I spent a fair amount of time in the flatlands of Iowa this weekend, including a brief drive-by in the hometown of this week’s featured poet, James Hearst. Note: Iowans do drive-bys differently. We just drive up slowly in a car, stop, gaze out the windows at any old thing, and then say, “Oh. Sure.” before driving on. Anyway, James Hearst is the famous Iowa farmer-poet, born in 1900, who lived his adult life paralyzed, using a wheelchair and all sorts of other implements, while teaching poetry at the University of Northern Iowa.
I discovered a really nice website devoted to his work while looking for today’s selection. You can read a bio, see basically all his published work, look at photos, and also –hey!– learn a little bit about Cedar Falls, Iowa, here:
The poem below strikes me as a 15-line sonnet. Don’t know why he’s cheating a little bit, but he’s cheating a little bit. I’m convinced it’s a sonnet because of the ABAB-rhymed opening quatrains, the shift in, hmm, mood, or perspective, at the outset of the longer stanza, stanza 3, and of course the lovely rhyming couplet to close. Thematically, this is not a terribly novel poem: you can find similar reflections across times and cultures. The interiority of those final 4-5 lines, though, is distinctly modern. Instead of telescoping his reflections into a universal statement on death/fall, he’s rather put himself under the microscope in an oblique and photophobic way. It’s like he’s got something inside of him that’s more deathly than the endings he senses in the natural world around him. And what a wonderful control he brings to it all! -ed.
The claim the stubble had no longer defends
This field, and mice laid bare in shallow burrows
Dart through the listless grass; a plow extends
Its shoulders of steel and the field goes back to furrows.
Slowly weeds stiffen to ash. All day the breeze
Cools the blazing sumach and rustles light
Syllables of death from frigidly burning trees
In each dry leaf that falls, in every blackbird’s flight.
Autumn, Autumn, I can feel your harsh beauty
Closing around me as the end of the year
Moves into place to the sound of falling leaves,
I too have deaths to honor and the passion of death;
While grief sings in a shaking bush, while fear
Hunts in the furrow, my monuments arise
Like sudden shadows under October skies.