Traverse City Record-Eagle

Northern Living

September 2, 2012

Thoughts turn to autumn in the last playing light of summer

I'm seeing the first tinges of red in the tops of trees and the light lengthening and turning golden as it shines up from the water in the evening. Days are so much shorter. It's hard to keep fall and winter off our minds even while we're still playing at summer here at the lake, our last family members arriving tomorrow for a week.

So I thought — maybe a bit early — of the great Austrian poet Rilke's poem about autumn. I fell in love with his poems when I was an undergraduate. When I was in graduate school, his Duino Elegies changed me. How, I can't exactly say, but those poems entered into me like terrifying angels. This one is simpler than those, but interesting in the direction the last stanza turns. It's spoken as a prayer which is really more of anacquiescence to the rough winds ahead.

But also, there's the hope there'll be nice round "final fruits." Let's hope there'll be enough warmth and sun to "harry" sweetness into the wine. "Harry" means "harass." Interesting choice. But if we look at the last stanza, that word seems fitting.

Winter will bring things to a halt. If they haven't done it all summer, the homeless aren't going to build a home now. The person who's alone will continue to be so. In other words, the harvest is in. Done.

Soon will be the time for laying up, reading, and writing letters. But Rilke didn't stop with that cuddly thought. He ends the poem with the image of a person "fitfully" wandering the streets when the leaves are coming loose. The poem seems to blow loose at the end, like leaves. Wild leaves. There is a contradictory comfort and a threat in this poem. Maybe that harassment will produce some good wine, though.

Rilke chose his own epitaph from one of his poems. It begins, "Rose, oh pure contradiction."

There is no controlling things, as the leaves show us. Except in the poem, which offers us shape and a sense of control, tenuous though it is. The poem is like a person curled up reading and writing letters. I'm a bit ready for that, myself, after this summer.

Fleda Brown is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. For more of her work, and to see her website, go to www.fledabrown.com.

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