24 August 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/34

The Compost Heap

It waxed with autumn, when the leaves –

Dogwood, oak, and sycamore –
Avalanched the yard and slipped
Like unpaid bills beneath the door.

In winter it gave off a warmth

And held its ground against the snow,
The barrow of the buried year,
The swelling that spring stirred below.

In summer, we'd identify

The volunteers and green recruits,
A sapling apple or a pear
That stemmed from bruised or bitten fruits.

And everything we threw away

And we forgot, would by and by
Return to earth, or drop its seed
Take root and start to ramify.

We left the garden in the fall –

You turned the heap up with the rake
And startled latent in its heart
The dark glissando of a snake.

A E Stallings

Last week's snake poem reminded me of this one. Also, late August is the time of year when the leaves start dropping more thoroughly and my outdoor energies turn from growing and harvesting to raking and sweeping up and filling my own compost bin (and then seeing the driveway and front yard covered within minutes with newly fallen leaves, as if I hadn't done a thing; it's a useful life lesson).

On the surface of this elegant, unsettling poem, Stallings is describing an ordinary compost heap. She steps us through the seasonal life of this pile of garden discards: first the falling leaves of autumn, specified by variety, so we can tell the speaker is conversant with the natural world. They fall like an avalanche in the yard, and are so abundant they slide under the doors, like a notice from a bill collector insistent on an overdue payment. Just the usual piles of autumn leaves, but already there are threatening intimations, both grand (an avalanche!) and domestic (money owed that you can't pay). The poem proceeds by a series of double meanings, which slowly build up a sense of unease; we're never quite where we think we are, once we take a closer look.

The second quatrain covers winter and spring. The compost generates heat as it decomposes, enough to keep off the snow, but only enough to "hold its ground" – that is, both the actual ground covered by the compost pile and ground in the sense of to hold one's own. It's not warming anyone else; it's just keeping itself functioning (that is, decomposing) in the snow. The pile is "the barrow of the buried year" – on the one hand, it is like the wheelbarrow possibly used to bring the swept-up leaves over to the mound, a stationary heap of last year's leaves. But a barrow can also mean an ancient burial mound, and in that sense the compost pile is where the dead year is buried. So again the witty metaphors carry with them intimations of barely hanging on and even of death.

Notice the poet's light touch with alliteration, which helps the music of her verse: in the first line, winter / warmth; in the second line, barrow / buried; in the final line, spring brings an expansive use of three words linked by alliteration: swelling / spring / stirred.

The third quatrain moves on to summer. Earlier the it of the compost pile predominated, but in summer there are fewer leaves being added and suddenly the focus shifts to a we: the garden is now inhabited. We are identifying "the volunteers and green recruits." Again, there are double meanings: in a garden, a volunteer is something you didn't deliberately plant, but that grew on its own, propagated by breezes or birds or walked into the garden on your shoes or by some similar method. But volunteer also sounds like someone who has offered to do something, and here the volunteers sound like soldiers, coupled as they are with green recruits: green obviously refers to the color of most plants, but it can also mean new or inexperienced. (Perhaps these novice soldiers are more likely to be killed or maimed in battle? Is this another subtle suggestion of future disaster?) Recruits not only puns off volunteers but has its origin in the Latin recrescere (to grow again), which has obvious relevance to a garden in summer and to the compost pile, in which old things break down into new and fertile ground. (In case the Latin seems like a stretch: Stallings is a classicist who has also translated Lucretius's De rerum natura / The Nature of Things, so I think it's a safe bet that she would be aware of the etymology here.)

Looking back at this third quatrain after we've finished the poem and discovered the snake in the garden (which inevitably brings up the image of Satan as a snake in the Garden of Paradise), it seems likely that the appearance of the apple here, stemming (note also the pun on stem, which means both the cause or origin of something and part of a plant) from bruised or bitten fruit, is another echo of the story of the Fall. Adam and Eve transgressed by biting the forbidden fruit, and bruised might bring to mind Genesis 3:15, in which God punishes the Snake: "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." (Seed also links back to the garden theme; you can really go down the rabbit-hole investigating the implications of these words.) Perhaps pear is the second named fruit to bring up a pun on pair, either Adam and Eve or the we who have appeared in this quatrain.

