknowledges the term ‘inner émigré’ once had a specific meaning in the 1920s and 30s in Soviet Russia. It referred to someone “who had not actually gone into exile but who lived at home disaffected from the system. Well, to some extent that was true of myself. Certainly, in relation to Northern Ireland.”

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George Seferis

Heaney goes on to talk of finding in George Seferis’ work a connected idea, developed in The Redress of Poetry (1995): Seferis is reading Greek poetry during the war in the nineteen forties and he’s trying to write an article. There is distress, uncertainty, destruction all round him, with civil war looming. And he’s reading poetry and he’s really testing it. Does this thing have any value? And at one point he says: “Reading X this morning, I found that poetry is a help.” I think that what he means is that poetry secures some final place in your being, some little redoubt in your consciousness that will not be taken over by history or the world or disaster . . . Poetry’s value is established and promulgated by people who have known that feeling or something like it.

The term ‘inner émigré’ is also often used to describe Peter Huchel’s work though he was in the unusual situation of having to develop the strategy twice over.  His very early poems were linked to the sort of art fostered around 1920 by the League of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers. There’s no doubt he was on the side of the proletariat, the servants and exploited farmhands. He once said: “What did I care about in those days? I wanted to make visible in the poem a deliberately ignored, suppressed class, the class of the people, the maidservants and coachmen”. Even at this early stage his work did not include any proposals for a political solution and his concerns over social deprivation (witnessed from childhood days in the Brandenberg countryside) led him not to public proclamation but more inward to articulate a vision of a more fundamental relationship between productive human activity and the natural environment. It’s no surprise that Huchel felt close ties to the work of Robert Frost, though Huchel’s early verse (more than the American poet) is concerned with a representation of harmony and continuity, more fulfilment than frustration of fulfilment.

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Peter Huchel

But with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, Huchel began to develop the strategy of the ‘inner émigré’, publishing very little, even deciding to withhold an entire collection of poems, fearing it might be associated with the kind of blood-and-soil nature verse approved by National Socialism. His response to political changes was silence and non-cooperation.

It’s best to understand Huchel’s short-lived flash of faith in East German land reform in the immediate Soviet-Occupied post-war years in terms of his earlier social concerns. As John Flores argues, Huchel’s praise of the “law” of land reform is “not to be viewed as a sudden sacrifice in answer to official decrees, an unwilling turn to a theme totally incongruous with all his earlier poetic concerns, but as a logical continuation, in a way the culmination of his sympathy for the unprivileged classes inhabiting the countryside of his origins.” Within a few years, as the poet grew increasingly discouraged by developments in DDR society, his emphasis shifts from the praise of productive human activity in nature and the social order, to a concern for the enduring misery of men, regardless of the structure of society.

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Huchel again had to adopt the role of ‘inner émigré’ being now at odds with East German politics yet still writing (and editing Sinn und Forme). His work becomes characterised “less by sympathy with those denied the privileges and rights due to them, more by meditations on the pain and uncertainty which permeates all human existence” (Flores again). Huchel’s tone becomes sombre and melancholy, poetic diction cryptic, his palette narrows, full of recurrent symbols. Poems from the 1950s are implicit statements of his ‘counterposition’ to the ‘construction of socialism’. Franz Schonauer suggests Huchel’s poems are not the expression of a direct opposition or political protest and express a loss of confidence. These poems are winter psalms. What is at stake is the human intellect and its power of resistance when reason and culture seem brutally damaged, in a frozen motionless state. This is from ‘Exile’, published in 1972:

 

With evening, friends close in,

the shadows of hills.

Slowly they press across the threshold,

darkening the salt,

darkening the bread

and strike up conversation with my silence.

 

Outside in the maple

the wind stirs:

my sister, the rainwater

in the chalky trough,

imprisoned,

gazes up at the clouds.

 

Huchel could still write: “The creative, even eruptive, element in lyric poetry only rarely exists without rules; it needs a container, a form, so as not to disperse. Spring water spilled on the floor has only a dim glow – but when poured into a glass it is full of light”. This is the same little redoubt that Seamus Heaney found in Seferis; each hard-won poem as a receptacle of something that will not be taken over by history or the world or by disaster.

