Larkin’s “Work Toad” is slowly, slip slopping his way towards me. With webbing and slime he makes his heavy, warty and unwanted way towards me, slowly, inexorably muttering bills, and health insurance and pension and taxes. And then plop! He is in my lap, heavy and inevitable. I wriggle, but there is no escape and we must share each other’s cold burden for another long year together.
I am originally from Liverpool, not Manchester, but the minutiae of geography is profoundly insignificant in the presence of a powerful poet, trying to put people back together after another a horrible tragedy.
The walnut trees and the ash trees and the little red Japanese maples that were so cruely fried by the late frost and snow are coming back into leaf and this poem sums the sense of relief I feel perfectly.
You can hear the poem read aloud at:
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
Copyright © 2017 by Ada Limón. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 15, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.ied
About this Poem
“It was a hard winter. My whole body raged against it. But right as the world feels uninhabitable, something miraculous happens: the trees come back. I wanted to praise that ordinary thing as a way of bringing myself back too.”
LOVELIEST of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
A. E. Housman
Today the cherry orchards were in full flower. It has been a cold snowy winter, but spring is spectacular and if the rain holds off, there should be an excellent cherry harvest.
In the woods the wild cherry were white against the dark conifers and I thought of this favourite Housman poem and counted my years left to ” watch the cherry hung with snow”.
A disease called Ash die back has been sweeping Europe and slowly killing these lovely trees. Here on the Swiss French border foresters have decided to cut out all the diseased trees and the result is devastating . It is not the first time a disease has spread into the wrong geographical location and destroyed a whole species. Elm trees were destroyed in Europe and America and this poem by Robert Francis captures the sadness of this loss and the need to look to the future with hope.
many thanks to cimple.life for introducing me to the poetry of Robert Francis.
The Fate of Elms
If they are doomed and all that can be done
Should fail, if they must die and disappear
And we must see them dying one by one,
Summer and fall and winter, year by year
Until there comes a summer so bereft
That over river, meadow, pasture height
No last and solitary elm is left
Lifting its leafy wings as if for flight—
Let us not make our grief for them too great
And say we wished that we had gone before,
Making the fate of elms too much our fate,
Seeing the always less and not the more.
Though elms may die, not everything must die:
Not their green memory against our sky.
My first garden, as a grown up, was the grandest garden I shall ever know.
In response to an advert in the Oxford Times we found ourselves renting the converted top floor of a monastery bake house in the grounds of Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire.
It was incredibly cold and impossibly right and romantic. The story was that it had been converted for DH Lawerence to live in as an “agricultural labourer” on the land of Lady Otoline Morrell and thus avoid conscription. However, his unflattering description of her in as Hermoine Roddice in “Women in Love”had resulted in a falling out and he never took possession of flat. Ottoline Morrell continued as a famous hostess of the intelligencia during WW1 and her guests included Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sasson, Virginia Wolfe, Henry James, Bertrand Russel, WB Yeats, TS Elliot and of course the troublesome Lawerence.
The beautiful gardens she had laid out around the Tudor Cotswold manor house were open for us to enjoy and we timidly explored the lower reaches away from the big house and could hardly believe our luck.
At the furthest end was a lovely natural pool full of fish always ravenous for bread crumbs where I watched an equally hungry cat lean further and further over to catch them, until it fell head first in the water. It’s expression of outraged indignation as it hauled his sodden body out on the other side of the pond, was a delight I have never forgotten.
Beyond the fish pond was the Italian lake, which was large enough to swim in and to boat around a central island. The water was cold and green, but we braved it sometimes, floating briefly on our backs to admire the statues set into the deep green hedge. I would have looked more closely at the plinths upon which the statues stood if I had known the story that accompanied them. It was apparently common knowledge that Ottoline Morrell had an affair with the stone mason who made them and that their trists in the shed were the inspiration for the gardener and the lady in “Lady Chatterly’s Lover ” by DH Lawerence.
Beyond the lake the gardens sloped up to a formal parterre of 24 squares of geometric control, punctuated by tall yew trees and above that there were fabulous herbaceous borders of riotous colour and exuberance.
If you are trying to visualise this, it is maybe easier than you think, as some TV programmes and films with shots of perfect English gardens lapping honey coloured manor houses; were actually filmed at Garsington. So if it sounds oddly familiar, that is because it is. If you are an opera fan you may of course have strolled in the grounds during the interval as the opera festival held in the grounds annually, came to rival Glynbourn.
The opera came after our stay and in fact the monastery bake house flat was later used as offices for its administration (they also complained it was cold!).