The very specific descriptions of the garden we've seen so far – the particular leaves, the types of fruit, the life-cycle of a compost heap – give way in the fourth quatrain to more general descriptions of things "we threw away / and we forgot"; she's still talking about the garden, of course, but the sudden move away from specifics to generalities gives these lines larger emotional implications and suggest something about the life that "we" were living. (I should point out that I do not know anything about Stallings's life beyond a few very basic facts from her author bio; anything I say here is how I'm reading the speaker of the poem, not the life of the actual person who wrote it.) There's something careless, heedless, about We; their garden is not a place of memory or harvest (except for the sort-of harvest of the compost heap); they lose things, they discard them, they forget. But the earth does not forget. Everything (she has clearly stated everything) returns to earth (that is, decomposes, as in the compost pile) or sprouts into a new plant: everything dies, everything is reborn. Return to earth and drop its seed both have Biblical echoes to my ears, perhaps connecting back with other hints to the story of the Fall. These casual, forgotten things take root and also ramify: that is, branch out, spread, form offshoots, but the word also brings to mind ramifications, as in the consequences of actions or events. In other words: these things, discarded and forgotten as they may be, are never truly gone; they are buried deep, they burrow up, they spread out. And then we have to figure out what they are and where they came from, much as the volunteer saplings in the compost can be traced back to a forgotten piece of fruit. And then we have to deal with the consequences.

The first line of the fifth quatrain, We left the garden in the fall, is, on its surface, a simple statement of fact (we moved away then), but metaphorically it clearly references the story of Paradise lost; fall is autumn, but also The Fall of Humanity, a theme which culminates in the final word of the poem, when the compost pile reveals a hitherto hidden snake. And not just hidden, but latent in its heart, as if it were always potentially there, just waiting to be revealed. (Obviously, the use of heart to refer to the center of the pile also implicates the human heart). The discovery is startling for both snake and speaker: among their heedlessness, the reptilian presence has brought them up short with the knowledge of what they've been nurturing unawares.

Glissando is such a lovely word here. It is a musical term referring to "a rapid slide through a series of consecutive tones in a scalelike passage" (definition from the American Heritage Dictionary). This sound effect (a sudden burst of music in a hitherto silent garden, a sudden splash on the sound track) replicates both the movement of a startled snake and the frisson that sweeps your nerves when you startle a snake. There's also a nice little serpentine hiss built into glissando.

The snake, the dark secret hidden in the compost pile, doesn't appear until the very last word; when it surfaces, it brings with it the uneasy intimations that have been running through the entire poem. Snake appears and rhymes with rake: a coincidence? or a pun on rake meaning a dissolute or promiscuous man? Is there a hint there explaining why We left the garden in the fall? It seems like a far reach, but by this point in the poem we're used to casual phrases collapsing into troubling implications. This verbal technique creates a gathering sense of unease beneath the music of the poem. We are heedless, we forget; but the earth remembers, and, like an insistent collector bent on exacting what we owe, will slip his bills under our unaware doors. But there is a suggestion of possible renewal, too, in the ongoing process of decay and rebirth in the compost pile.

This is from the collection Olives by A E Stallings.


Unknown said...

Such a sad poem (on second read and after your analysis). My first read was a very literal one and I liked the choice of words and picture they were painting. It reminded me, also in the literal world, of the time I thought I found a dead opossum in my compost pile, which sprang to life, as I lifted it with a shovel to dispose of it. A poem about that could be about the resurrection instead of the fall of man.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Glad you liked it. Yes, I find it wistful and sad.

She's the poet who wrote the Arachne poem I posted last year:

Wow, just noticed the date -- two years ago! Time flies.