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Stand-to-Arms: David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937)

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There’s an extraordinary moment in the final pages of David Jones’ magnificent poem-novella, In Parenthesis (1937), when his hero, John Ball, dying at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, imagines the tourist industry that has since grown up around the World War One battlefields. In his last moments, he abandons his rifle: “leave it for a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas”. Jones’ footnote acknowledges the risk of this sounding anachronistic but insists he remembers such discussions among the soldiers, how holiday-makers will later be photographed “on our parapets”. It’s the unexpected sense of territorial ownership that makes him angry (not the sense of injustice at different lives unfolding so differently): he compares it to strangers “occupying a house you live in, and which has, for you, particular associations”.

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This searing, revelatory sense of the documentary – what it was like to be there – is just one of the reasons to read Jones’ book. Another extended footnote considers the multiple usage of the hessian material of sandbags. In their intended role “they constituted, filled with earth, the walls, ceiling, and even floor surface of half our world”. But it was also “utilized as a wrapping for food; for a protection to the working parts of a rifle, and cover for bayonet against rust. The firm, smooth contour of a steel-helmet was often deprived of its tell-tale brightness [. . .] by means of a piece of stitched-on sack-cloth. The sand bag could be cut open and cast over the shoulders against the weather or tied round the legs against the mud or spread as a linen cloth on the fire-step for a meal, or used in extremity as a towel or dish-cloth; could be bound firmly as an improvised bandage or sewn together as a shroud for the dead”. Such human and humane improvisation in the midst of nightmare reminds us that Jones did not intend In Parenthesis to be a “War Book”, but rather one about a “good kind of peace”. He himself gives us another reason to read his book in these contemporary times that we consider so ‘difficult’: “We find ourselves privates in foot regiments. We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful, to us”.

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For those interested in poetic techniques, Jones mixes prose and verse as naturally as walking and running. He is fiercely allusive throughout, particularly drawing on Shakespeare, Malory, The Mabinogion, The Song of Roland, other Welsh and Anglo-Saxon poems, Romantic and Classical poetry. TS Eliot tends to use his intertextual or allusive techniques forensically to dissect our Modern condition, how far we fall short of heroism, how far we are from spiritual pilgrimage, how sordid and smutty our lives have become. Curiously, Jones achieves something opposite, managing to elevate his fallible, cursing Tommies to some sort of reflection of the heroism of the past. The fields of northern France are compared to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in ways that establish rather than sever the links between myth and legend and the twentieth century. Bursts of shrapnel are associated with “the Thunder God” as discussed in Fraser’s The Golden Bough; the death of soldiers is rhymed with the myth of the king buried to protect and make the land fruitful. Jones’ interest in and identification with the ordinary soldiers is also expressed through his use of their words, in vivid, direct, often (knowingly) hilarious forms of demotic which put Eliot’s awkward efforts at doing the ordinary people’s voices into the shade.

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For a certain type of soldier, Jones tells us, trench life in 1916 with the “infantry in tin-hats, with ground-sheets over their shoulders, with sharpened pine-stakes in their hands”, brought Shakespeare’s Henry V “pretty constantly to the mind”. It’s from that play that one of the recurring phrases in In Parenthesis is drawn. In Part 3, Lance-Corporal Lewis sings as he walks, yet he sings softly, “because of the Disciplines of War”. Jones’ soldiers treat the idea with both respect and sarcasm on differing occasions though it’s striking that in the midst of battle, as things begin to turn against them:

 

Captain Cadwaladr restores

the Excellent Disciplines of the Wars.

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The book invites the reader in with knockabout drill on the parade ground at home to begin with. Then a long march to the port of embarkation, the troops looking smart as they march through town but once beyond civilian observation “with a depressing raggedness of movement and rankling of tempers they covered another mile between dismal sheds, high and tarred”. Proleptic of what lies ahead, they get lost among the port buildings, eventually waiting for departure to France in a “spacious shed [. . .] open at either end, windy and comfortless”.

