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Another fall, another turned page: there was something of
jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s
mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.”
— Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
Autumn, when the sun recrosses the equator heading south. There’s something very
alluring about leaves turning amber and russet, then crackling underfoot, about light that glows in an ever-afternoon, and air that breathes soft and cool upon the skin but smells of smoke-tang and apple cider.
Time to slow down just a little, enjoy the still-light days of September, and get philosophical over coffee with three poets who know a thing or two about transition.
September’s Baccalaureate (1271)
by Emily Dickinson
A combination is
Of Crickets – Crows – and Retrospects
And a dissembling Breeze
That hints without assuming –
An Innuendo sear
That makes the Heart put up its Fun
And turn Philosopher.
by Emily Dickinson
The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.
“September’s Baccalaureate” and “Autumn” are from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960 edition) – Little, Brown, and Company
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) American’s best-known woman poet and one of the nation’s greatest and most original authors, lived the life of a recluse in Amherst Massachusetts. She wrote nearly 1800 poems, ignoring the traditional poetic forms prevailing among most of the other poets of her day. The extent of her work wasn’t known until after her death, when her younger sister Lavinia discovered her cache of poems.
by Elizabeth Alexander
My first week in Cambridge a car full of white boys
tried to run me off the road, and spit through the window,
open to ask directions. I was always asking directions
and always driving: to an Armenian market
in Watertown to buy figs and string cheese, apricots,
dark spices and olives from barrels, tubes of paste
with unreadable Arabic labels. I ate
stuffed grape leaves and watched my lips swell in the mirror.
The floors of my apartment would never come clean.
Whenever I saw other colored people
in bookshops, or museums, or cafeterias, I’d gasp,
smile shyly, but they’d disappear before I spoke.
What would I have said to them? Come with me? Take
me home? Are you my mother? No. I sat alone
in countless Chinese restaurants eating almond
cookies, sipping tea with spoons and spoons of sugar.
Popcorn and coffee was dinner. When I fainted
from migraine in the grocery store, a Portuguese
man above me mouthed: “No breakfast.” He gave me
orange juice and chocolate bars. The color red
sprang into relief singing Wagner’s Walküre.
Entire tribes gyrated and drummed in my head.
I learned the samba from a Brazilian man
so tiny, so festooned with glitter I was certain
that he slept inside a filigreed, Fabergé egg.
No one at the door: no salesmen, Mormons, meter
readers, exterminators, no Harriet Tubman,
no one. Red notes sounding in a grey trolley town.
“Boston Year” from The Venus Hottentot, © 1990 by the Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia, Graywolf Press
by Elizabeth Alexander
Now is the time of year when bees are wild
and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped
loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants
in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.
I have found their dried husks in my clothes.
They are dervishes because they are dying,
one last sting, a warm place to squeeze
a drop of venom or of honey.
After the stroke we thought would be her last
my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped
a nurse across the face. Then she stood up,
walked outside, and lay down in the snow.
Two years later there is no other way
to say, we are waiting. She is silent, light
as an empty hive, and she is breathing.
“Equinox”from Body of Life, © 1996 by Elizabeth Alexander – Tia Chucha Press
Elizabeth Alexander (1962 — ) was born in Harlem, but as a child in a politically active family, she grew up in Washington, DC. Alexander as a toddler went with her family to the 1963 March on Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Politics was in the drinking water at my house,” she said, describing her childhood. When Barack Obama asked Elizabeth Alexander to compose and read a poem for his Presidential inauguration, she followed in the footsteps of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. While “Praise Song for the Day” was harshly reviewed by literary critics as “too much like prose” and her delivery as “undramatic,” the poem became a bestseller after it was published as a chapbook.
The Buffalo Coat
by Thomas McGrath
I see him moving, in his legendary fleece,
Between the superhighway and an Algonquin stone axe;
Between the wild tribes, in their lost heat,
And the dark blizzard of my Grandfather’s coat;
Cold with the outdoor cold caught in the curls,
Smelling of the world before the poll tax.
And between the new macadam and the Scalp Act
They got him by the short hair; had him clipped
Who once was wild—and all five senses wild—
Printing the wild with his hoof’s inflated script
Before the times was money in the bank,
Before it was a crime to be so mild.
But history is a fact, and moves on feet
Sharper than his, toward wallows deeper than.
And the myth that covered all his moving parts,
Grandfather’s time had turned into a coat;
And what kept warm then, in the true world’s cold
Is old and cold in a world his death began.
“The Buffalo Coat” from Movie At The End of the World, © 1972 by Thomas McGrath – Swallow Press
Beyond the Red River
by Thomas McGrath
The birds have flown their summer skies to the south,
And the flower-money is drying in the banks of bent grass
Which the bumble bee has abandoned. We wait for a winter lion,
Body of ice-crystals and sombrero of dead leaves.
A month ago, from the salt engines of the sea,
A machinery of early storms rolled toward the holiday houses
Where summer still dozed in the pool-side chairs, sipping
An aging whiskey of distances and departures.
Now the long freight of autumn goes smoking out of the land.
My possibles are all packed up, but still I do not leave.
I am happy enough here, where Dakota drifts wild in the universe,
Where the prairie is starting to shake in the surf of the winter dark.
“Beyond the Red River” from Selected Poems 1938-1988, © 1988 by Thomas McGrath – Copper Canyon Press
Thomas McGrath (1916-1990) – American poet, grandson of immigrant homesteaders in North Dakota, was born just before Thanksgiving, on November 20, 1916. The 1918 Influenza Pandemic bypassed the isolated McGrath farm, but his family was not spared the devastating effects of the Great Depression. As Social Historian E. P. Thompson wrote, “McGrath’s family experience was the whole cycle — from homesteading to generations working together to bust — in three generations.” His political and social views ever after were firmly on the side of working people. He was teaching at Los Angeles State University in the 1950s, but was dismissed after appearing as an unfriendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities: “A teacher who will tack and turn with every shift of the political wind cannot be a good teacher. I have never done this myself, nor will I ever.” He founded a journal called Crazy Horse (1954-1960), and later went back to teaching. McGrath died at age 73 on September 20, 1990, in Minneapolis.