“They turn their heads to see if we were meant to be…”

[This is the third part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. I’m posting it as I write it, in monthly installments; first read the prologue and then September. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

OCTOBER

In our world grown old, we waited too long
To hallow the dead; here we entrust them
With the second-most month, when the moon in its socket
Spins thin and white, like a thumbworn coin
From an overturned jar. Then all the heavens
Await the life of a world to come
In a bowed constellation, the Lady of Graves.
In thirty-five stars, stern but gracious,
She calms the night. Its creatures laud her:
The eyeless, the preyed-on, creep in from the dark.
Below, she prepares finer places for them
When their wound-up casings wobble and seize.
The bat sloughs off its brittle wings;
The shivering vole earns a shadow of peace
In a dry, quiet corner; a cat slinks near
With raw offerings of her own to bestow.
The Lady kneels. With loving precision
She frees their souls, saving the bones
To frame and trace a future creation.
The wise use words the same way, even here.

The morning unveils a vast exhaustion.
The fields are a burlap of beige and gray,
Fiery sorghum deflates and sags
And whole orchards shudder, shedding their bloat
With plain impatience; pears and apples
Heap up under the aching trunks.
The forest cracks—we flinch. Acorns
Sizzling like meteors melt in the earth.
On weird afternoons, warmer breezes
Buffet the siding; bursts of summer
Toy with the longings of tinier lives.
Like thick, wet sand thrown in a bucket,
Clumps of ladybirds cling to the screens.
Stinkbugs teeter on the tabletop ledge.
Pendulous wasps whirl round the gutters
And sputter to buttress their barrows of dust.
Flung from the treetops yet fixed on one point,
The living sticks look for parallels
On brown-edged doors. Where a dead one falls,
Another mounts it. We have no way to ask
If it mates in obtuseness, or mourns it and knows.

We could rue a month of mottled flesh,
Dolorous blisters, a daybreak stumble
And strange, sharp cries on the stairway landing.
A luckless toad, twisted and gnawed,
Sprawls at the threshold; the thing that brought it
Took back the offering, all but a pulp
Of mangled sacrum and sawtooth legs.
But in the midst of all endings, past immense fallows
And ashen fields, we find a place
Of open hope: the whole country
Is green, flashing with the flickering wisps
Of saplings pinned in perfect rows,
Like stunted pillars in the plan of an abbey
Too sacred to build, or a burgeoning corps
Of unshakable saints. We saw them gather
First with a sense of unsettling grace
And then with laughter, relieved and free.
When we returned to collect the lonely bones
That fell at our door, we found only
A puddle of rain. They had raised their own weight
On fleshless legs and loped away.

In the sky, soot-winged scavengers wheel
And leer like imps. Let them grovel;
The corpses we plant in these perishing weeks
Will bloom into gardens. What they grow to become
Is no more clear than the question we pose
To waiting children—“and what are you
Supposed to be?”—but the purpose now
Is to give no heed to the grave temptation
Of the second month, to summon the phantoms
Of forgotten times and pretend they were dying
To see how you’ve done. Save the prayer;
They vex us anyway all through the year.
Turn them backward with taproots gouged
Into shameless grins; let grisly lanterns
Reflect a life of lighter spirits
And look past the woods: love provided
A ghost in the window to guide you home.

4 thoughts on ““They turn their heads to see if we were meant to be…”

  1. Lovely, Jeff. I’m struck by “whole orchards shudder”, especially after waking to heavy, snow fluttering down, and wonder if all of my trees will withstand the sudden added weight. Paricularly the two-year-old apple trees – barely more than saplings – in the backyard. When the snow slows I’ll have to brush those trees clean.

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  2. Thanks, Pete! I hope your trees survive. Saplings are hardy, though, which makes them useful (and eventually, delicious) metaphors…

    This is the first time I’ve lived near orchards, and I’m struck by just how much fruit falls and rots on the ground. One of the orchards has a long-standing policy of only selling fruit plucked right from the tree. It’s not clear to me how common that is.

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  3. I’ve read this several times now, and it yields more each time. I hesitate to pick out particular lines, but

    ‘The morning unveils a vast exhaustion.
    The fields are a burlap of beige and gray’

    is great, and

    ‘We could rue a month of mottled flesh,
    Dolorous blisters’

    and all that rotting fruit imagery!

    I think in some ways your October must be more like our November, yet with more fruitfulness and life alongside the death and decay. Autumn is such a time of wonders. I do love the way you use astronomical references, which gives that ancient feel of the old calendar poems.

    Please, please keep this up, it’s such a rich horde of delight.

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  4. Thanks, Lucy! Thanks for reading so closely, and with such enjoyment. Please keep coming back; I’m committed to this poem through August 2016.

    One of the things that draws me to ancient and medieval agronomic and calendrical poetry is the way that our usual concessions to scale are rendered meaningless. The constellations, the workings of nature, the labors of men—they’re all of equal importance to the poet.

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