Tuesday

Sep. 1, 2009

In The Night Orchard

by R. T. Smith

I know, because Paul has told me
a hundred times, that the deer
gliding tonight through tangleweed
and trashwood, then bounding across
Mount Atlas Road, are after his pears.

And who could blame them?
On the threshold of autumn, the Asian
imports, more amazing than any Seckle
or indigenous apple, start to ripen.
Then a passing crow will peck one open.

That's when the whitetails who bed
and gather beyond Matson's pasture
will catch the scent and begin to stir.
It's a dry time, and they go slowly mad
for sweetness. No fence can stop them.

The farmers like Paul will admit
it starts in hunger, but how suddenly
need goes to frenzy and sheer plunder.
When the blush-gold windfalls are gone
and the low boughs are stripped

of anything resembling bounty, bucks
will rise on their hind legs and clamber
up the trunks. Last week Cecil Emore
found one strangled in a fork,
his twisted antlers tangled as if

some hunter had hung him there
to cure. We all remember what it's like,
this driven season, this delirium
for something not yet given a name,
but the world turns us practical, tames

us to yearn for milder pleasures.
For Augustine, it was actual pears
that brought him out of the shadows
and over a wall, for Eve, the secret
inside what we now say was an apple.

Others have given up safety for less,
and I wonder, catching an eight-point
buck outlined on the ridge amid spruce,
if it's this moonstruck nature that renders
the ruminants beautiful, or if we stalk

them out of envy, not for the grace
of their gliding, but for the unadorned
instinct that draws them after dark
into trespass and the need to ruin
the sweetest thing they've ever known.

"In The Night Orchard" by R. T. Smith, from Brightwood. © Louisiana State University Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1939 that Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began.

W.H. Auden (books by this author) wrote a famous poem about this day, called "September 1, 1939." It begins
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odor of death
Offends the September night.
Toward the end of the poem, he says, "We must love one another or die."

"September 1, 1939" became one of Auden's most famous poems, but in later years, he rejected it. He refused to give permission for it to be in anthologies, and when he did include it, he either changed "We must love one another or die" to "we must love one another and die," or he took out the stanza entirely.

It was on this day in 1773 that 20-year-old Phillis Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, (books by this author) in London. It was the first book of poetry published by an African-American. Phillis was born in West Africa and brought over as a slave when she was a young girl. She was purchased by a family in Boston, who taught her to read and write, and eventually gave her her freedom. She went to London when her book was published, and she met many important people there, including the Lord Mayor, who gave her a copy of Paradise Lost. George Washington praised her talents, and she published numerous poems in magazines. But her husband fell into debt and then abandoned her when she was pregnant, and she died in childbirth, in a boarding house, when she was 31 years old.

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