During our brief stay their was a lovely performance of “Twelfth Night” on a perfect summer evening in the garden. We were helping taking tickets and as I stood by the gate, the youngest daughter of the owner came running up in great distress, as she had noticed that the toadlets in the pond had chosen this very evening to emerge from the water and thousands of the tiny creatures were hopping unnoticed between the polished brogues and stiletto heels of the oblivious audience. In my best school teacher voice I ordered the visitors to, “Look down at your feet! Notice the tiny toadlets and move slowly away from the pond!” Meekly they obeyed and clutching their glasses of wine, they obediently tip toed back to the paths and the great toad massacre was averted.
We were allowed to garden a dark patch of grass behind the bake house, but I didn’t dare actually dig anything up or try to plant anything in this lightless spot.
My only intervention was to ask for the grass not to be cut. This was allowed and as we had guessed a couple of wild common spotted orchids that had been waiting for years for the chance, flowered and then set seed on this bit of old meadow land. Their delicate wildness could be considered my second little contribution to this memorable, magnificent garden!
Photo thanks to https://mefoley.wordpress.com/tag/bloomsbury/
Some winters don’t really deserved the name, being just muddy and greyer versions of autumn; but this year deserves a capital W . After months of hard frost , now we have snow in all its guises and as soon as a path to the bird feeders is shovelled and swept, down it comes again in all it’s infuriating smothering simplicity.
So it is a time for reading and at the moment I am reading Helen MacDonald’s
“H Is for Hawk “. The book is outstanding and her prose is razor sharp. It is an unlikely description of training a female goshawk to distract the writer from what threatens to be overwhelming grief after the death of her father. Rather like my description of most winters, this explanation does not begin to do justice to her visceral, uncanny imagining of the inside of a bird’s brain, the need to kill and devour and the need of both bird and woman to be free.
I am also reading “Falling Awake ” poetry by Alice Oswald. She also has an extraordinary clarity when describing the natural world, but there is an emotional distance between her words which leaves greater space for an intellectual juggling of creatures and shadows.
It has started snowing again. A few parrot faced goldfinches are still delicately pulling niger seeds from the feeder. A blackbird is gorging on a cut apple before the snow covers it over again.
Next week the temperatures are going to plummet to record lows according to the forecast. I hope we will all survive the coming cold.
I love books. I love the sight, the smell and the touch of them. When I walk into a room and see a line of books I feel at home.
On entering a hotel room, I found this selection on the wall and reached out my hand to pull one down and dive in. They were glued to the wall. An interior designer had stuck the pages together and glued the poor books straight onto the wall. What a frustratingly awful monument to form over function – a cemetery for the soul.
At least the bed was soft.
First Snow in Alsace
The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.
Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.
As if it did not know they’d changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.
The ration stacks are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.
You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.
Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise
At children’s windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.
The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:
He was the first to see the snow.
Richard Wilbur. Collected poems 1953-2004
Walking out on a frosty morning in the Alsace, I was reminded of the wonderful line “frost makes marvelous designs” from Richard Smith’s poem .
Smith saw action in some of the fiercest final battles of WW2 around Colmar, as the Germans fought to the death to hold on to this long disputed slice of Europe. As part of the American force liberating the Rhinelands he considers that poetry was the only way to make sense out the chaos of conflict and this haunting poem still conveys fragile hope in the midst of the devastation of war.
Shakespeare thought sparrows were so ubiquitous that he used them as an example of something so common that only God could find their death significant . In Europe they have been so common that we often over look them, but in fact there are many less of them than they used to be. Populations have crashed due to intensive farming, sowing winter crops that leave no stubble in the fields and our obsessively, over-tidy gardens .
Like all wildlife the humble sparrow needs untidy patches with wild flower seeds and the split grain of sloppy harvesting that leaves something over for the birds.
It was in just such a rare scattering of maize seed on a country lane that I encountered a huge flock of mixed common sparrows and tree sparrows busily feeding on the ground. As they fed they kept up a incessant chatter that makes one of the most cheerful of bird sounds I know. It is the background noise of childhood and the sound of quiet gardens made rorcous, alive and safe .
As we approached they fell utterly silent and then wheeled away in an indignant cloud. They wheeled over our heads, so numerous that they looked like smoke for a moment before descending on a couple of old apples trees . Their descent into the trees was so sudden and complete that they seemed to fall into the branches as if dragged down by a powerful magnet. No squabbling for places or hesitancy; they knew exactly where they were going and were silent and hidden within seconds. Humans have grown up with sparrows, even evolved with them: we know that when the birds are singing there are no predators near and we are all safe.
When the singing stops we are still afraid.
To keep some closer to home I put out bread crumbs every morning on a bird table away from my cats. My reward is the sound of a dozen sparrows chirruping each day and their simple song make me feel a little safer.