Part 2 has the men marching through France, Jones capturing their first naïve witnessing of war’s destruction where a shell has fallen on the road they are pursuing: “men were busy here shovelling rubble into a great torn upheaval in the paving. A splintered tree scattered its winter limbs, spilled its life low on the ground. They stepped over its branches and went on”. One of the great themes of In Parenthesis ironically is the presence of Nature, often offering some consolation, some mythic pattern of life, death and re-birth to the soldiers, as well as (here) being subject to the destructions of human warfare. The natural processes of time, night and day, the seasons turning – also offer some consolation. Here is the magnificent opening to Part 4, John Ball seeing dawn break over the trenches:

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So thus he sorrowed till it was day and heard the foules sing, then somewhat he was comforted.

 

Stand-to.

Stand-to-arms.

Stealthily, imperceptibly stript back, thinning

night wraps

unshrouding, unsheafing—

and insubstantial barriers dissolve.

This blind night-negative yields uncertain flux.

At your wrist the phosphorescent dial describes the equal seconds.

 

The flux yields up a measurable body; bleached forms emerge and stand.

 

Where their faces turned, grey wealed earth bared almost of last clung weeds of night weft—

behind them the stars still shined.

 

The final seventh Part breaks more consistently into verse. Jones seldom uses line breaks to create the swaying rhythmic units of lyric verse but more usually for disjunction. His free verse recreates the soldier’s eye swinging from one thing to another, often in panic and confusion, the sudden bursting of danger from left field, from shells above, mines below. It allows him also to recreate the thrilling illogic of the stream of consciousness of his fighting men. Private Ball survives longer than many but is eventually wounded.

 

[. . .] it came as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker

below below below.

 

When golden vanities make about,

you’ve got no legs to stand on.

 

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.

 

He crawls away, encumbered by the weight of his rifle which he eventually leaves behind. An Ophelia-like figure, the Queen of the Woods, cuts garlands for the dying soldiers, whispering quietly to each of them, according respect (when the real circumstances of their deaths received anything but) elevating their passing to ritual. (Here is a brief animation and reading of this moment). That Jones can achieve this mythic sense, simultaneously dwelling on the clumsy encumbrance of Private Ball’s rifle, and allowing his fleeting thoughts about the future Cook’s tourists is a breath-taking moment of literary achievement. The whole is “a work of genius” (TS Eliot) and “a masterpiece” (WH Auden). For Adam Thorpe it “towers above any other prose or verse memorial of that war (indeed, of any war)”; for Thomas Dilworth it is “probably the greatest work of British Modernism written between the wars”.

 

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David Jones

 

I have been reading little other than In Parenthesis for the last few weeks. The narrative precision clarifies with each re-reading, as does the characterisation, the recurring motifs become more significant, the gem-like passages of exquisite poetry leap out. I have come to it very late; a reason for some regret but it is the best thing I have read in years. Perhaps the title put me off. It sounds arid and a bit tricksy. Jones suggests the parenthesis was the war itself (perhaps again indicating his real concern with how we live our peace), though he also cryptically adds “because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis”. The whole work concludes with lines taken from The Song of Roland: “the man who does not know this has not understood anything”.

 

The Poetry of Peter Huchel #1

I have been working off and on over the last year on translating the third collection by the German poet, Peter Huchel. I hope to complete this for publication in the next few months and here (over this and my next blog post) I have been gathering information about his life and times. I’ve found people know of his work but not in much detail. In a working life that saw him through some of the most traumatic events of European history, Huchel published only 4 collections of poetry in 1948, 1963, 1972 and 1979. Throughout his career the substance of much of his work is his vivid observation of the natural world, moving gradually towards a usually brief, free verse form, a withdrawal from the personal and a steadily darkening vision which comes to be dominated by elegy and lament.

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Peter Huchel was born Hellmut Huchel in 1903 in Lichterfelde (now part of Berlin). As a result of his mother’s ill health he was taken from the city to grow up on his grandfather’s farm at Alt-Langewisch, in the Brandenburg countryside near Potsdam. Huchel himself later argued “it is precisely the experiences of childhood, roughly between the ages of five and ten, that exercise a decisive influence in later years” (acceptance speech for the 1974 Literature Prize of the Free Masons). If this period was something of an idyll then it was shattered dramatically and forever by the death of the eleven year old boy’s grandfather and the outbreak of war in Europe.

