Dispatches | April 23, 2012
Spring is in the house! It’s seed-plantin’ time, y’all. Fund-raisin’ time. Bird-watchin’ time. Grass-cuttin’ time. Man, I love cutting the grass…
There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
My new yard tool is called a grass-whip. It seems to be designed off a golf-club, a driver, and you swing it like one – swift and weighted at the leveled blade. For years I used a heavier, clunkier Ace Hardware brand device you could only call a sling-blade—the kind of tool an old maintenance man used to arm us with in the dead hour of an Alabama afternoon to hack at kudzu he could just as well have mown with a tractor.
I have a small yard, so the grass-whip suffices for my mowing needs. And it is difficult. And satisfying. But I’m one of those types who likes hard work. Workhorses, they call us. I like the mindlessness, the ecstasy of complete exhaustion. Part Zen, part glutton, I’m sure.
Yesterday evening, having just “laid the swale” as Frost writes so beautifully, the blade raised over my head with grass raining down, the hippie neighbor repair-man, Jason, says from the fence: “cutting your grass with sickles? Props.” Props because it’s hardcore, man. Props because it’s “environmental” (he lives in a commune). While I am terrified of global warming, and hate few sounds like I hate spring’s mobile army of lawn-mowers, mostly I like to see the result of hard work. I like the shaping.
As a boy, hanging my head out the side of my mother’s station wagon, I would imagine a long blade extending from the window leveling everything we passed: trees, powerline poles, houses. Of course, there’s an violence in it, a domineering force, not unlike Tarquinus Superbus, King of Rome in 600 B.C., who led his son’s untrustworthy messenger to the garden where he beheaded the flowers of the greatest poppies with his cane, a message not lost on the King’s son, who summarily beheaded the greatest and most influential people in Gabii. There’s a phallic (perhaps compensatory) power inherent in Frost’s “long scythe” in “Mowing” (which can’t abide weakness), and in his “long, two-pointed ladder” in “Apple-Picking.”
But the mesmerizing repetition, the rhythm, the appeal of physical work—it has remarkable precedence in literature, especially as a figure for composing. Think of all the writers who composed while walking (Wallace Stevens), or swimming (Robert Penn Warren). Think of Seamus Heaney’s “Digging.” Or all the stitching, weaving, swimming, fighting, dancing, and singing (the chorus’ alternating strophe and antistophe) in Yeats’ poetry, all that “stitching and unstitching.” In “Cuchulain Comforted” the shades sing: “We thread the needles’ eyes, and all we do / All must together do.”
Ivory-tower glorifying in manual labor smacks of colonial-imperialism, it’s true. And we’re most of us like Wordsworth, mesmerized by his idealized “Solitary Reaper,” calling into the literate void:
Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Still, I defer to Barthes’ (nevertheless romanticized) treatment of the feel of wood in the hand in his essay “Plastic.” Or Hegel, simplified: “…in fashioning the thing, he becomes aware that being-for-self belongs to him…The shape does not become something other than himself through being made external to him; for it is precisely this shape that is his pure being-for-self, which in this externality is seen by him to be the truth.”
What’s in the poet’s tool—Frost’s scythe, Heaney’s spade, Yeats’ needle? Symbols of the pen, it seems, like the pastoral reed one shepherd breaks in mourning for another. Instruments—but utilitarian or musical? Either way, it’s a kind of power. Is it so bad for a poet to want power? Tony Hoagland’s recent Writer’s Chronicle article “Blame it on Rio,” advocates for more powerful statement in today’s poetry, which he complains tends to be “soft,” “neutered” and “hapless”—poetry Frost might agree “seems too weak.” Yet, do we want to go back to the days of (to misquote Mark Halliday from some poem) the big-hearted, masculine poem of the 80s and 90s? No thanks.
When Auden writes in Yeats’ elegy, “What instruments we have agree / The day of your death was a cold dark day,” what kind of instrument does he mean?—especially when he assures us that “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Yet Heaney seems to think he can make a difference with his “pen.” And Auden urges us, nevertheless, to undertake “the farming of a verse.”
Seed-plantin’ time, y’all. And I am full of the season’s “earnest love” for a truth I can hold, and swing. Too earnest, no doubt.
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