Afternoon in late September
Shows us signs we both can follow,
Shadows where there were no shadows
Days before, encroach on meadows,
Turning brittle brown and yellow.
Six o’clock’s a dying ember
Causing grown men to remember
Another fall’s disturbing echo.
When, unnoticed, fell the first leaves,
Yellow elm leave tired of sunshine?
Who suspected seeing such ease
When the first chill stunned the green vine?
Is embarrassment the reason
Sumac’s crimson hides its poison?
When was foliage last so supine?
Rainy night in mid-October
Brings the icy confirmation —
Twigs encased in shiny coffins
Clenched in cold that never softens.
Even daylight’s ministration
Alters no repose so sober
As the sleep of mid-October,
Sleep of spreading desolation.
Notes: Took a walk this evening and it finally felt cold for the first time. Cold enough to pull this old poem out, dust it off, and trot it out again.
Written years ago and far away, when I lived in a much different climate. My Puget Sound friends and neighbors might find it hard to relate to an autumn that leaves twigs encased in icy coffins, but my friends back in Minnesota understand all too well.
I recall one Halloween when my son and I set out at dusk to trick or treat in Minneapolis. We made our way about two blocks as it began to snow hard, then harder. We almost didn’t make it back home as we trudged through calf-deep drifts.
Autumn has its beauty. “Every leaf is a flower,” is a beautiful sentiment.
But the fall is also one of God’s great metaphors. And that makes it poignant, even as it is achingly beautiful.
That bleak season the cold creek ceased to run,
Grey weeds withered beside the roadside ditch,
Flat leaden clouds obscured a sullen sun,
Winds lashed ice-lacquered leaves without a twitch.
Field stalks bowed down to winter’s weary weight,
The world conspired to pile pang upon pang,
Even the crusted snow cried, “Much too late!”
Caged by a skeleton hedge, no bird sang.
That bleak season love went the way of leaves,
Good green seeming, but poised to take the fall,
First frost stunned then assailed by windy thieves,
Some futile few sought stubborn to forestall
The impending end ’til a fell gust cleaves
Asunder with only a scrawny squall.
Notes: If you read enough Gerard Manley Hopkins, it can mess up your iambic pentameter. That’s because he often wrote in what he called “sprung rhythm,” which involved tossing out the sing-song metric rules that so many of his Victorian contemporaries followed.
Sprung rhythm was not free verse. Hopkins followed his own complex set of rules, but he was wildly eccentric for those times.
I do not claim to follow Hopkins or his rules here. This poem is more like “disjointed rhythm” than sprung rhythm. But this seems to me to be very appropriate for the subject matter of a world and a love wrenched all out of joint.
This poem still faintly resembles a sonnet. It still has 10 syllables to each line. It still rhymes in a familiar pattern, close to the English sonnet, but ending in an e-f rhyme instead of g-g.
Father, all I ask —
unbutton your coat, and warm
my toes on your skin.
This weary world is so cold,
and I am a trembling reed.
Notes on the form:
Tanka is a type of Japanese short poetry that some believe predates haiku. Rather than the three line 5/7/5 haiku for, tanka adds two more seven syllable lines to form a 5/7/5 7/7 pattern.
From what I can determine, the content tanka tends to be more personal than haiku. Some are even love notes passed between lovers. But many also express an appreciation of nature.
I chose the tanka form for this poem inspired by my own father, and written as a prayer.
Notes on the content: The example of a good father
I had the most excellent good fortune to have been blessed with a wonderful dad. Because of his example, I found it easy to comprehend the idea of God as a good and loving father.
One of my earliest memories goes back to a winter day when I must have been no more than 3 years old. Word came to our farmhouse on the party phone line that something strange had been found in a tree a couple of miles from our place.
We all bundled up and went to the scene. It seems that a large weather balloon had fallen back to earth and gotten snagged high up in the tree. It seemed to me that it took forever for the local high school-age farm lads to determine how best to climb the tree and free the object from its captor.
As the proceedings dragged on and on, I got colder and colder, and my feet were freezing. When I complained to my dad, he scooped me up, took off my socks and shoes, and stuck my tiny feet inside his coat and inside his shirt to warm them up.
A bit about my dad
He was a provider. He worked hard all his life to provide for his family the best way he knew how. In his youth during the Great Depression, working as a farmhand for a dollar a day (and glad to get it!) Then, after saving up, he bought his own 80 acre dirt farm, which he operated for many years.
I came along as a late child, as Mom and Dad were facing middle age. When I was young, he sold the farm, made the one big entrepreneurial move of his life, and bought a Ford Tractor dealership with a couple of partners. When that business ultimately failed, Dad kept one working, this time as a mechanic. Through hard times and disappointments, he just kept chopping wood, and doing the best he could.
He possessed a merry disposition, quick with a story or a quaint country expression. But he was capable of administering effective corporal punishment when required. His boys learned early on that he was not afraid to use his belt to emphasize a disciplinary point. I must say his spankings, while no fun, were short, undamaging, and few.
He was honest to a fault, even refusing to charge mark-ups on the parts he bought to use in repairing cars, trucks, and farm implements. Even though that was standard practice in auto and farm repair shops everywhere, it just didn’t seem right, he said, to take that money for nothing. It was known throughout the county that if Ray Ball couldn’t fix it, it couldn’t be fixed.
And in those rare cases when he could not get the tractor to run or the corn picker to pick, Dad wouldn’t charge the farmer anything at all.
An example as a husband
Dad was faithful to our mother throughout his life, and he clearly adored her. And when she declined in health past the point where he could care for her at home, he visited her in the nursing home every day, personally spoon feeding lunch to her.
Finally, Dad did his best to expose his four sons to faith and to the love of God as he had come to know it. He had seen his own father undergo a dramatic adult conversion, which resulted in a softening and sweetening in the disposition of my grandfather. This must have had an effect on my own father, because he was always a gentle and kind man.
Although my brothers and I all initially rejected the faith of our parents, at least some of us eventually came around. Dad passed away in 2000, but I would like to think that Dad would appreciate this little poem, if he were around to read it.