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After defeat and his country’s humiliation at Versailles, Huchel, now 17 years old, took part in the conservative Kapp-Putsch against the Weimar Republic in 1920 which was fuelled by a resentment against the German government for signing up to the punishing conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. In the fighting associated with the failed coup, Huchel was wounded and it was during his recovery in hospital that his sympathies for socialism and Marxism fully developed.

From 1923 to 1926, Huchel studied literature and philosophy at the universities of Berlin, Freiberg and Vienna. Though always temperamentally an outsider, these were years of political, economic and artistic ferment (though ultimately something Huchel would react against) and in the final years of the 1920s he travelled to France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Turkey. In 1930, he changed his first name to Peter. His early poems were being written and published from 1924 onwards and were already strongly marked by the atmosphere and landscape of Brandenburg. He appeared out of step with the times, writing nature lyrics, using conventional metre and rhyme, though the natural landscapes he portrayed were far from pastoral. The rural world he grew up in was providing ways of articulating concerns about the shortcomings of the world about him: his close observations of Nature showed her as a harsh mistress and the poverty and suffering of Huchel’s Brandenburg peasants were both very real and politically charged.

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Working as an editorial assistant for Die Literarische Welt by 1932, Huchel’s poems won a prize and his first manuscript was accepted for publication under the title Der Knabenteich (‘The Boy’s Pond’). In 1934, Huchel married Dora Lassel but with the rise of Hitler in 1933, Die Literarische Welt ceased publication and Huchel withdrew his book partly for political reasons. He fled to Romania for a while and was deeply troubled that the Nazi’s liked his work, reading into it as they did a version of the blood and soil nationalism they hoped to foster. A few of his poems were published but by 1936 he was refusing permission and he did not publish a new poem during the rest of Hitler’s rule. Instead, he withdrew to the Brandenburg countryside but was eventually drafted in 1941, ending the war in a Russian prisoner of war camp.

With the fall of the Third Reich, Huchel enthusiastically shared the democratic and socialist optimism of many of his compatriots about the reconstruction of Eastern Germany offering a vision of freedom and equality to all. He began working for East German radio, published his first collection, Gedichte (‘Poems’), in 1948 and in 1949 became editor of the influential poetry magazine Sind und Form (Sense and Form’). Huchel’s poems were applauded both for their craft and evident socialist undercurrents though he did not satisfy some who demanded much more explicit support for the German Democratic experiment. Huchel’s dark rural landscapes offered at best equivocal support for the socialist regime and his instinctively conservative harking back to childhood and the natural world (rather than the modern revolutionary transformations of human society) were rightly seen by many as falling far short of the expected unquestioning celebration of the GDR’s project.

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Here’s Huchel’s ‘The Polish Reaper’ – from this period – as translated by Michael Hamburger. Compared to Huchel’s later work, there is an exclamatory and ‘poetic’ quality to many of these lines (despite being nominally spoken by a migrant worker in Germany). Also the political content is more explicit in the fields mowed but not owned, the poor conditions of the workers and the rather hefty symbolism of the returning eastwards to a red dawn!

 

Do not cry, golden-eyed frog,

in the pond’s weedy water.

Like a great conch

the night sky roars.

Its roaring calls me home.

 

My scythe shouldered

I walk down the bright main road,

Dogs howling round me,

past the smithy’s grime

where darkly the anvil sleeps.

 

Down by the outwork

poplars are drifting

in the moon’s milky light.

Still the meadows exhale heat

in the crickets’ screeching.

 

O fire of the earth,

my heart holds a different glow.

Field after field I mowed,

not one blade was my own.

 

Blow, autumn gales!

On the bare boards of lofts

hungry sleepers awaken.

Not alone I walk

down the bright main road.

 

At the rim of night

the stars glitter

like grain on the threshing-floor,

where I go home to the eastern country,

into morning’s red light.

 

I’ll continue Peter Huchel’s life story in my next post.