Sunday, June 12, 2005

In a Dry Month

The baby-on-the-way poems have stopped, for the time being, so I thought I'd switch gears and post something completely different. The idea first occurred to me while I was moving the lawn (and blistering both thumbs, by the way—never say I didn't suffer for a poem).

Grass, Again

The grass isn’t working.
There are pale, bare spots,
and it’s fraught with weeds.
Tire marks turn to sand.

My antique lawnmower’s blades are blunt
and clog to a stop every three or four steps.

The trimmer I also use is unsteady:
a dipping stab,
a slash that goes slack
in the thicker tufts, a frail cut that moves
me around like a mine-sweeper,
hovering gravely,
as if dowsing for buried water
or for valuables on a beach-head.

Still, I even it out where I can,
smoothing it over to call it a lawn
and not a nearby vacant lot.

The greens-keeper of this inadequate plot,
I rub my hurt wrists, and contemplate
pesticides, herbicides, leaving it here
untended forever, losing the war.

If only the grass would keep its promise
of humble renewal, of mournful acceptance,
of democratic independence,
of peaceful remembrance.

How much is its famous fertility,
its precious baseness, worth to me?

How long can I stand to mow it down to nothing
and hope it will always return?

How do I know what frail blooms belong
in this wilderness, which I happen to own?

How do we lose the control that kills
and cultivate idleness, unless
field-mice may rejoice?
When the human world falls
will death rediscover the innocent grass?

It's a strange one, since it starts out pretty low-key, and unrhymed, but then ramps up to a rhetorical finish, and uses rhyme pretty heavily at the very end. I'm not sure how this hybrid form works, to be honest.

I'm also wondering about the effectiveness of message in the poem, which for me is pretty important. You may have noticed that the words that begin the poem are inspired by Carl Sandburg's poem "Grass" which is about war and forgetting (the poem ends "I am the grass, let me work"). I guess I'm also engaging with Whitman's image of grass as a symbol of the American democratic ideal, which, in this current period of Diebold voting machines, mass disenfranchisement, and general electioneering chicanery (not to mention plain old stupidity and dishonesty) is almost as bedraggled as my back yard. I'm wondering how clearly these ideas are conveyed here, without this little blog footnote.


Anonymous Jane said...

I think you are asking this poem to do a lot. If we are not English teachers, we do not always get allusions. The allusion to Sandberg is too slight to carry all the weight. I do understand the ambivalence of wanting your yard mowed and wanting to keep it wild. But I don't understatnd, "will death rediscover the innocent grass"? Or not being sure what plants "belong here." Anything neglected will return to the wild. Just look at what is in the vacant lots! (The grass doesn't promise anything.) Your ideas seem a little muddled, because you try too hard to insert them, I think. Also, I am against mixing rhyme into a non-rhyming piece so obviously. But it's got a lot of possibility.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Victor Schnickelfritz said...

I have to admit that I missed the Sandburg reference, but I will acknowledge that any time grass is invoked in an American poem, the spectre of Whitman must be summoned.

Also, I guess I have to disagree with Jane whose main criticism seemed to be the garbled message in the poem. I don't think a poem has to have a bottom line. Unfortunately, that is the key insight that many writers are provided in the writing world replete with the same idea being repeated again and again like a mantra.

My critique (you knew I had one) comes from the following lines:

How do we lose the control that kills
and cultivate idleness, unless
field-mice may rejoice?
When the human world falls
will death rediscover the innocent grass?

The comment is a technical one. Even though "cultivate" agrees with "we" it seems to arc across with "kills" to form a compound verb. I had to read this line three times before I realized what you were doing. It's how do we cultivate idleness, no? Also, "unless" seems to work less well than "so that" but, of course, this means the slack rhyme dies. To let it die, naturally, would be a case of cultivating wildness.

I have always like the idea of lawn maintenance as a larger metaphor. It is a daunting set of questions to ponder. I, at times, would like to let the lawn "go" (as they say) except for the fact that it would entice the judgment of my neighbors who, if you asked them, would not know why they cut their grass either. You might even be able to coax out of them a longsuffering, underlying preference for the aesthetic of the wild. But must keep up appearance, y' know.

Except in Boulder, Colorado. Many people there just let their front lawns go, turn them into a site for native grasses to grow and such.

I heard a Whitman scholar talking about Whitman a few weeks ago on the radio. He pointed out that in Whitman's time, grass was pretty much an item that one might find in the wilderness. It belonged to the prairie, not the urban or suburban lawn. It grew in clumps with its roots all growing together. This is the image, the metaphor, that Whitman would like us to have. It's a metaphor that contemporarily we may have lost sight of.

But I'll let Gary Snyder meditate about the deep wild. The measly forms of it that I'm involved with are worth documenting, but not on the big screen. The panoramic sweep across my yard or across the protected lands down the street where the local farmer's cows graze might reveal things that only ants or red-winged blackbirds are interested in.

And some consternation about the political at the end of the post? That's not like you, sir. I guess, already, the birth of a child has let the future beat upon your brow. A way to slacken the focus on mortality?

Now I must go. A chorus of rejoicing field mice beckons.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Atasi Jaan said...

Always a pleasure to read your poems. Doubly to read the comments left. This poem is a pear to me. Likely and unlikely, wrapped in one, because, it begins in a low rhythm, and ends voluminously. I agree with the comments by Victor on the agreement between "kills controls and cultivate" or do you need a comma after kills? Thank you.

3:01 PM  
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