by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
The last day of August, still time to catch some summer sun, and enhale its layers of aroma: sunscreen, watermelon, citronella and charcoal brickettes.
So I have three August poems for you from three very different poets. The first is by Hilaire Belloc, but it’s unlike his sly and charming poems for children – a very “grown-up” poem full of myth and legend.
The soldier month, the bulwark of the year,
That never more shall hear such victories told;
He stands apparent with his heaven-high spear,
And helmeted of grand Etruscan gold.
Our harvest is the bounty he has won,
The loot his fiery temper takes by strength.
Oh! Paladin of the Imperial sun!
Oh! crown of all the seasons come at length!
This is sheer manhood; this is Charlemagne,
When he with his wide host came conquering home
From vengeance under Roncesvalles ta’en.
Or when his bramble beard flaked red with foam
Of bivouac wine-cups on the Lombard plain,
What time he swept to grasp the world at Rome.
“August” from Complete Verse by Hilaire Belloc (2nd Edition – © 1988) – Gerald Duckworth & Co
Our second poet may surprise you. Margaret Atwood’s powerful novel The Handmaid’s Tale has become an icon of the struggle to keep American women’s right to choose when and if they will have children from being overturned. She has been justly admired and honored for her skill as a prose writer, but many readers are unaware that she is also an accomplished poet.
Late August —
This is the plum season, the nights
blue and distended, the moon
hazed, this is the season of peaches
with their lush lobed bulbs
that glow in the dusk, apples
that drop and rot
sweetly, their brown skins veined as glands
No more the shrill voices
that cried Need Need
from the cold pond, bladed
and urgent as new grass
Now it is the crickets
that say Ripe Ripe
slurred in the darkness,
while the plums
dripping on the lawn outside
our window, burst
with a sound like thick syrup
muffled and slow
The air is still
warm, flesh moves over
flesh, there is no
“Late August” from Selected Poems: 1965-1975, © 1976 by Margaret Atwood – Houghton Mifflin
Our third poet, Greg Rappleye, is new to me. I hope you will find his deep sense of the rhythms of his particular place in the world as intriguing as I do.
A Path Between Houses
Where is the dwelling place of light?
And where is the house of darkness?
Go about; walk the limits of the land.
Do you know a path between them?
The enigma of August.
Season of dust and teenage arson.
The nightly whine of pickup trucks
bouncing through the sumac
beneath the Co-Operative power lines,
country & western booming from woofers
carved into the doors. A trace of smoke
when the wind shifts,
spun gravel rattling the fenders of cars,
the groan of clutch and transaxle,
pickup trucks, arriving at a friction point,
gunning from nowhere to nowhere.
The duets begin. A compact disc,
a single line of muted trumpet,
plays against the sirens
pursuing the smoke of grass fires.
I love a painter. On a new canvas,
she paints the neighbor’s field.
She paints it without trees,
and paints the field beyond the field,
the field that has no trees,
and the upturned Jesus boat,
made into a planter,
“For God so loved the world. . .”
a citation from John, chapter and verse,
splattered across the bow
the boat spills roses into the weeds.
What does the stray dog know,
after a taste of what is holy?
The sun pulls her shadow toward me,
an undulant shape that shelters the grass,
an unaimed thing.
In the gray house, the tiny house,
in ‘52 there was a fire. The old woman,
drunk and smoking cigarettes, fell asleep.
The winter of the blizzard and her son
Not coming home from the Yalu.
There are times I still smell smoke.
There are days I know she set the fire
Last night, lightning to the south.
Here, nothing, though along the river
the wind upends a willow,
a gorgon of leaves and bottom-up clod
browning in the afternoon sun.
In the museum we dispute
the poet’s epiphany call–
white light or more warmth?
And what is the Greek word for the flesh,
and the body apart from the spirit,
meaning even the body opposed to the spirit?
I do not know this word.
Dante claims there are pools of fire
in the middle regions of hell,
but the lowest circles are lakes of ice,
offering the hope our greatest sins
aren’t the passions but indifference.
And the willow grew for years
With no real hold upon the ground.
How the accident occurred
and how the sky got dark:
Six miles from my house,
a drunk leaves the Holiday Inn
spins on 104 and smacks a utility pole.
The power line sparks
across the hood of his Ford
and illuminates the crazed spider web
of the windshield. His bloody tongue burns
with a slurry gospel. Around me,
the lights go down,
the way death is described
as armor crashing to the ground,
the soul having already departed
for another place. Was it his body I heard
leaning against the horn,
the body’s final song, before the body
slumped sideways in the seat?
When I was a child,
I would wake at night
and imagine a field of asteroids, rolling
across the walls of my room.
In fact, I’ve seen them,
like the last herd of buffalo,
grazing against the background of fixed stars.
Plate 420 shows the asteroid 433 Eros,
the bright point of light, as it closes its approach
to light. I loose myself in Cygnus,
ancient kamikaze swan,
rising or diving to earth,
Draco, snarling at the polestar,
and Pegasus, stone horse of the gods,
ecstatic, looking one last time at home.
August and the enigma it is.
Days when I move in crabbed circles,
nights when I walk with Jesus through the fields.
What finally stands between us
and the world of flying things?
Mobbed by jays, the Cooper’s hawk
drops the dead bird. It tumbles
beneath the cedar tree,
tiny acrobat of death,
a dead bird released
in a failed act of atonement.
A nest of wasps buzzing beneath the shingles,
flickers drilling the cottonwood,
jays, sparrows, the insistent wrens,
the language of birds, heads cocked,
staring the moon-eyed through the air.
Sedge, asters, and fleabane,
red tins of gasoline and glowing cigarettes,
the midnight voice of a fourteen-year-old girl
wailing the word “blue” from the pickup’s open doors,
illuminated by the dome light,
the sulphurous rasp of another struck match,
and foxglove, goldenrod and chicory,
the dry flowers of late summer,
an exhaustion I no longer look at.
Time passes. The authorities
gather the wreckage, the whirr
of cicadas, and light dissembles the sky.
A wind shift, and the Cedar Creek fire
snaps the backfire line
and roars through the cemetery.
In the morning,
I walk a path between houses.
I cross to the water
and circle again, the redwings
forcing me back from the marsh.
Smoke rises from a fire
still smoldering along the power lines,
flaring and exhausting itself
in the shape of something lost.
Grass fires, fires through the scrub
of the clear-cut, fires in the pulpwood,
the powder of ash still untracked
beneath the enormous trees,
fires that explode the seed cones
on the pines, the smoke of set fires
and every good intention gone wrong,
scorching the monuments
above the graves of the dead.
“A Path Between Houses” from A Path Between Houses, © 2000 by Greg Rappleye – University of Wisconsin Press
Three very different poems about August, from the classical to the intensely personal.
Of course, in the Southern Hemisphere, days are getting a little longer, as the Earth slowly tilts so you get your share of sunshine. Please consider this a “Preview of Coming Attractions.”
- Reproduction of an Etruscan helmet
- Plums and peaches
- Fields on a late summer evening
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud