I recently promised you all another poem, and today the threat comes real. I had thought I wrote this little piece one day during the autumn of my first year in Maquoketa. However, I should have realized I was too busy facing a crumbling long-distance relationship, doomed to terminate on my 24th birthday in November of that year, and settling into and living with my new job at Andrew Community School to take time to perform such a mundane, suburban twentieth-century task as raking the leaves in the yard (we would just leave that for my aged years here in a house the bank actually still owns, but weʼre working on that death-rental — i.e. mortgage). However, I had a longer search than I had first planned through my folder of old poems to find this rough gem (sarcastic, but I do like the poem somehow). It actually comes from the following year, a bit later in October than currently we are.
This post is labeled as a contest because the poem is untitled (I went through phases of either titling or not naming my verse). This one got no monicker. And I don’t think thatʼs fair to this little bit of free-associating free verse. I have no reward whatsoever, but I would appreciate anyoneʼs idea of a good title for it. Hereʼs the poem…
Handfuls of leaves
were stuffed into plastic sacks
and crammed damn punched hell pushed cripes
into a crumbled powder in bags
sealed shut now that the daywindʼs
caught the night.
He never thought about
the dry warm-toned moments his lifeʼs shed,
scattered by internal winds
to the concrete corners of his sleep,
even though he played, a late boy,
in rare decomposing mountains
and leapt allsmoky over the pyre
again and again in the cold eveningʼs
startinted air after supper.
He raked his yard
and wrote a letter to an old girlfriend
while washing his clothes
for the week ahead.
29 October 1978
One attractive element of the poem for me was the choice to speak in third person, even though itʼs all about me in its details. Of course, if the poem is any good, itʼs not all about me, or not only. I also like using metaphorical, autumnal-colored leaves for the childhood memories that lie unpeacefully at rest in “concrete-cornered” dreams, as though “he” has somehow raked them together for disposal, too. The ending is perhaps weak (too autobiographical?), but I wanted, and I like, to have the ideas tumble back into mundane reality. The poem arises from an everyday task but whirls up (I donʼt think at the time I had a windborne-leaves image in mind, but I do today) into a poetic reverie, mostly on shed/lost/dead and forgotten youth before sifting back to the ordinary earth. (Thatʼs a pretty bit of metaphorical interpretive analysis.)
I think everything biographical in the poem is both true and accurate. When the family lived in Olivet, the city (or perhaps just the college) in the fall used to collect the leaves into incredibly huge piles located in what I thought of as our back yard — the vast, long stretch of grass way out behind the former frat house we rented (or at least lived in) for my dadʼs two-year stint of college teaching (he evidently hated the politics and backbiting and got back to public school instruction pretty fast, thus moving us all to Iowa, and Mt.P, in the summer of ʼ68). I can remember playing on those leaf mountains a lot, not just in the fall, although the process of decomposition should have made them somewhat unpleasant when the leaves werenʼt fresh (or not…). I was still playing on those leaf piles in my freshman year of high school, a time when I was normally wishing to feel all grown and mature, being interested in and mildly interesting to girls long since, thus “a late boy” in a double sense, that distant youth being as dead as the raked leaves. And at some point(s) in childhood we did play at jumping over burning leaves (friends and I also pretended to be Olympic parachutists — nope, you read that right — by jumping out of a tree in our side/back yard in Rock Island at ever higher and higher levels, although I sometimes believe today that the kid who invented that game was the judge, not a competitor in those nearly suicidal, gravitationally experimental endeavors). Burning, autumn, destruction and (risking) death all fester together somehow, and poets have long seen fire in the annual colors of dying leaves.
The poem evolved from an actual single day of raking on Emma Court (how small that yard seems now), the accumulation from which did wind up in plastic garbage bags, presumably to leave (heh heh) for collection curbside, although I donʼt now remember (and they donʼt collect leaves that way in town today). And I did create sparks with my metal-tined rake on the cement of the curb and street (so itʼs not just symbolic flakes of fire), although I donʼt think that has happened to me since. I assume in memory that the opening stanza got mentally written, more or less verbatim, while I was outdoors raking, and I believe (true or not) that it captures something of the rhythm of that work. Similarly, in the second stanza the third line does echo my mental or verbal pyrotechnics at the difficulties of filling the garbage bags — although with a clean-up on the last cussword, which was originally (and on paper) a maybe-blasphemous use of the Greek messianic title of the Trinityʼs Second Person. I chose the current last word just now for this publication. Possibly I shouldnʼt have bowdlerized myself.
Speaking of last words, although my pseudoGermanic, Joycean compound word makes the reading just a shade confusing, I still enjoy not so much “allsmoky” but that startlingly accurate “startinted.” Sometimes I amaze my now-older self at just what little lovelies I could produce. In fact that whole lineʼs pretty nice, IMHO, as they insincerely say; and “after supper” seems to function correctly to conjure the dull reality of the closing stanza.
Anyway, thatʼs my thirty-two-year-old ode to raking leaves.